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How generational trauma among Israelis and Palestinians fuels the cycles of violence


As we continue our coverage of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, we're going to take a step back and talk about how the cycles of violence have affected generations of families. It's a theme Arwa Damon writes about in the current edition of New Lines Magazine. Damon was a longtime senior international correspondent for CNN and is now the founder and president of the nonprofit International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance, which delivers medical and mental health care to children impacted by conflict or disasters. I spoke with Damon earlier and started by asking her if this past week feels different from previous eruptions of violence between Israel and Gaza.

ARWA DAMON: Anything that we thought we knew in the past has been thrown to such a new extreme that even the civilians in Gaza that are tragically so used to living through these cycles do not know how to cope with what it is that they are facing. On both sides of that border, you have a population that did not expect this and does not know how to handle it and does not know how to move forward. And if we're specifically going to be talking about the civilians in Gaza, never before during any of the clashes has there been a siege, a complete and total siege implemented by Israel like the one we're seeing taking place now.

DETROW: In this recent article, you kept returning to this theme of the cycles of violence becoming embedded in the DNA and what's happened in the past week being embedded in the DNA of generations to come. Describe what you mean by that.

DAMON: If we look at trauma and transgenerational trauma, and the longer the core cause of that trauma goes unaddressed, the more embedded it becomes in the DNA and the psyche of generations to come. And what that means, and what I fear that means, is that it will become increasingly difficult to veer off of this path that we are on, where everything is on repeat. You know, I speak to my friends that I have in Gaza, and they feel as if their lives are this horrible movie that just gets rewound and started all over again. And when we're talking about the emotions that that generates, the pure anger, the frustration, the lack of understanding of how it is that the other side can do this to you, if we don't start to address trauma and emotion as we try to look for political and military solutions, if we don't address the past, we are moving into very, very dangerous territory.

DETROW: What's a first achievable step toward doing that? And again, I'm realize I'm asking you this question after a week of incredible violence and with a lot of incredible violence almost certainly to come.

DAMON: You know, I'm not a psychological expert, but I would have to say that to begin to be able to heal from the trauma of generations past, some of these core traumas need to be more fully addressed. Israel needs to recognize that it came to be because it displaced over a million Palestinians, and the Palestinians' trauma that relates to that needs to be acknowledged. And that might begin to be a first step. But in this particular situation, just addressing that is not going to be sufficient because Palestinians still live as refugees. Second, third-generation Palestinians in countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, they don't have the same rights as citizens of those nations. They are forever stuck in this refugee identity, and that needs to be addressed somehow as well.

DETROW: And when you talk about generational trauma and cycles of violence, you also at the same time saw this immediately come into play on the Israeli side as well, people in Israel, Jewish people around the world responding to the killing of more than a thousand people, most of them civilians, by immediately connecting that to so many other times in history, most specifically the Holocaust, of feeling like Jewish people were being targeted and sought out and killed. You could see that immediately come into the forefront of people's response to this.

DAMON: That's exactly what I'm talking about, about this trauma when it comes specifically to the Israeli side being embedded again in the psyche for generations to come, much like the Holocaust was embedded in the psyche, understandably so, for their grandparents. And this is where we find ourselves in very, very dangerous junctions.


DAMON: Because this also amplifies fear and warring sides. All warring sides, whether they are governments, whether there are armed groups, will play upon, capitalize and manipulate fear to sow further divisions so that they can then justify whatever act of violence or attack or strike it is that they are carrying out.

DETROW: I think you kind of saw that in the way a lot of this was framed. We have to respond. We must respond. There's no question that we will respond to what happened because of all of this.

DAMON: And look at the level of the response.


DAMON: Look at the collective punishment that the people inside Gaza, who had nothing to do with this, who don't have the option to leave, are having to cope with right now. I've been regularly in touch with a friend of mine who's there. He's a doctor. He's on the board of my charity. And he's there volunteering with MSF, Doctors Without Borders, and he's been in Gaza numerous times whenever these sort of escalations do happen, this one being far from an escalation. And he's unable to cope with what it is that he's seeing. I mean, just - he sent me a voice message that was describing the situation around him.


GHASSAN ABU-SITTAH: When you drive by one of the targeted buildings, there's the stench of decaying bodies. They're no longer able to take the bodies out from underneath the rubble. And as you pass by the morgue, there are piles of bodies just wrapped in shrouds and pushed against the corner because the morgue is overflowing.

DAMON: That was Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah who you heard there. He's now warning that, on top of everything else, there might be an impending public health catastrophe with the spread of all of the possible diseases, because all of the unburied bodies and the fact that no humanitarian aid has been getting in whatsoever, because Israel is using the siege as its key bargaining chip, because it wants its hostages freed.

DETROW: When you look at the scale of the response, the scale of the violence to come, and layered on top of everything that's happened in the past, without asking you to be naive, what's your best hope for the weeks to come in minimizing all of the long-term generational damage that you're writing and thinking about?

DAMON: My best hope would be that somehow moral clarity ends up playing a part in all of this. To some degree that Gaza is left standing, I would have to say, you know, these are not my words - various actors, various humanitarian organization leaders have been calling what we saw Hamas do against Israel and Israel's level of response and its siege of Gaza a violation of international law. But if we keep piling up these wrongs against one another, we're never going to even begin to give ourselves a chance to shift towards a path that is more right.

DETROW: Arwa Damon was the longtime senior international correspondent for CNN and is now founder and president of the nonprofit International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAMON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Adam Raney
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.