Conversation Amid Conflict

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Professor Phillip Hammack displays one of his books, titled "Narrative and the Politics of Identity: The Cultural Psychology of Israeli and Palestinian Youth." He was encouraged to pursue international fieldwork and chose to study the effect of violence on Israeli and Palestinian adolescents. Photo by Camille Carrillo.
Professor Phillip Hammack displays one of his books, titled “Narrative and the Politics of Identity: The Cultural Psychology of Israeli and Palestinian Youth.” He was encouraged to pursue international fieldwork and chose to study the effect of violence on Israeli and Palestinian adolescents. Photo by Camille Carrillo.

He thought they were alone on the road. The car’s feeble headlights cut through the surrounding black as it approached the small Palestinian village where he would spend the night.

It was 2003 when Dr. Phillip Hammack, currently an associate psychology professor at UCSC, traveled through Israel and the West Bank, conducting field research for his dissertation. Hammack’s research, which would later inspire his book “Narrative and the Politics of Identity,” relied on interviewing 45 Israeli and Palestinian adolescents scattered throughout the region.

Over four years, Hammack would meet intermittently with participants, staying a few nights in their homes and conducting interviews. He wanted to know how the teens’ psychology was affected by the escalating atmosphere of fear and violence in the region.

“With the political violence happening in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories at the time, I became interested in how young people got involved in political violence [and] what the effects of this exposure would be on them,” Hammack said.

Suddenly, Hammack’s car was illuminated. A large truck, invisible behind them in the darkness, now turned on its glaring headlights. His driver slowed to a halt and Israeli soldiers approached the car with guns drawn. Thirty minutes later, the military search was over.

The search that night was a part of a larger climate of violence, fear and tension that had been growing in Israel and the West Bank since 2000 — an inspiration for Hammack’s research. He traveled to the region in the middle of the Second Intifada (Arabic for “uprising”) in which Palestinian suicide bombings targeted Israeli cafes and buses. Israel increased its military presence in the West Bank through checkpoints and searches.

“I was fearful of cafes and buses — there were bombings all the time while I was [in Israel],” Hammack said. “On the Palestinian side, there were very visible soldiers throughout the West Bank. The checkpoint experience was very dehumanizing in terms of the attitudes of the soldiers and how they acted toward the people at the checkpoint.”

Hammack’s research in Israel and the West Bank originated a year earlier in the quiet woods of Maine, where he worked at a summer camp bringing Israeli and Palestinian youth together for three weeks. As a group facilitator, Hammack attempted to bring teens from both sides of the conflict into better understanding of each other.

For three weeks, camp participants engaged in facilitated dialogue and even short-lived romances.

“Every summer there was always an Israeli and Palestinian romance,” Hammack said. “It’s a testament to how powerful context is — you take people out of this conflict zone and it turns out they like each other.”

Hammack wondered if the gains made at the camp would weather the teens’ return home. He decided to follow 45 camp participants back to Israel and the West Bank to record the camp’s lasting impacts.

“I found that young people who came into the programs with very negative attitudes toward the other group had completely changed their viewpoint by the end of the program,” Hammack said.
However, as further years went by, Hammack said the structural violence of the Intifada took its toll on the participants’ understanding and compassion.

“The more common finding was that people became more hardened in their positions,” Hammack said. “If they went in with negative attitudes and stereotypes, they came out with even more negative and hardened attitudes.”

Hammack emphasized the impact the setting has on psychology. In the camp, an egalitarian ethos allowed meaningful communication between Israeli and Palestinian participants. However, when the participants returned home to Israel and the West Bank, the ethos of the camp was replaced by the Intifada’s climate of fear and violence.

“They come to this beautiful place and then they go back and the reality of the conflict is the same,” Hammack said.

His research, Hammack said, illustrated that talking is not a substitute for substantive change.
“There’s a form of talking that just makes you feel good about yourself and makes you feel good about, ‘Oh yeah, we can all be friends,’ and that sort of thing,” Hammack said. “But if that doesn’t motivate people to work to change the status quo then it’s a waste of time and resources. It prolongs the conflict.”

The Second Intifada ended in 2005 and in 2007 Hammack concluded his research. Since returning to the region last summer, Hammack described the atmosphere as much less violent and fearful. However, he described the easing of tensions as illusory.

“Peace is a good thing but you don’t really have peace between Israelis and Palestinians because there’s no final agreement — there’s just status quo,” Hammack said. “Another period of violence could come at any moment.”