Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Trauma and the Brain

Another cycle of violence
Yet another cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet again angry, fearful voices from each side. We are right; they are wrong. We are victims; they are aggressors. They are good; we are bad.

As an Israeli peace activist, I ask myself what I can  do in a situation where change is desperately needed, yet people on both sides seem unable to hear anything other than the voices for escalation. I come once again to the realization that caused me to change my career, indeed my whole life, and become a trauma specialist.

In 2006, after years of working for projects doing peacebuilding and development work, I realized that unresolved trauma is at the very root of the never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Other causes lie there too that must be addressed, of course. But until trauma is also addressed, other measures will falter. Trauma blocks every path to sustainable peace.

Trauma as a Root Cause

Why is trauma such a critical obstacle in deeply-rooted conflicts? I explore this question in this post, for when even a small number of influential people on both sides understand what trauma does to human beings, we will be in a much better position, as individuals and groups, to reduce its paralyzing influence.

When we recognize the impact of trauma on ourselves and others, we gain freedom and power to act from our highest potential as human beings.

This post is not about politics. It is a psycho-educational post aiming to explain what happens to us when we are in conflict, any conflict. My hope is to help people I love and care about on both sides of a devastating divide to move beyond the fear and hopelessness that they now feed in each other.

Conflict, Emotions and Responses

In any violent conflict, there is great suffering, on all sides. People argue, of course, about who is suffering more. Power is not usually balanced, so, truth be told, there is usually one side taking bigger loses than the other.

But at its core, trauma is fear and enormous amounts of pain, which is where trauma does its devastating work.

A child terrified by two missile strikes is hardly less traumatized than a child on the opposite side who experienced four.

A mother who loses her child takes no comfort in the fact that more children are dying on the other side.

Fear, pain and grief feel the same to the individuals experiencing them. Trauma is experienced as shattering on both sides and it profoundly alters the emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual aspects of functioning of both sides as well.

Conflict activates the body’s instinctual stress mechanisms

When violence, trauma, or physical injury take place, our automatic survival mechanisms pave a kind of emergency highway in our brain. Our instinctual brain activates ancient survival mechanisms that have been with humanity since our rise from the animal world. These old mechanisms take over and for a time we lose our highest, most humanizing functions. We function on an autopilot response.

This autopilot in crisis is capable of only three responses. Fight or flight are the most common, but sometimes, when we are too overwhelmed to do either of those, we freeze.

On one hand, these are our survival mechanisms and they help us stay alive in times of real threat, on the other – they take over in any time of threat (real or perceived) and at these movements we don’t really get to choose how we response.

How Instinctual Survival Responses Affect our Functioning

When we are in fight/flight/freeze mode, we function very differently than other times. The instinctual brain is in charge and sends powerful signals to the entire body. Heart rate, breathing, and sweat systems get turned way up high. Muscles and nervous system are tense and ready for action.

The instinctual brain takes charge of the entire brain structure. The emotional and thinking parts of the brain, which normally play a leading role and bring powers of analysis reasoning and moral guidance into our response, is shoved aside. The instinctual brain cares only about survival.

I call this instinctual functioning “lizard brain.” Like a reptile, it is quick and reactive, but unsophisticated in ability to assess, deliberate or communicate. Flexibility, creative problem-solving, thoughtful judgment, reason, analysis, ethics? Forget it! Lizard thinks only about immediate survival.

Would you put an autopilot in charge of the war room of a modern army in battle or the coordination center for emergency response? That’s a pretty close analogy to what happens when human beings experience life-threat (real or perceived).

Lizard brain has useful things to offer in certain moments, but to be fully allowed to manage everything; it can lead to a catastrophe.

The challenge then is to induce the instinctual brain to relax its command of crisis management and allow other brain functions, like the thinking part of the brain, to re-engage. Only when Lizard brain is relaxed, can functions such as good judgment, ability to separate the past from present experience, creative problem-solving, moral judgment be restored.

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Trauma and the Brain

Odelya Gertel Kraybill, Ph.D.

Dr. Odelya Gertel Kraybill was born and raised in Israel. Her personal journey as a trauma survivor has led her to become a trauma specialist and therapist. She was a Fulbright scholar and focused on trauma studies in three graduate studies programs in the U.S. Odelya has lived in and worked with trauma survivors in Israel, Lesotho, Philippines and the U.S. She is a graduate adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University art therapy program and is widely recognized as a blogger on stress and trauma integration at Visit her on Facebook.


APA Reference
Gertel Kraybill, O. (2015). Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Trauma and the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Nov 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Nov 2015
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