Research explains why Palestinians experiencing despair may gamble with their own lives despite little real hope of improving things.
D uring the 20 years I have been involved in research with Palestinians in the occupied territories, accounts of despair and frustration, and at times resignation and hopelessness, have been a constant theme.
As other recent articles have highlighted, the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is dire and it creates enormous levels of despair.
“We have nothing more to lose,” said Ali (not his real name), a newly married man in a West Bank refugee camp, whom I spoke to during my most recent fieldwork in 2023.
Ali told me his grandparents lost their land and all their belongings in 1948, when the state of Israel was created and many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes. He grew up in the camp and now lives in a flat built on top of his parents’ house.
The camp is crowded and overpopulated. There is often a shortage of water in summer and electricity during winter. I have heard accounts of the Israeli army raiding camps looking for militants, arresting or shooting people, and seen graves in the camps. Such occurrences are regularly reported on by Western media.
During my research, I’ve observed that Ali’s camp is surrounded by checkpoints and growing Israeli settlements. Since Ali has a Palestinian ID card, he can’t work in Israel without being granted a work permit, which is difficult to obtain. This means that his option is to find work locally and settling for a low salary if at all being able to find a job.
There have not been any national Palestinian elections since 2006 so Ali, who was too young at the time, has never voted.
My research suggests that people who live under threat are not devoid of ambitions for a different tomorrow. On the contrary, overwhelming resignation may create hope that, for an outsider, may seem improbable or even a fantasy.
But, in the words of social anthropologist Michael Jackson:
“When any society […] offers no hope, provides no care, and actively blocks certain people from participation in it, these people withdraw their investment and interest from it, and seek an illusio elsewhere.”
The concept of “illusio” was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it refers to having an interest or a stake in the game. To Bourdieu, illusio gives sense (both meaning and direction) to existence by leading one to invest in a game and what is coming. People are not simply rational actors but more often “passionate players”.
Illusio is related to a limited or even regulated uncertainty. The actor needs to have a chance to win, which is neither nil nor total. My earlier research in a West Bank refugee camp found that some activities were concerned with investments in the days to come and with hope, such as reading Koranic verses as predictions of a future Palestinian victory or imagining a return to villages of origin that seemed impossible politically.
However, illusio may also take the form of engagement in violent acts. One may speak of an illusio of violence, which implies a gambling with your life or the lives of others, to seek symbolic capital such as dignity and self-respect.
Social anthropologist Ghassan Hage, for instance, discussed Palestinian suicide-bombers as people who, through their self-annihilation, accumulate personal status, recognition and honour they could not hope to obtain in life. Illusio may help us to understand the multiple ways in which some Palestinians deal with a situation of despair.
When people gamble with their own or others’ lives, they rely on an illusio of violence, hoping that change will come through violent acts even if the chances to win are meagre. It is not only Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, that can be involved in such gambling but also other Palestinians who risk their lives by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers or shooting at Israeli checkpoints or settlers’ cars.
Hopelessness gives way to risk-taking
If we want to understand their acts, without excusing them, we also need to take seriously that the hopelessness of life in Gaza gives way to a risk-taking where people may hope to regain self-respect by putting up a fight even if they have very little chance of winning.
In this situation of hopelessness – in addition to the very concrete fear of getting killed or not being able to feed your children – the Al-Qassam Brigades’ rocket attacks and military intrusion that killed hundreds of Israelis on October 7 may seem irrational, considering the huge power imbalances between the Israeli army and the Palestinian armed groups.
Palestinians know by now that engaging in military attacks against Israel means that Gaza will be bombed as retaliation. So why engage in violence when nothing will change for the better, but rather make things worse? Perhaps because they feel they have nothing left to lose.
During the 75 years since the establishment of the Israeli state and the dispossession of the Palestinians, many Palestinians have tried different non-violent ways to change their predicament. They have developed a rich civil society. They have been involved in civil disobedience.
Attempts to protest peacefully, such as the Great March of Return in Gaza in 2018, or to change the Palestinian situation to the better through diplomacy and the international legal system have failed.
But in moments of complete despair, and when there seems to be no hope, some people turn to alternatives, and that can include violence.