Galtung’s triangle and the Israeli occupation of Palestine

There is more than one type of violence and addressing these root causes to conflict will help us move forward
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a child wheels a grocery cart and another person pushes a cart down a main market street in Hebron while an Israeli solider stands guard

You may have heard about Galtung’s Triangle, a theory of understanding violence and thinking about conflict that can help us understand violence more clearly.  Johan Galtung was a Norwegian sociologist and peacebuilder who suggested that there are three types of violence: Direct violence, Cultural violence, and Structural violence.  I find it helpful to think of these three types of violence when I walk around Al Khalil, and listen to the testimonies of people here.

According to Galtung, the first type of violence is Direct, which is easy for us to see and identify.  It includes physical violence like shooting and beating; damage or destruction to property; spoken violence such as shouting, swearing or other verbal abuse, or physically obstructing and preventing people’s human rights like access to education, food, water or healthcare.  Direct Violence often involves clear perpetrators and victims.

The second type is Cultural Violence. That is the violence that takes place, permitted or encouraged by a culture, shared beliefs, behaviours and the social environment. This can be harder to identify because it is below the surface, woven into social, religious or ideological beliefs that value some people more than others, often distributing power to them. Examples include racism, misogyny, marginalisation of social groups such as disabled people or some religious beliefs.  But it can also be more subtle and hidden. Sometimes people are not even able to see the violence that their own culture supports.

The third type of violence is Structural.  Societies or governments can create physical or societal structures that inflict violence on people.  For example, prison and justice systems can be violent; immigration policies can be violent; and great inequalities of wealth and power can also build violence into a society.  Structural Violence is often supported and sustained by newspaper and media distortion, and by powerful people advancing the interests of a small group.  Sometimes, while the perpetrators of structural violence are hard to identify, their victims can be clear to see.

Often these three types of violence occur together and are associated with one another.  When trying to address a conflict, it is important to understand these types of violence and how they are present in the situation you are analysing.

Let’s look at a few examples in Palestine:

Roads in the West Bank are divided into two types—those that can be travelled by everyone, and those only for Israeli-registered vehicles.  These roads are examples of Structural Violence, both in their physical sense and because of the structure of the societies they are part of.  The way that Palestinians are discriminated against is a structural part of Israeli law and the occupation, and the roads are one part of that.  Sometimes the roads can contribute to Direct Violence. Often the Israeli military prevents Palestinian ambulances from passing directly to hospitals, and that can lead to increased suffering or death. 

The roadways are also linked to Cultural Violence.  Many Israeli settlers and Israeli occupation forces (IOF) have been taught that Palestinians are dangerous so that they must create infrastructure to separate Palestinians and Israelis and avoid any contact with each other.  Israelis have also been taught that they are entitled to the land of Palestine and therefore taking more and more Palestinian land for infrastructure while preventing Palestinians from developing their homes and communities has become the status quo.  It is violence, but it is difficult to see it, because their colonialist culture has permitted it.

When driving on those roads, most Israelis are not even aware of their violence. Palestinian farmers whose land was stolen, and Palestinians who daily face obstacles as a result of their second-class status in Israeli law, are all victims of the violence of the Israeli person driving on the Israeli road. The Structural Violence of the roads, enables Direct Violence of obstruction of transport for Palestinians, and is supported by Cultural Violence of colonial ideologies. As with any society, there are a vast array of cultural understanding, and therefore there are of course  many Isaelis who recognise, reject, and work to end this Cultural Violence.

Checkpoints are another clear example of the Structural Violence of the occupation, enforcing an apartheid system that creates second-class citizenry that is subject to different rules and regulations. When the IOF divides neighbourhoods with military structures of steel and concrete barriers, tearing up the Palestinian communities and preventing Palestinian people’s basic right of movement, that is Direct Violence. And when Israelis or their Western allies fail to see the violence being enacted, that is because they have been sold a narrative of neocolonialism that is Cultural Violence.  The violence of neocolonialism has been so normalized, they do not even see it.  But it is violence.

We can look at the Umm al-Kheir community and the Carmel settlement next door in Masafer Yatta, where settlers benefit from the Structural Violence of their settlements on stolen land, are able to enjoy living in them because Cultural Violence has validated their existence, and can freely commit Direct Violence supported by the Israeli military against the people of Umm al-Kheir next door.

The routine settler incursion into the heart of the Old City of Al Khalil/Hebron is another example. The Direct Violence done to the Palestinian shopkeepers by destroying their trade and intimidating people with weaponry is upheld by the Structural Violence of the Israeli occupation and accepted by the Cultural Violence of societal practices that normalize Israeli privilege to move through this Palestinian city by force, regardless of international law. 

When we address violence we are often drawn to address the Direct Violence that we see.  But if a conflict is to be resolved it must go beyond the removal of Direct Violence, to the dismantling of Structural Violence, and the challenging and uprooting of Cultural Violence.  If violence of each type is not addressed, then Direct Violence is likely to recur.

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