Hunger, humiliation & aid airdrops: Israel's psychological war on Gaza

Hunger, humiliation & aid airdrops: Israel's psychological war on Gaza
From running into the sea for airdropped aid to risking their lives for a sack of flour, Israel's war is an attack on Palestinian dignity, writes Emad Moussa.
7 min read
05 Mar, 2024
Israel is using humiliation as a weapon of war, designed to systematically dehumanise Palestinians in Gaza, writes Emad Moussa. [Getty]

“Is Palestine reduced to a sack of flour now? Is innocent blood now part of our daily bread?”

This is Abeer, my friend, an academic at the now-destroyed Islamic University of Gaza, commenting on the so-called aid airdrops.

Over the past two weeks, several countries began airdropping aid into Gaza, amidst an impending famine especially in the North. Israel continues to prevent humanitarian aid - including food, water, and medical supplies - from entering, pushing 2.2 million people to the brink of starvation.

Not only are the aerial drops nowhere near enough to prevent mass starvation, they also pose real hazards as some of them are dropped in areas controlled by the occupation army, inside the Gaza enclave, or into the sea, forcing desperate Gazans into deadly areas.

“Just imagine, I’m a dignified university lecturer, from a dignified family, married into a dignified family, and now Arab neighbours [and others] expect that we would go out and run for the aid dropped from the sky into the sea?” Abeer asked rhetorically.

"The triad of besieging, starving, and killing is a tested Israeli war doctrine"

With harsh cynicism - like most Gazans who observed the unconvincing aid stunt - she could not shake off the humiliation that has been inflicted upon Gaza’s population, especially in the besieged and starved North.

Hours after my talk with Abeer, the Israeli army opened fire and killed over 100 Palestinians who gathered on the border of Gaza City to collect the aid in what is now being called the Flour Massacre.

One of them was my cousin Mu’taz, 17, who died hungry trying to get a sack of flour.

The Israeli spokesman said it was the result of a deadly stampede. But Mu’taz had several gunshots in his back.

The triad of besieging, starving, and killing is a tested Israeli war doctrine. We saw it implemented against the people of al-Arish in Sinai in 1967, the 1982 siege of Beirut, and consistently throughout the 1967 occupied territories.

In Gaza, the strategy has been brutalised many folds. Under the surface, however, it is majorly grounded in systemised dehumanisation, implemented through carefully crafted policies of collective humiliation.

The aim of humiliation is to psychologically immobilise the, typically, weaker opponent by attacking their dignity and stunting their sense of self-worth and ability to fight back. It is also meant to perpetuate the power hierarchy.

During the 12 years of the Third Reich in Germany, for instance, Jews were systematically humiliated publicly and privately. They were stripped down and marked with insignias; their property confiscated and access to food severely restricted; all the way to herding millions of them into gas chambers.

Bosnian Serbs unleashed similar tactics against Bosnian Muslims and Croat neighbours, which eventually transpired into mass killing and forced displacement.

The practice aimed to create a critical racial distance that justified dehumanisation and, ultimately, genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Israel has used most, if not all, of the above tactics against Palestinians since 1948, but with a significant extra. For Jewish Israelis, humiliating Palestinians is also about dealing with their historical humiliation.


Cynically, this makes it a double-whammy for Palestinians, who have to also bear the burden of Jewish historical traumas, which they had no role in.

It may be that the shame of the Holocaust, above all else, meant that Israel needed to compensate by showing Palestinians who is boss, subconsciously feeling deep despise for Palestinian weakness for it reminded them of their own.

In the language of psychoanalysis, the phenomenon is termed ‘identification with the aggressor’ – originally coined by Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi in 1932.

It happens when yesterday’s victims mimic the behaviour of their former oppressors against today’s weaker opponents, thus becoming a mirror image of their oppressor’s past. It is about being in control over one’s fate and the fear of being at the receiving end of humiliation once again. It is a way to keep one from dealing with their past shame also.

Humiliating others, inevitably, functions as a defence mechanism against guilt and accountability; it desensitises perpetrators to their crimes by dismantling their victims’ humanity and taking away their right-worthiness.

"The attack on Palestinian dignity is seen - and felt - by many as psychological murder by a million cuts"

This worldview has grown into a consensual Israeli reality, evolving into a mainstream culture and becoming rooted in self-perceived legitimacy - and supremacy. Other versions of reality are either denied, ‘refuted’ as anti-Semitism, or compartmentalised so it does not clash with the collectively held beliefs.

God forbid Palestinians are granted any agency outside that belief circle; that is, as engaging in violence because of who they are, not because of Israel’s decades-long, violent occupation and oppression.

That said, the routinisation of humiliation is pathogenic, it diseases society from within. Social media is teeming with videos by Israeli soldiers and civilians showing the extent of the dismantlement of Palestinian dignity.

From bragging about war crimes and celebrating killing, looting, and home destructions; herding civilians semi-naked and blindfolded; forcing people to declare allegiance to Israel at gunpoint; sexual violence; to perverted actions against Palestinian women’s lingerie and mocking of dead children.

The attack on Palestinian dignity is seen - and felt - by many as psychological murder by a million cuts.

Under such enormous pressure, some Palestinians became attuned to the feelings and expectations of the perpetrator, vigilantly avoiding recognising their rage. There may be tendencies among some to justify the humiliation of others who proudly resist the occupation, blaming, for instance, the Gaza destruction on Hamas or Palestinian oversight.

Sometimes, it is easier here to redirect one’s anger to identifiable agents rather than deal with one’s helplessness vis-à-vis a militarily far superior oppressor.

There are also those who, instinctively, freeze their sense of self for survival. Many in Northern Gaza had to choose between their dignity and starvation, winding up massacred as they tried to get food to feed their starving families.

Indeed, this may appear like reducing Palestine to a sack of flour, as my friend Abeer said. Still, this unbearably humiliating situation is only a temporary survival mechanism. It is by no means comprehensive.


Humiliation is unjust. It sows anger, and anger is re-regulated and reutilised as resistance, to alleviate or circumvent the negative impact of humiliation.

Before rebelling against Zionist settler-colonialism, Palestinians in the wake of the 1948 Nakba rebelled against their parents, whom they viewed as helpless and humiliated, for losing their homeland.

This anger generated jeel al-tahrir (the generation of liberation), which later materialised as the PLO and armed resistance against Israel’s occupation.

This has set the path to today’s so-called ethos of muqawama (resistance), geared toward self-determination and an end to Israel’s aggression.

Israel predictably reacted to Palestinian resistance with further aggression and novel methods of humiliation, which, in turn, fuelled more Palestinians’ anger and radicalised their methods of resistance, sometimes to the extent of self-sacrifice.

"Humiliation is unjust. It sows anger, and anger is re-regulated and reutilised as resistance"

With self-sacrifice, it is as if some Palestinians replaced the psychological death caused by humiliation with a physical one to grant the victim control over their destiny. It is a way to defeat the powerful oppressor by depriving them of the means of abuse.

Abeer thinks of this death as “taking back control”, as a way out, if it is the only route to salvation. She says: “…we are not the ‘hungry people’, but the ‘honourary ones,’ willing to die with our heads in the sky, despite everything and everyone, Israeli and extortionist Arab regimes alike.”

The people of Gaza may appear crushed, dispossessed of the basic aspects of their humanity, chasing aid parachutes into the Mediterranean water, and even risking their lives for a sack of flour.

But lurking beneath all this ostensibly frozen self-worth is a burning rage and will for resistance awaiting release.

“The raging tsunami is inevitable, only justice can break the cycle.” That much I was told repeatedly.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.