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Little known background to Israel-Hamas war

by Spencer Graves

Hanlon’s razor says: 

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

My research in human psychology, economics, and conflict suggests the following corollaries: 

  1. Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by perverse incentives. 
  2. If you cannot describe circumstances under which you might do what you see your designated enemies doing, your actions in conflict may be making things worse, not better, for virtually everyone to please people who control most of the money for the media.1 This works, because everyone (or nearly everyone) thinks they know more than they do (overconfidence effect), they prefer information and sources consistent with preconceptions (confirmation bias), and media organizations exploit this to “segment” their market, increasing political polarization.2 The news you on which your opinions are based could be incomplete or even wrong.  

This article tries to put a human face on all parties to this conflict including Jews, Palestinians, the US public, the media they consume, and their government.

  • Since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, many Jews and Jewish sympathizers have interpreted virtually any support for Palestinians as a denial of the right of Israel to exist. Wikipedia articles on “Hamas Charter” claim that this has been an official position of Hamas since at least 1988.3 Other sources insist that Hamas was founded as a nonviolent Islamic charity and only turned to violence in response to excessive violence by Israel and requested peace talks with Israel five times between 1988 and 2017.4
  • Hamas, according to sources that seem credible, was created and has been sustained in part with help from Israel, much of it clandestine, as a counterweight to the PLO, continuing even days before the start of this war.
  • If Israel had meticulously respected the rights of people peaceably to assemble, especially during the First Intifada, the Middle East would likely have been much more peaceful since.
  • A contributor to this war was the 2010 US Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that teaching nonviolence to designated “terrorists” is criminal as it “provides material support”, in violation of the Patriot Act. For more on this, see the work by King and by Chenoweth and Stephan briefly mentioned below.

Comments by Rabbi Nemitoff and Palestinian Dr. Hamarshi 

Art Nemitoff, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Jehudah here in Kansas City, and Dr. Majdi Hamarshi, a Palestinian ICU doctor practicing here in Kansas City and chairman of the board of the Palestinian American Medical Association (PAMA), discussed their shared concerns and differences moderated by Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS: In Reverend Hamilton’s 76.5 minute “Vespers 11 14 23“, Rabbi Nemitoff and Dr. Hamarshi each sympathized with the suffering of the others and condemned what they believed was excessive and inexcusable violence by both sides. They agreed on the need for a cease fire and the need for all sides to respect the rights of the others to work together for their mutual benefit, as Jews and Palestinians and other Muslims and Arabs have for centuries. 

Rabbi Nemitoff insisted that the vast majority of settlers do not hate Palestinians or wish them ill: They are there because the Israeli government provides subsidized housing and good jobs there. 

Dr. Hamarshi reported, however, that Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel or living in the West Bank or Gaza, whether Muslim, Christian or something else, have routinely been treated with contempt by Israeli authorities and racist settlers. The management of ID cards issued to Palestinians by Israeli authorities dramatically limits access to economic opportunities and even the maintenance of relationships between friends and family. The West Bank is cut up with fences and Jewish-only roads. The Wikipedia articles on “Palestinian freedom of movement” and “Israeli permit regime in the West Bank” document some of the conditions Dr. Hamarshi described. This includes ‘a system of permanent, temporary and random manned checkpoints. … A 2007 World Bank report concluded that the West Bank “is experiencing severe and expanding restrictions on movement and access, high levels of unpredictability and a struggling economy.”‘ The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has for years documented patients unable to receive treatment because of Israeli travel restrictions, Palestinian property destroyed by settlers, Palestinians being killed with impunity by Israeli settlers and occupation forces for nonviolent protests or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

In sum, violence by Hamas and other Palestinians make it easy for outsiders to understand why Israelis might support Netanyahu. And th comments by Dr. Hamarshi might help people understand why Palestinians might support Hamas: Palestinians who see the PLO as corrupt and complicit in the degradations imposed upon them by Israeli settlers and occupation forces may support Hamas, even if they do not agree with the extreme position of the Hamas charter mentioned above.

Many on both sides do not understand how their actions reinforce the negative stereotypes held by the other. And those who see the problems do not see how to fix them.  

News media

Media consumed by Palestinians (and others sympathetic to their plight) document many of the problems facing non-Jewish citizens of Israel and non-Jews under Israeli occupation. Sadly, very little of that appears in the major media in the US.4 Haaretz, Israel’s newspaper of record, published in both Hebrew and English, generally provides far more information about mistreatment of non-Jews and Jewish minorities than major media in the US. It has the third largest circulation in Israel, but that’s only 4.7%, a tiny fraction of the circulation of Israel Hayom with a 31% weekday readership exposure and Yedioth Ahronoth with 23.9%. Israel Hayom is “Owned by the family of Sheldon Adelson, a personal friend and benefactor of Benjamin Netanyahu”. It “has often been criticized for portraying Netanyahu in an overly positive light. In turn, Netanyahu has been accused of attempting to benefit Adelson’s investments”, according to the Wikipedia article on Israel Hayom.6Yedioth Ahronoth was described as generally critical of Benjamin Netanyahu. A study … showed that Yedioth‘s coverage of the 2009 Israeli legislative election was biased in favor of [the Kadima party] and its leader Tzipi Livni in most editorial decisions, and that the paper chooses to play down events that do not help to promote a positive image for her, while on the other hand, touting and inflating events that help promote Livni and her party”, according to sources cited in the Wikipedia article on it.7 This illustrates this claim: 

The mainstream media create the stage upon which politicians read their lines.8

Perverse incentives 

Sixty years ago, Bob Dylan sang, “It ain’t him to blame: He’s only a pawn in their game.”9  

However, research on human psychology, economics and conflict mentioned at the start of this article suggests that there’s no one group of “them” who direct the game: The politicians and the public are constrained by the media, who are constrained by both the people who control their funding and the public’s willingness to accept a certain point of view. This is suggested by the above “four-puppet politics” figure. Reality is more complicated than this simple diagram, but it illustrates the point that the problem is the  system, and everyone may feel that they are exploited by it: There may not be any group of “them” in charge. 

We need to find ways to help more people deal more effectively with the natural human tendencies to think we know more than we do and to prefer information and sources consistent with preconceptions. 

Two ways the US has helped create the current Israel-Hamas war

I see two ways in which the US has helped create the current Israel-Hamas war. The first is the routine refusal of the major media in the US to adequately cover the daily humiliations of the lives of non-Jewish citizens of Israel and non-Jews under Israeli occupation. That makes it practically impossible for politicians in the US to demand that Israel provide effective access to the legal system for Palestinians. 

The second is the 2010 US Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project: That decision made it clear that any effort to teach non-violence to Palestinians, especially supporters of Hamas, would be considered a violation of the provisions of the Patriot Act that criminalize “providing material support to terrorists.” 

This is important, because Mary Elizabeth King (2009) wrote that the nonviolence of the First Intifada “neither lifted the military occupation nor stopped the implanting of Israeli settlements in lands set aside for the Palestinians by the United Nations. Nevertheless, the uprising’s nonviolent sanctions achieved more than had decades of armed attacks on largely civilian targets.10 … Israeli agents provocateurs in Arab disguise … joined demonstrations and sought to incite demonstrators to use violence. The local committee [organizing the nonviolent demonstrations] prevented such provocations from instigating lethal escalations.”11 “[A]fter Israel’s incarceration, deportation, or discrediting of the very activist intellectuals who had sustained the uprising’s nonviolent character”, the First Intifada disintegrated into violence.12 “In any future Palestinian state, popular comprehension of the power of noncooperation could be crucial for restraint of Palestinian despotism. … [N]onviolent struggle often acts as a predictor for outcomes of democratic governance.”13

King’s research and that of others strongly suggests that if the Palestinians could have sustained nonviolent discipline longer, there would likely have been much less bloodshed and more broadly shared economic growth for both Israelis and Palestinians since the end of the First Intifada. Perhaps the strongest general support for that claim is the inventory of all the major violent and nonviolent governmental change efforts of the twentieth century created by Chenoweth and Stephan. They found that 53% of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded while only 25% of the violent campaigns did. More importantly, they found that win or lose, nonviolent campaigns have tended on average to improve the functioning of democracy, while violent revolutions, win or lose, have had no statistically significant impact on the level of democratization.14  

So far, the Palestinian struggle has relied excessively on violence. When the First Intifada began in 1987, the Prime Minister of Israel was Yitzhak Shamir, who had been a leader of the Zionist militant group Lehi prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. The 1992 Israeli elections made Yitzhak Rabin prime minister, who had run on a platform embracing the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. If the Palestinians could have maintained nonviolent discipline, the history since then could have been different–with much less bloodshed and more peace and prosperity for all. 

There are also reports from seemingly credible sources that Israel contributed to the creation of Hamas in the late 1970s15 and actually supported them right up until the beginning of the current Israel-Hamas war.16  

In sum

Each side in this decades-long conflict between Jews and Palestinians have repeatedly done counterproductive things that drove their opposition to support extremist actions without acknowledging how their efforts at defense have generated blowback, pushing the other side to retaliate violently. 

Even beyond the Israel-Palestine conflict, people everywhere could reduce the ability of major media outlets to stampede them into ill-advised and counterproductive actions by routinely searching for information that helps them understand the circumstances under which they might do what they see their designated enemies doing. The US could help by revising the Patriot Act to vigorously support rather than criminalize nonviolence training provided to designated “terrorists”.

References 

Mehdi Hasan; Dina Sayedahmed (19 February 2018) “Blowback: How Israel Went From Helping Create Hamas to Bombing It”. The Intercept.

Tal Schneider (8 October 2023) “For years, Netanyahu propped up Hamas. Now it’s blown up in our faces”. The Times of Israel.

Mary King (2009) “Palestinian civil resistance against Israeli military occupation”, ch. 10 Maria Stephan, ed., Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). 

Date style 

This article uses ISO 8601 dates except for References, which are controlled by standard Wikidata formatting, and direct quotes. In the initial author’s experience, ISO 8601 dates seem to make it easier to remember dates and to compute differences between them.

About the author 

Spencer Graves is a northwest Kansas farm boy, Vietnam-era veteran, licensed Professional Engineer in Missouri with a PhD in statistics, and founder of EffectiveDefense.org, researching the long-term impact of alternative approaches to conflict. His military experience made him a compulsive fact-checker. He currently serves as Secretary of PeaceWorks Kansas City while also volunteering with 90.1, KKFI.org, Kansas City Community Radio, among other things. The views expressed here are his alone and not an official position of PeaceWorksKC, KKFI, nor any other organization. 

Originally posted 2023-11-21. Updated 2023-12-11.

Copyright 2023 Spencer Graves, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) 4.0 international license

__________

1. More detail on this is available in the Wikiversity article on “Confirmation bias and conflict”, accessed 2023-11-21.

2. See the Wikiversity article on “International Conflict Observatory“, especially the section documenting how “The current legal environment for Internet and other media companies amplifies political polarization and conflict“.

3. The 1988 Hamas Charter ‘was superseded in 2017. … However, in 2019, Hamas official Fathi Hamad made an anti-Semitic exhortation to the Palestinian diaspora to murder Jews everywhere: “You should attack every Jew possible in all the world and kill them”‘, per documentation cited in the Wikipedia article on “Hamas Charter”, accessed 2023-11-20.

4. Zachary Foster (2023-10-25) “Israel Rejected Peace with Hamas on Five Occasions“, Ink Stick, accessed 2023-12-11.

5. Wikipedia, “Haaretz“, accessed 2023-11-21.

6. Wikipedia, “Israel Hayom“.

7. Wikipedia, “Yedioth Ahronoth“.

8. Wikiversity, “Confirmation bias and conflict“.

9. For a discussion of song and its history, see Wikipedia, “Only a pawn in their game“. For lyrics, see, e.g., “Only a Pawn in Their Game” in Genius.com.

10. King (2009, p. 146).

11. King (2009, p. 150).

12. King (2009, p. 131).

13. King (2009, p. 151).

14. See especially the work of Chenoweth and Stephan summarized in Wikiversity, “Effective defense“, accessed 2023-11-21.

15. Hasan and Sayedahmed (2018).

16. Schneider (2023).

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