Nancy Kanwisher and Anat Biletzki

A cycle of retribution

For both Israelis and Palestinians, the violence is not arbitrary

By Nancy Kanwisher and Anat Biletzki
October 14, 2010

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FOUR ISRAELI civilians were recently shot dead in their car near Hebron in the West Bank. The military wing of Hamas claimed credit. Israel’s Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz said: “Our answer to this murder is to hold onto the Land of Israel and build Beit Hagai . . . The murderers have one purpose, to rid the Land of Israel of Jews. They don’t distinguish between men, women, and babies.’’

As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process once again crashes on the hard rocks of Middle East reality, it is worth stepping back to reconsider the conventional wisdom on this apparently intractable situation. In a paper we recently published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,’’ we found that, in contrast to the perception on each side of the conflict that the other side is the aggressor while it only retaliates, in fact, both sides act in response to the other’s aggression.

Most Israelis see Palestinians as inherently, fundamentally, uncontingently hostile, wishing only to “throw us into the sea.’’ Similarly, Palestinians see Israel as unshakably determined to expel them from their land.

Although anecdote and speculation are popular in discussions of the Middle East conflict, we used data and quantitative analysis to determine whether these perceptions are true. One data set was the timeline of Qassam rocket firings, compiled by the Israeli Defense Forces. Another was the day-by-day timeline of killings of Israelis by Palestinians and of killings of Palestinians by Israelis, compiled by the Israeli Human Rights organization B’Tselem. We tested whether the violent behavior of each side occurs in response to violence committed by the other side — or whether it is simply arbitrary.

We found that the violence on each side is not arbitrary. Instead, a few days after Palestinians kill Israelis, Israel retaliates by killing Palestinians, and in the few days after Israel kills Palestinians, the number of rockets fired into Israel increases. Thus, both Palestinians and Israelis are more likely to attack after they themselves have been attacked.

These findings refute the common view that because the conflict results from the immutably hostile character of the foe, there is nothing either side can do to stop it. Our data suggest that the conflict is not the inevitable result of the fundamentally violent character of either Israelis or Palestinians. Instead, the violence of each side is at least in part contingent on the behavior of the other side. So there is, in fact, something each side can do to reduce the violence directed against it.Our result may seem obvious: if both sides retaliate, then the Middle East is yet another part of the world where retaliatory “tit for tat’’ dynamics perpetuate conflict.

Yet the implications of this conclusion have not been widely acknowledged. Psychologists E. E. Jones and R.E. Nisbett showed that people tend to under-appreciate the degree to which other people’s behavior is driven by the situation they are in, instead favoring accounts in terms of the person’s character. A similar blind spot seems to obstruct Palestinians’ and Israelis’ views of each other’s behavior. To make progress, both sides must stop attributing the conflict to the fundamental and immutable character of the other side, and focus instead on aspects of its own behavior that perpetuate the conflict.

As Israel’s chief ally, the United States has a responsibility to help Israel escape the trap of its doomed worldview. Even Israelis who lament the occupation of Palestinian lands often argue that it is necessary for Israeli security, a view that is reinforced by the Israeli perception of Palestinian violence as inevitable. But our finding that Palestinian violence arises in response to Israel’s behavior suggests instead that ending the occupation of Palestinian land is not a painful concession that Israel should make in exchange for something else, but a step that is in Israel’s own narrow self interest.

So far, however, this insight still eludes Israeli and American governments: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is treating a freeze in settlement building as a favor to be traded with the Palestinians, and the Obama administration fails to point out in response that all settlement building is illegal and antagonistic. And Beit Hagai, the home settlement of those four Israelis who were killed, is slated for new construction.

Nancy Kanwisher is a professor of neuroscience at MIT. Anat Biletzki is a professor of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and Quinnipiac University. Johannes Haushofer, a research associate at the University of Zurich was also an author of the study.

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