Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote an article in the New York Times (“He who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t“) explaining why starting cycles of violence is so easy. There are many forces at play, of course, but two basic principles of human psychology are nearly always at work and can explain these cycles even when there’s no ill will, deceit, greed, or bigotry.

“First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.”

In other words, we hear our own thoughts and feel our own pain, while we don’t hear the other person’s thoughts or feel their pain. Thus we see the wrongs others do but not the reasons, while we see the reasons for our own bad behavior but we don’t feel the consequences. So if someone hits us, we instinctively hit back harder. Then they respond in kind. And so on. Everyone feels only his own pain and can only think of striking back until it goes away. It’s completely irrational, of course. But it’s basic human psychology.

Thus when an experiment was done in which two volunteers were told to go back and forth exerting an equal amount of pressure on each other’s fingers via a mechanical device, “they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

“Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

“Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.”

So that’s the basic psychology of cycles of violence. But of course it’s not the end of the story. Because sometimes there is a measurable, objective reality of one person or group initiating more cycles of violence than another.

For example, when I was a kid and my younger sister and I fought, I was almost always the one who started it. I didn’t admit it to myself at the time (or to Mom), but it’s true. I was older than my sister, I was more powerful, I was more sophisticated, and I was insecure. And I took it out on my little sister. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t deny it. (I’ve since apologized to her for my behavior, and we get along pretty well now.)

So how does objective reality stack up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It certainly seems, if you read our mainstream newspapers, that the recent stabbings of a settler family and the Jerusalem bus bombing (which killed one woman and injured several others, and which I thoroughly condemn on both moral and strategic grounds), shattered a “lull” in violence that had lasted for some time.

It seems that way. But the reality is very different. Palestinian civilians die weekly if not daily for such offenses as sleeping in their own beds or wandering within 300 meters of Gaza’s border wall on their own land. Not to mention the settlement construction (read: theft and destruction of other people’s property) that goes on constantly.

All in all, Israelis have killed over 150 Palestinians since Cast Lead, including 39 children. Until the settler stabbings, Palestinians had killed a total of 6 Israeli civilians (one a child) and three soldiers in the past two years. (Source: B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, and Remember These Children) And here’s just a random sampling of news from a typical day in Palestine.

Well, there’s good news. Nancy Kanwisher of MIT, along with Johannes Haushofer and Anat Biletzki, went to the trouble of doing a thorough scientific study that answers the question of who usually initiates Israeli-Palestinian cycles of violence. Here’s the Huffington Post article that shares the results (copied below), released in the midst of Israel’s horrific bombing campaign against Gaza called Operation Cast Lead. It should give anyone pause who’s blaming Hamas for the current ‘cycle of violence.’

I just hope to God Israel isn’t gunning for yet another Cast Lead. So much gruesome violence, for less than nothing. (As a little preemptive strike to the hasbarists — Of course Israel has a right to defend itself. But no one has a right to take 1,000 eyes for an eye. That’s not just illegal, it’s psychotic.)

Reigniting Violence: How Do Ceasefires End?

By Nancy Kanwisher, Johannes Haushofer, & Anat Biletzki
Huffington Post
January 6, 2009

As Israel and Palestine suffer a hideous new spasm of terror, misery, and mayhem, it is important to ask how this situation came about. Perhaps an understanding of recent events will afford lessons for the future.

How did the recent ceasefire unravel? The mainstream media in the US and Israel places the blame squarely on Hamas. Indeed, a massive barrage of Palestinian rockets were fired into Israel in November and December, and ending this rocket fire is the stated goal of the current Israeli invasion of Gaza. However, this account leaves out crucial facts.

First, and most importantly, the ceasefire was remarkably effective: after it began in June 2008, the rate of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza dropped to almost zero, and stayed there for four straight months (see Figure 1, from a factsheet produced by the Israeli consulate in NYC). So much for the widespread view, exemplified in yesterday’s New York Times editorial that: “There is little chance of restraining Hamas without dealing with its patrons in Syria and Iran.” Instead, the data shows clearly that Hamas can indeed control the violence if it so chooses, and sometimes it does, for long periods of time.

Second, and just as important, what happened to end this striking period of peace? On November 4th, Israel killed a Palestinian, an event that was followed by a volley of mortars fired from Gaza. Immediately after that, an Israeli air strike killed six more Palestinians. Then a massive barrage of rockets was unleashed, leading to the end of the ceasefire.

Figure 1. Number of Palestinian rockets fired in each month of 2008 (adapted from The Israeli consulate in NYC [pdf])

Thus the latest ceasefire ended when Israel first killed Palestinians, and Palestinians then fired rockets into Israel. However, before attempting to glean lessons from this event, we need to know if this case is atypical, or if it reflects a systematic pattern.

We decided to tally the data to find out. We analyzed the entire timeline of killings of Palestinians by Israelis, and killings of Israelis by Palestinians, in the Second Intifada, based on the data from the widely-respected Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem (including all the data from September 2000 to October 2008).

We defined “conflict pauses” as periods of one or more days when no one is killed on either side, and we asked which side kills first after conflict pauses of different durations. As shown in Figure 2, this analysis shows that it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8% were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13% were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern — in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause — becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days.

Figure 2. For conflict pauses of different durations (i.e., periods of time when no one is killed on either side), we show here the percentage of times from the Second Intifada in which Israelis ended the period of nonviolence by killing one or more Palestinians (black), the percentage of times that Palestinians ended the period of nonviolence by killing Israelis (grey), and the percentage of times that both sides killed on the same day (white). Virtually all periods of nonviolence lasting more than a week were ended when the Israelis killed Palestinians first. We include here the data from all pause durations that actually occurred.

Thus, a systematic pattern does exist: it is overwhelmingly Israel, not Palestine, that kills first following a lull. Indeed, it is virtually always Israel that kills first after a lull lasting more than a week.

The lessons from these data are clear:

First, Hamas can indeed control the rockets, when it is in their interest. The data shows that ceasefires can work, reducing the violence to nearly zero for months at a time.

Second, if Israel wants to reduce rocket fire from Gaza, it should cherish and preserve the peace when it starts to break out, not be the first to kill.

P.S. Johannes Haushofer just got in touch and let me know there’s a new study out by these same researchers that’s even more salient because “it shows directly that both sides retaliate for previous aggression from the other party,” i.e., that Palestinian violence isn’t simply random and implacable. This should be shouted from the rafters by all who cry for the security of ordinary Israelis. But of course it won’t be.

Here’s the abstract:

“In the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Israelis and Palestinians each tend to see themselves as victims, engaging in violence only in response to attacks initiated by a fundamentally and implacably violent foe bent on their destruction… Prior studies using these methods have argued that Israel reacts strongly to attacks by Palestinians, whereas Palestinian violence is random (i.e., not predicted by prior Israeli attacks). Here we … crucially show … that when nonlethal forms of violence are considered, and when a larger dataset is used, Palestinian violence also reveals a pattern of retaliation: (i) the firing of Palestinian rockets increases sharply after Israelis kill Palestinians, and (ii) the probability (although not the number) of killings of Israelis by Palestinians increases after killings of Palestinians by Israel. These findings suggest that Israeli military actions against Palestinians lead to escalation rather than incapacitation. Further, they refute the view that Palestinians are uncontingently violent, showing instead that a significant proportion of Palestinian violence occurs in response to Israeli behavior. Well-established cognitive biases may lead participants on each side of the conflict to underappreciate the degree to which the other side’s violence is retaliatory, and hence to systematically underestimate their own role in perpetuating the conflict.”

Read the full report here [PDF].