Bounded rationality, cognitive dissonance and the Gaza conflict.

Let’s take a journey. Gaza is under siege and innocent civilians are being killed in one of the most populated areas on earth. Israel’s civilians for the most part, lay protected in bunkers or by the mystical ‘Iron Dome’ that eliminates many of the rockets before they reach the intended target. Looking at the news or browsing the internet, it isn’t too difficult to feel anger at the images of killed or wounded women and children that we see. Even as someone with a firm grasp of the conflict’s causes, those images cannot fail but to squeeze me from within.

Bounded rationality addresses the needs of humans to create opinions whilst operating with finite resources. We all do it, we all have to, ‘satisficing’ ourselves, effectively a mix of satisfying and sufficing,  a uniquely human art form of reaching an acceptable threshold of information that allows us to feel comfortable with the opinions we hold.

Therefore, a commentary has arisen, one that ‘satisfices’. It ‘satisfices’ the media, who in turn allow the captive audience to make judgements given the finite resources they operate with. It almost manages to satisfice a media that restricts communication of ideas to 140 characters. The commentary is this:

“Israel occupies the Palestinians, within the occupation, Israel has placed Gaza under siege, the Palestinians are resisting the occupation, Israel is stronger, the Palestinians have nowhere to hide and Israel is fighting the resistance which results in Palestinian children dying.”

Fortunately for those who wish for easy answers, every single element of the commentary contains truth. The natural conclusion therefore to the commentary we are given is this

“End the occupation, end the siege, let the Palestinians live in peace”

This, for those who wish to sleep easily at night is exactly what everyone wants to happen; including the vast majority of Israelis. That’s it then. Opinion created; satisfactorily ‘satisficed’.

Except it isn’t ‘it’ at all. Each element of the compressed version, needs expanding, everything we have done to create a satisfactory explanation has discarded vital pieces of the puzzle.  We have effectively created a lazy argument that has reduced us to a faulty conclusion based on empty judgements. In a situation as complex and detailed as the Arab / Israeli conflict,  bounded rationality creates an environment where the truth becomes stifled and unwanted. Who really has the time to actually create an opinion based on ‘facts’?

Let us look at just one element of the commentary – ‘Israel has placed Gaza under siege’

Gaza wasn’t under siege in 2005. Israel actually dismantled every settlement in Gaza and withdrew its forces, effectively making the Gaza strip ‘free’. At the time it was done to loud international applause, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas described the withdrawal “as an historic and joyful day for his people.”  Then there was an election, which Hamas won. Hamas responded to the election victory by refusing to abide by the very agreements that had placed it in power,  and then, when Hamas refused to renounce violence, the ‘Quartet’ (USA, UK, France and Russia) called on Hamas to adhere to the principles of the peace talks. Hamas rejected this. The beginnings of the ‘siege’ was set in place by all of the parties involved in the peace talks, and Hamas were told it would remain until three basic conditions were met:-

  • Renunciation of violence.
  • Recognition of Israel by the Hamas government (as the PLO had done).
  • Acceptance of previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.

The Palestinian civil war, effectively a battle between Fatah and Hamas for control, ended with victory for Hamas in Gaza, creating two separate entities, one in the West Bank led by Fatah, the other, Gaza now ruled by Hamas. Hamas then brutally dealt with the Fatah members in Gaza to take total control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, with an impasse in talks created by a sharp split between Palestinian factions, an Islamic radical group in total control of Gaza and with 1000’s of rockets being fired at Israeli civilians, a state of conflict has existed between Israel and the Gaza strip. It is in this context, that Israel maintains strict control over what materials enter Gaza. Or back to our simple formula, Israel has placed Gaza ‘under siege’.

Even this detail can be expanded, each event, each moment, containing actors, internal and external pressures, cause and effect, trial and error, bouts of conflict, terror attacks, reprisals and more. Far too much detail and far too much personal investment required for most people to even want to understand the real causes. It is far easier, far more relaxing, just to deal with the end product as if that is the cause of the problem.

And then there is cognitive dissonance. The ‘discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time’. Israel is a regional superpower, armed to defend itself against attack from nation states and terror groups alike. The Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are a downtrodden, oppressed, tragic people, with a history of poverty, conflict and disappointments. Over the last few years, we have witnessed millions of people in the Middle East slaughtered, from Libya to Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen. We witness the brute force of armies, the helpless civilians and how can we but feel helpless and broken-hearted at the result. And now we witness death in Gaza too. On the one side, an army with smart bombs, advanced fighter planes and tanks, and the other with archaic rockets. We know it is wrong to kill, we also have a tendency to root for the under-dog and when people are presented with information that in any way tries to justify or provide information that is inconsistent with their beliefs they feel ‘dissonance’. There are two ways this can be fought, one to reject the belief system, the other to reject the information. As I hope people are unlikely to reject a belief system that states it is wrong to kill, they will reject the information that is causing the discomfort.

And this directly effects people’s attitudes towards Israel. The Iron Dome is too efficient and Israelis are just not dying in enough numbers to support them. Whether or not Israel is justified becomes irrelevant, whether or not no nation on earth would stand by whilst 1000’s of rockets hit its major population centres is cast aside, all that matters is the basic belief system; refugees are dying in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, the bad guys are the ones with the Tanks. Unless you already have a predisposition that sympathises and understands Israel’s true position, as a single democratic entity in a sea of Islamic radicals,  you are highly unlikely to be able to break free from the uncomfortable feeling you have; it becomes a normal and understandable, however ignorant, position to take.

I do not believe it is truly possible to counter such an effect simply through providing more information, because the more information that is given, the greater the feeling the person will have that someone is providing propaganda to explain away unjustifiable actions, in effect, you reinforce the feeling within them that you are the ‘bad guy’. So in many ways, Israel has to accept its position. I know many people who complain that the PR from Israel is the problem, but as I have suggested, I do not believe it is true, rather, I feel the PR is rejected, the spokespeople considered puppets and all attempts by Israel, and those that support it, to explain their actions to the general public are doomed to have minimal impact. Israel has to accept it is no longer seen as the ‘David’ it was portrayed as in the 60’s and 70’s and is now viewed as the regional goliath (even though from the West Bank to the Israeli coastline is 10 miles or so – facts just get in the way of opinions). So because it is Israel’s duty to protect its citizens above all else,  Israel has little choice but to allow itself to be judged unfairly in the court of public world opinion as the trouble-maker and fight to defend itself from those that seek to destroy it.