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Rockets and bombs make Israelis and Palestinians less willing to compromise

- July 16, 2014

Joshua Tucker: The following a guest post from political scientists Anna Getmansky (the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel) and Thomas Zeitzoff (American University).
As talk of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel after the latest round of hostilities continues, a key question is what the latest round of violence portends for the political future of Israel. The current conflict has followed the pattern of past confrontations between Hamas and Israel: Hamas lobbing largely inaccurate rockets at Israel and Israel responding with airstrikes and threatening a ground invasion.

This time, as well as before, violence has resulted in a lopsided death toll despite the accuracy of the Israeli weapons and attempts to warn Palestinian civilians before aerial strikes. One key difference from previous conflicts is the increased range of Hamas and other Gaza militants’ rockets into Israel. They now cover most of the area of Israel — including the northern city of Haifa.  However, the Israeli Iron Dome system has succeeded at intercepting most of the rockets that could hit populated areas, thereby minimizing casualties and damage on the Israeli side. Given the large stockpile of rockets in Gaza and Israel’s defensive capabilities, this conflict is far from being resolved by military means, and this makes it very likely that the current round of fighting will result in a ceasefire, as it has been the case in previous rounds.

If the two sides indeed agree on a ceasefire, talk will turn to the long-term political effects of the most recent hostilities. Does exposure to rockets from Hamas — which provoke terror in the Israel populace, but do not result in many casualties — pressure Israeli leaders to make peace? Or, do they make Israelis more likely to support aggressive policies towards Hamas and the Palestinians? Likewise, how does Israeli violence affect Palestinian positions towards Israelis and their support for a political solution to the conflict?

These issues relate to a fundamental research question for political scientists who study violence and terrorism — do terrorism and indiscriminate violence “scare” a people into accepting the perpetrators’ demands? Or do they harden the affected population, making them less willing to negotiate? Political scientists have found support for both arguments. However, it is hard to identify the causal effect of violence on political outcomes since violence is more likely to be used when it has a higher chance to succeed (i.e., selection bias).

In research that is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, we use variation in the range of rockets from Gaza to Israel to estimate the effect of terrorism on voting in the Israeli elections from 2003 through 2009. During this period, the rockets’ range has continuously increased, allowing us to examine what happens to voters who come into the range of rockets from Gaza compared to similar voters who live outside that range. We find that the vote-shares of right-wing parties that typically oppose concessions to Palestinians increase by 2-7 percentage points among voters within range of rockets. We further argue that voters “reward” right-wing incumbents electorally even if rocket range increases while they are in office, because right-wing parties are perceived to be more competent in dealing with security threats.

Other scholars have studied the effect of Israeli military actions on Palestinian political attitudes. These findings suggest that while exposure to Israeli violence does not have an immediate effect on political preferences of Palestinians, it has a long-term radicalizing impact. Palestinians who grew up during First Intifada (the first Palestinian uprising, which took place 1987-1993), and were thus exposed to more violence during their formative years, are less likely to support negotiations with Israel than individuals who grew up during the Oslo peace process.

So what does the current round of violence mean for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following the recent round of violence? Our research as well as other studies would suggest a pessimistic outcome. Given the increase in the number of Israelis who are within the range of rockets, and the high number of Palestinian casualties, the recent round of fighting is likely to cause individuals on both sides to harden their attitudes towards each other, making a peaceful resolution of the conflict less likely.