This Is Your Brain on War: A Dispatch From Jerusalem

AP Photo/Hatem Moussa

Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, as Israeli airstrikes pummeled a wide range of locations along the coastal area and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two-week war.


As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won't include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.

The war isn't a hurricane; it didn't happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What's wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don't have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

In a 2007 article that now reads as if written to explain the 2014 Gaza war, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Jonathan Renshon succinctly gave some answers. Human minds, they said, have hard-wired biases that favor hawks. People are too optimistic about their own strengths, including the strength of their armies. They prefer to double down rather than to cut their losses. They're sure that other people can read their thoughts and understand their good intentions—even while they misread their opponents' intent.

You can go down this list and find painful proofs in the events of recent weeks: Hamas appeared absurdly overconfident that rocket fire would force Israel to stop air attacks and loosen its siege on Gaza. When that didn't work, rather than accept a ceasefire, it upped the ante by sending gunmen through tunnels to surface in Israeli territory. Israel thought Hamas would surely fold in the face of air strikes. When that didn't happen, it quintupled its bet with the ground invasion. The Israeli government thinks the world has to understand that it's acting in self-defense, even as whole families die in Gaza. This isn't just a PR ploy Or rather, the PR is sincere, which doesn't make it more convincing outside Israel.


While I can't match the breadth of Kahneman's research, I live within the laboratory of Israeli-Palestinian relations and inside this latest, horrid experiment. On that basis, I'll suggest several more shared biases that warp decisions and make it easier to ignore mistakes afterward.

First: The other side in a conflict appears more unified than it is. On your own side, you know the divisions. You know the names and the faces of proponents of each nuance. To most people, though, the opposing side is a faceless mass. "The Palestinians" or "the Arabs." "The Israelis" or even just "the occupation."

A leader is supposed to do better. The Israeli prime minister has several agencies that map the fissures between and within Palestinian organizations. But that advice has to overcome the monolith bias, which is usually fiercer on the political right. In June 1982, when Israeli ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov was shot, intelligence officials told then-prime minister Menachem Begin that the Abu Nidal group—an extreme Palestinian faction bitterly opposed to the PLO—was responsible. Begin responded, "They are all PLO," and broke a ceasefire with PLO forces in Lebanon. So began the First Lebanon War.

Fast forward to last month: After the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid the blame on Hamas as an organization, ordered a massive round-up of Hamas figures in the West Bank, and asserted that the Palestinian Authority shared responsibility because the kidnappers, who subsequently murdered the teenagers, came from its territory. As former general Shlomo Brom told me this week: "There's still no evidence that the attack was the result of an order from the Hamas military command or political leadership… All the signs point to it being local initiative." That is, a group of militants acted on its own, possibly because it saw Hamas as becoming too pragmatic, too moderate. Netanyahu cynically exploited that terror attack to crack down on Hamas, but the blanket accusation fit his monolith bias.

Second: Here's another distortion, possibly also in our human firmware, that maintains support for aggressive policies even as they backfire: judging the decision in the narrow context of the moment in which it was made. For instance, the Israeli cabinet ordered the first stage of Operation Protective Edge, the air offensive against Gaza, after Hamas began firing dozens of rockets a day at Israeli cities. Look at that precise moment, orphaned from any chain of events, and it sounds reasonable that the Israeli government had to do something against the rain of rockets.  Indeed, it's hard to imagine any elected government telling citizens living with a routine of air-raid sirens, dashes for cover, and explosions that it has decided to just wait things out and pray that the missile defense system doesn't miss a rocket en route toward a mall, hospital or bus.

But there was a chain of events. To go back only a few weeks, there was the kidnapping itself, whose perpetrators quite likely sought to set off escalation. There was the Israeli response, which unwisely provided the escalation. Armed factions in Gaza that only sometimes accept Hamas authority exploited the heated atmosphere by launching rockets at Israel, violating a previous ceasefire. Israel carried out air strikes against those groups—but also against Hamas which, after all, governs Gaza and didn't crack down on the free-lancers. Instead of restoring quiet, Hamas began firing its own rockets. If challenged on that decision, the Hamas leaders involved would undoubtedly respond: Did you expect us to do nothing?

This points to another flaw in retrospective rationalization: Assuming that the only alternatives were the one taken and doing nothing at all. Last week, for example, the Israeli cabinet decided on a ground offensive in Gaza. Not only had Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, a squad of its fighters used a tunnel from Gaza to surface in Israeli territory. Israeli troops thwarted that attack. But it concentrated attention on the threat from an unknown number of cross-border tunnels that Hamas has laboriously built—using Gaza's scarce concrete supplies for offense rather than civilian needs or bomb shelters. Even Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, often the last responsible adult in the cabinet, concluded that the only option was to send ground forces into Gaza to find where the tunnels began. And many of them start inside the crowded buildings of Gaza's Sajaiya neighborhood.

Brom, the former head of strategic planning in the Israeli general staff, quietly points out that there was another immediate military option: to deploy more defensive forces within Israel near the Gaza border in order to foil attacks from tunnels. That would have risked Israeli losses, since gunmen surfacing at an unexpected spot have the advantage of surprise. But the invasion certainly risked losses. In fact, it's when the army began suffering significant casualties.

People don't suffer equally from the biases I've described. A good working hypothesis is that they correlate with hawkish—which usually means conservative—politics. Alas, another cognitive reflex seems nearly as common among self-described progressives: assuming that if one side is wrong, the other is right. Call it moral zero-sum thinking: If Israel is ignoring the cost in lives of bystanders in Gaza, if it has for too long avoided a two-state agreement, so the flawed reasoning goes, then Hamas is justified in its actions. That perception also collapses with a moment of clear thinking. Hamas's rigid political theology has done nothing to get Palestinians closer to a just political outcome. Its willingness to make the civilian population of Gaza hostage to its military strategy is indefensible. In a war—in this war—both sides can, in fact, be wrong.

If all-too-human blindness to alternatives has led us into this tragedy, the proper response isn't despair. It's to look for better options, for diplomatic opportunities, that are being ignored right now.

There's a Hebrew saying: A clever man climbs out of a hole that a wise man wouldn't fall in. We've missed the chance to be wise. It's not too late to be clever.



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