Psychological Asymmetry:
Understanding the Gaza “Return” Demonstrations

, May 17, 2018

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 18, No. 12

  • Psychological asymmetry is the relative advantage of the weaker party in a conflict to engage in otherwise immoral and illegal behavior against a militarily stronger opponent.
  • Hamas and other groups have used their psychological asymmetry in engaging Israel for years, exploiting and placing civilians in danger to meet strategic goals.
  • The current Gaza demonstrations are a prime example of psychological asymmetry being used as a strategic weapon by Hamas.
  • The difference in perception among people who support and those who criticize Israel for civilian casualties in Gaza is not due to “facts” or “logic” of the situation.
  • Rather, it is a result of an ideology of intersectionality that sees Gaza civilians as victims, and as such immune from any responsibility for their fate.
  • Consequently, in this ideological framework, the more powerful party, namely Israel, must assume the responsibility for keeping these civilians safe.
  • Violating this responsibility, a difficult if not impossible situation, is what Hamas builds upon in presenting their case.
  • The dilemma faced by Israel is exacerbated by media reports, which adopt this subjective view of intersectional ideology and present morally symmetric descriptions in a situation where asymmetry abounds.

Video of Gazans’ attack on Israel’s fence near Nahal Oz with wire cutters and axes. (Arab press / @RamAbdu | Twitter) Twitter feed translation: “Crossing attempt by the young rebels to our occupied land near the position of Nahal Oz east of Gaza city during the Great Return March.”

Differing Perceptions of the Same Reality

Why are those who see themselves as sympathetic to Israel frustrated with the coverage of the current Gaza demonstrations?

For supporters of Israel, the situation is rather simple: A terrorist regime is organizing as much of its citizenry as possible under the guise of a peaceful demonstration, to taunt, provoke, and provide cover for others to violently attack Israeli soldiers and attempt to infiltrate into Israel proper for carrying out terror attacks. Years of building attack tunnels, launching rockets, and attempting to breach the fence countless times serve as the backdrop to what is taking place now.

But for critics of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians, what is taking place is nothing less than a massacre, a denial of rights and oppression in continuing a cruel blockade and quashing the hopes of people who simply have the desire to return to their original homes and to live a better life.

How can people witnessing the same events have such grossly divergent views of what they are seeing?

The “psychological asymmetry” common in the war against Israel by self-described Palestinian and Arab resistance organizations has been outlined before.1 So has the use of nonviolence as a psychological strategy against Israel.2 This “asymmetry” refers to the clear military advantage of Israel and the subsequent psychological disadvantage precisely owing to that superiority.

The events of the last few weeks are clear examples of this form of psychological warfare and, in an age of microwave news and instant tweets, how the psychological asymmetry between Israel and Hamas is again being used to supplement and mask a terror approach to fighting Israel that includes, as part of its strategy, the use of civilian casualties to publicize grievances and attack Israel.

The Dilemma of the Powerful Party

Causing the deaths of innocent human beings is universally condemned in Western circles. It is considered illegal, and by extension, immoral under the Rome Statute.3 While it is easy to understand “why” innocent civilians may be harmed, it is equally hard to argue that any unarmed civilian “deserves” to be killed and wounded simply because of their presence in a war zone. 

Israel, as the stronger and controlling party in the conflict with Hamas, is seen as having greater responsibility. Consequently, the weaker party is given “slack” and not seen in the same light. Moreover, civilians of the weaker party are doubly endowed with special status, first owing to their position of being victims of an oppressive occupation and secondly, as victims of an oppressive regime. Thus, they are absolved of guilt, absolved of responsibility, and certainly absolved of blame.

So where does that leave the “blame game” when these victims are harmed? While arguments can certainly be made that Hamas is ultimately responsible for exploiting their citizens and placing them in harm’s way,4 these arguments ultimately hold no water when up against what is seen as an inviolable principle of never harming unarmed civilians. While many of the casualties in Gaza are terror operatives, not all are. It is these “innocent” victims that are seen as Israel’s, not Hamas’ responsibility.

Those supporting and appreciative of Israel’s position understand the principle of protecting innocent, unarmed Gaza civilians, but also likely understand that these civilians are exploited by their government. This is not the view of those who have an intersectional view of all victimhood, a view that not only absolves victims of blame but also assigns blame to whatever powerful party is most in control of the situation. As noted by Jonathan Haidt, “[In intersectionality] the binary dimensions of oppression are said to be interlocking and overlapping…They must all come together to fight their common enemy, the group that sits at the top of the pyramid of oppression: the straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied Christian or Jewish or possibly atheist male. This is why a perceived slight against one victim group calls forth protest from all victim groups. This is why so many campus groups now align against Israel. Intersectionality is like NATO for social-justice activists.”5

When Ideology and Reporting Interface

This results in a rather simplistic and basic view of “right vs. wrong” and “strong vs. weak” where it is the quantity of victimhood and not the quality of the victim’s actual behavior that determines moral correctness. Accordingly, this tweet by CNN correspondent Sulome Anderson would make perfect sense:

I condemn the deaths of all civilians. But they have to actually die first, and there have been zero Israeli casualties.6

If the numbers show more Palestinian Arab victims than Israeli victims, the power imbalance is displayed for all to see and further supports the “powerful” party’s (Israel) responsibility and, by extension, guilt.

Further highlighting the disparate relationship are images that show one side in what is seen as a civil struggle, with people in civilian clothes carrying no serious weapons other than makeshift slingshots and incendiary kites versus a well-armed and formal military on the other side. The differences between these images are made even starker when the weaker and clearly unarmed civilians are presented (as in this New York Times video) absorbing incoming tear gas and live fire and carrying out the wounded and dead, in direct and “live” contrast to the Israeli side engaged in a very “proper” celebration of the opening of an embassy; seemingly impervious to the suffering of the innocent.7

The New York Times screenshot

The New York Times’ coverage on May 14, 2018.

That the “facts” tell a different story is irrelevant to the power of psychologically coloring reality. So when headlines state “Israel Kills Dozens at Gaza Border as U.S. Embassy Opens in Jerusalem”8 there is an implication of absolute symmetry between the two events, with the headline further implying an active, offensive, not reactive nor defensive motive to the Israel side.

The Ultimate Loss of Objectivity

All this is not lost on Hamas, who have been aware of their position and using psychological asymmetry time and again over the years. Dealing with this is not as simple as it seems, and explaining, describing, and providing evidence in counterarguments may help when dealing with those for whom the interpretation of events is based more on logic and less on emotion. But for those for whom ideology trumps all, providing post-hoc explanations of the events in Gaza based on the actual events is not likely to be effective.

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Notes

Dr. Irwin J. Mansdorf

Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD., is a clinical psychologist and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He directs the Center's Israel-Arab studies program for university students.