Research Magazine 2009

Quantifying Conflict

When economist M. Daniele Paserman was living in Israel, a bomb went off at the university where he was teaching. The terrorist attack occurred about a week after a targeted killing in Gaza of a Hamas leader, who died with his whole family. “That raised the question of whether it was a wise thing that Israel did,” says Paserman, now an associate professor of economics at Boston University. “Wasn’t it inviting this sort of reaction?”

M. Daniele Paserman

M. Daniele Paserman

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spins out in an endless loop, much has been written about the effects of violence on both sides. But what about its impact on public opinion? Does each act of hostility and bloodshed further radicalize the citizenry? Or does the cycle of violence generate moderation, a desire by a weary public for negotiation?

Paserman wanted answers. The university bombing piqued his curiousity about the effect of violence on Palestinian public opinion in particular, and led to a paper entitled “The Struggle for Palestinian Hearts and Minds: Violence and Public Opinion in the Second Intifada.” The study—co-authored with David Jaeger, an economist at the City University of New York—empirically examines how violent conflict affects the short-term and long-term radicalization of the Palestinian population. Paserman believes it to be the first quantitative study of its kind. (A colleague is doing a similar study on the impact of violence on Israelis.)

The research, which covers the period from September 2000 to February 2007, is based on data from Birzeit University, located near Ramallah. “These are large-scale surveys, in which about 1,000 people were interviewed,” says Paserman, “and we analyze the micro data. We have information about age, about where they live, and we merge that information with data collected from other sources, like the number of fatalities and the economic conditions in each district. We use statistical analysis to get answers to our questions.”

The answers confirm some expectations and defy others. “We find that in the short run, within the first month of an attack against Palestinians, there is a shift of opinion toward supporting more radical factions such as Hamas,” says Paserman. “There’s more support for suicide bombers, more support for military action against Israelis, less support for conciliatory positions and negotiations.”

But much to Paserman’s surprise, the swing toward more extremist positions quickly subsides. “Within two months, three at the most, that shift fades completely,” he says. “I thought we would find more of a short-term effect. So that leads us to conclude that Palestinian fatalities do not cause a radicalization of Palestinian public opinion.”

Chart: The effect of Palestinian fatalities on support for negotiations

Chart courtesy of M. Daniele Paserman

The news is not all reassuring. The paper also considers what happens to a generation that comes of age in a constant state of violence and turmoil. “We essentially compared cohorts who had their formative adolescent years at the time of the first Intifada, to cohorts who had their formative years during the time of the Oslo peace process,” he says.

As expected, those who grew up during the Intifada tend to have more radical positions. “Those conditions sow seeds of hatred for the next generation,” says Paserman. “That seems to be the long-term effect of violence. This is especially true for boys, who are more likely to have some confrontations with Israeli soldiers.”

Paserman hopes the study can make a difference. “I don’t think Benjamin Netanyahu is going to call me up and ask to hire me as a consultant,” he says, smiling. “But what the paper does is contribute to the body of evidence that will help shape the way that people think about the conflict.”