The cycle of violence and Palestinian public opinion in the Second Intifada

David Jaeger, Daniele Paserman

10 June 2008



The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of the central conflicts of the 21st century. More than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have been killed since the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000, and the ongoing nature of the conflict has global implications given the geo-strategic importance of the region.

Conventional wisdom holds that both sides are engaged in a never-ending cycle of violence, but Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict (1960) teaches to think more deeply about the role of violence. In his view of armed conflicts as non-zero-sum games, each side may choose to exercise or threaten violence in order to deter or incapacitate their opponent, or simply to exact revenge. Thus part of the explanation given for this endless cycle is that Israeli violence leads to radicalization of the Palestinian population. Israeli military actions, however, may deter the Palestinians from engaging in future violence, or could have an incapacitation effect, limiting their operational capability to carry out attacks. In a series of recent papers, we empirically explore the short-run dynamics of the conflict using data on violence (as measure by fatalities on both sides), and data on public opinion, border closings, and other aspects of the conflict.

A Cycle of Violence?

In our first paper we found little evidence to suggest that there is a cycle of violence. Israel reacts in a predictable and significant way to Palestinian violence, but the Palestinians do not react in a predictable and significant way to Israeli violence.1 This pattern is best illustrated by Figure 1, which shows the empirical Israeli and Palestinian response functions to violence by the other side. The Israeli response function on day t measures the “excess” number of Palestinian fatalities (above the overall average throughout the conflict and scaled by the average number of Israeli fatalities) exactly t days after a day in which there was at least one Israeli fatality. The Palestinian response function is defined analogously.

Our results clearly indicate that Israel responds predictably and systematically to Palestinian violence: in the first week after a Palestinian attack, the number of Palestinian fatalities is about 30-40 percent higher than the average. On the other hand, Palestinian violence is not predictable by past Israeli violence: the response function presents no discernible trend and is statistically indistinguishable from zero. This finding is robust to the specification of the lag structure and the level of time aggregation, indicating that the result cannot be explained simply by the difficulty of the Palestinians to respond immediately to Israeli violence. It also holds when we control for Israeli alertness – a result which suggests that the lack of an observed Palestinian response is not due to Israel endogenously raising its level of vigilance against potential attackers. We conjecture that it may be optimal for the Palestinians to randomize their responses, given the asymmetric power relationship between them and the Israelis.

In a second paper, we have examined the two “signature” strategies of the conflict for the Israelis and Palestinians: targeted killings (assassinations of Palestinian leaders) and suicide attacks (by Palestinians against Israeli targets).2 As above, we found that suicide attacks bring about a significant and predictable Israeli response. But we also found that suicide attacks of Palestinian leaders have a short-run deterrence effect on realized violence – Israeli fatalities declined for some period of time following a successful assassination attempt on a Palestinian leader. These attacks did lead to increased violent activity by the Palestinians, but they do not lead to higher levels of Israeli fatalities.

Figure 1 Israeli and Palestinian Response Functions



Violence and Palestinian public opinion

The findings in our first two papers suggested that realized Palestinian violence did not respond to Israeli violence. Even though we presented some suggestive evidence that this is true also for intended Palestinian violence, we could not entirely rule out that Israeli violence may raise the radical sentiments of the Palestinian populace and hence, the motivation of militant groups to carry out attacks. In our most recent paper, we tackle this issue more directly and examine how violence on both sides affects overall Palestinian public opinion.3 In particular, we examine whether violence leads the Palestinian public to be less (or more) supportive of Fatah, the relatively more moderate political party, and to be less (or more) supportive of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. We are able to link individual-level data on these attitudes to data on violence, and are able to measure how geographically proximate that violence was to the survey respondent.

Overall, we find that Israeli violence leads Palestinians to be less supportive of Fatah and of the peace process, but that this effect wears off within three months. We also find that “local” violence has a larger effect than “distant” violence; that the effect is larger for demographic groups with a higher propensity to support radical positions; and that Palestinian fatalities in targeted killings are no more likely to radicalize the population than all other fatalities.

We also examine whether the different violent Palestinian factions can increase their support through violence against Israelis. We find some support for successful “outbidding:” however, the competition appears to take place only between the radical factions (Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad can use violence to take support away from each other), and not closer to the middle of the political spectrum, as violence against Israelis, by any faction, has little effect on overall support for Fatah.


We draw several conclusions from our research so far. First, Israeli violence does not lead to an increase in realized Palestinian violence and has minimal effect on intended Palestinian violence. However, it also does not have any deterrent or incapacitation effect, with the exception in the short run of targeted killings of Palestinian leaders. Second, Israeli violence does make the Palestinians more hostile towards settling disputes at the negotiating table and less likely to support moderate parties, but this effect is short-lived. Third, Palestinian violence induces an Israeli response, leading to subsequent Palestinian fatalities, Finally, Palestinian violence has a small effect on Palestinian public opinion, leading at most to a reshuffling of support among radical factions, but to no shift between moderate and radical factions.

We should emphasize that our research has primarily addressed the short-run dynamics of the conflict. It is more difficult to draw conclusions about the long-term effects of violence, on either attitudes or on the outcome of the conflict, at least through econometric modelling. While it is impossible to assess the causality of violence in the long-run, we do note, however, that both sides can claim at least some tactical successes, such as the withdrawal of all Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, or the sharp drop in the overall level of Israeli fatalities during the last several years,

Our continuing research will attempt to examine the role of other factors (other forms of non-lethal violence, economic factors, and international public opinion) in determining violence and public opinion as well as the long-run implications of violence. It is our hope that increased understanding of the empirical dynamics of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can contribute to eventually finding a long-term peaceful solution of the conflict.




1 Jaeger, David A. and M. Daniele Paserman, “The Cycle of Violence? An Empirical Analysis of Fatalities in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,American Economic Review 98(3), September 2008, forthcoming. An earlier version was CEPR Discussion Paper 5320.
2 Jaeger, David A. and M. Daniele Paserman, “The Shape of Things to Come? On the Dynamics of Suicide Attacks and Targeted Killings,” March 2008.
3 Jaeger, David A., Esteban F. Klor, Sami H. Miaari, and M. Daniele Paserman, “The Struggle for Palestinian Hearts and Minds: Violence and Public Opinion in the Second Intifada,” CEPR Discussion Paper 6793.




Topics:  Politics and economics

Tags:  Israel, Palestine, Second Intifada

Vertretungsprofessur at the University of Bonn

Professor of Economics, Boston University; Research Affiliate, CEPR