Game Theory Approach to Palestinian Resistance

By Mary Rizzo

Anyone who has witnessed the events in Palestine/Israel has been able to notice a cycle that repeats itself continually between the two groups of people. It can be summed up in two words: action/reaction. Sometimes the action is carried out to elicit a reaction (which we can define then as a provocation). A provocation has as its goal to incite or irritate another, sometimes it can be the prelude to the “true action” and sometimes it is there just to demonstrate something.

We all have in our memories the famous sparks that set off the first and second Intifada. The first was Ariel Sharon “strolling” on the most important site for Palestinians, al-Haram al-Sharif as if he owned the place, and the second was provoked by Israeli soldiers running over two Palestinian workers at a checkpoint. In and of themselves, the events were bad enough, but they had a common aspect that certainly would have surprised Israelis and the West, and one that perhaps surprised even the Palestinians themselves. The fact that those relatively minor events could have such an impact: that a “stroll” and an “accident” could be the sparks that set off the most effective and widespread popular uprising in the history of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. The events that were “the breaking point” were far less damaging than a raid or bombardment, things that we seem to be convinced are the events that have the capacity of waking up the world to the situation, but actually don’t.

This is certainly something to think about, and something that perhaps presents a new strategic approach that Palestinians should take into consideration. The unpredictability of the reaction to the provocation was something that actually worked in the favour of the Palestinian people. No, their living conditions certainly did not improve, and as a matter of fact, in a lot of cases they precipitated in a more rapid downward spiral. But, two very important things did indeed happen: Palestinians took an active role in staving off Israeli domination and the world took notice once and for all that Palestinians were ready to take to the streets and fight to shake off the oppressor’s clutches. An important effect was that they were going to refuse to collaborate on many levels, which had caused some severe economic cracks in the Israeli economy, dependent as it was on “Cheap Arab Labour”. It effectively put “the Palestinian Question” on the map and made it into an issue that could no longer be ignored. In a way, it further internationalised it, making it one that must be faced in practical terms by international diplomacy.

A job I recently had was making the transcription of a conference that a writer/professor/hedge fund specialist, Nassim Taleb, gave in Milan. I am not in any way knowledgeable about the economy or the market aside from general knowledge obtained from the mass media. Obviously, the issue has been in the news and even in analysis in the alternative media for many months, since the collapse of the investment banks and the USA bailout, so the discussion even for someone profane in the issue like me, was quite informative and relevant to daily life. Taleb is basically a specialist in statistics and prediction of risks, so his talk could apply not only to the economy, but to any aspect of life where there is risk and where “unexpected events” can happen. Since what goes on in Palestine has a course of action like other events, I thought, why not apply his ideas to this and see how that could be practically applied in favour of the Palestinians? What is a situation that remains within the reach of Palestinians? Popular resistance.

Whether the first Intifada was completely unexpected is a question that can be debated for years, because I have read and heard varying views on it. But what I believe we all can agree on was that the spark that set it off was a provocation in which the perpetrators never expected to get a result of that magnitude, indeed, they may have factored in a totally contrasting result. If they had been aware of the response to it, they would have set up preventive measures, and the mass media would have been prepared for an immediate censorship of the reaction. Years ago, I tried to discover just how much the Israelis (the people and the government) were surprised by the Intifada. I learned that for the most part, it was like lightning in a clear sky, it was something they did not contemplate, and this is entirely understandable. If you are able to carry out repression of every protest, and if you are able to control the movement and the lives of those you are reigning over, or even feel superior to, you believe that you can break down every resistance, should it happen to occur. You preventively label all reactions as terrorism and even make sure the world believes that these are not reactions at all, but instigating events requiring “Israeli retaliation”. You probably prepare for reactions to major provocations you carry out, such as air raids that assassinate political and religious leaders, but you may not be ready with contingency plans for people striking, for people making makeshift roadblocks after intimidation or a killing of a civilian that in many ways is just ordinary daily bread for the Palestinians.

This fact of being unprepared for unexpected events bringing about the decline of a system that seemed unbeatable came to mind while listening to Taleb. In fact, I believe that by applying some of his theory (which includes aspects of game theory) to the Palestinian resistance strategy, there may be a means of achieving not only a Third Intifada (which vast segments of the Palestinians are calling for) but also an awareness that a climate of increasing instability of Israel is the way forward to forcing them into not only ceasing with provocation, but into radically altering their abusive policies.

Taleb spoke about a rule of expectations in market regulation. He gave an interesting example about how “fuzzy rules” actually can bring about more “virtuous behaviour”: if there are two parties, and one is taking advantage of the other, or in more serious cases, one is exploiting the other, the wise thing for the party being exploited to do is to never fully reveal precisely the level in which an over-reaction takes place, as it eventually must do, to allow the survival or functioning of that party. If their exploiter is aware that the level that can be reached before the expected (over)reaction is located at “ten”, then the party exploiting or taking advantage of them will always, on every occasion go so far as “nine”, and feel entitled to do so as well, keeping the level of abuse, control or condition of using the other extremely high, pushing the limit, but not exceeding it. If the exploited party does not state where the limit to the (over)reaction is located, at times they will allow the exploiter to go to “fifteen” before there is a reaction, at times they will only let him go to “five”, and this will influence the exploiting party into modifying or changing tactics. An immediate result is that the average level of pressure is going to be on the whole lower for repeated incidences, and more and more often, the exploiting party, unaware of the precise level at which something is objectively too much for the other party, will on their own start to reduce the levels, to avoid the risk of the reaction which would then hinder the very ends of the exploitation itself. In effect, given the unpredictability, a self-enforcement of virtuous behaviour becomes the strategy of the exploiting party, so that their “survival” in this role can continue.

If this model were transferred to the strategy of the Palestinian resistance, that (for instance) the killing of a child is always going to cause a reaction, but the blocking of a checkpoint on some occasions may not, and on others the set up of a temporary roadblock will set off a reaction, then the Israelis will lose the perception of what their limits are, since they are already arbitrary. They will not know when and how far they can push, and thus, will (theoretically) push less than before, while the Palestinians gain more consciousness that they can be the ones establishing the limits. This strategy could be adopted at very many levels, even in an organised way. It could be determined (by way of consensus if possible) that certain actions or provocations will always elicit a mass demonstration of resistance, even organised, and that others will provoke “wildcat” reactions, making it nearly impossible for the Israelis to predict what actions stimulate a response. There would be a process of transforming all provocatory or abusive actions into targets of reaction, not limiting them to a conditioned response that has been played out time and time again with very little progression in the situation of lifting some of the oppression off of the Palestinians. It would be essential for local leaders and charismatic figures to discuss a strategy of what actions shall have the “bar raised” and what actions can at some level be tolerated so as not to bring down an iron fist they cannot effectively handle or have no means to confront, so that a state of confusion and unpredictability can enter into the Israelis and as a consequence, they will be forced into reducing the oppression overall. This awareness of a variable popular reaction to being oppressed should then become a logical and understandable principle for the Palestinians to integrate into their mentality of resistance. A comparable study should be made to plot out typical Israeli reactions and establish a pattern that can add to a more effective strategic application of the principles of a game theory approach to the resistance.

Should it be tolerated that prisoners are transferred into different Israeli prisons? Should it be tolerated that schools are closed and that utilities are cut off? Should it be permitted that a soldier can occupy the home of a family, that orders are issued to demolish a home, that an important site for Palestinian people has a Hebrew sign stuck on it? Should trash being dumped on women walking the streets of Hebron be accepted, a wall being built, a tree being cut down? There are a million actions that bring oppression, humiliation and suffering to Palestinians, not only the most dramatic ones of war. The same can be said for the Palestinians living in refugee camps, or for Palestinians who live in Israel. They can identify hundreds and hundreds of offences, of acts done that offend and destroy the Palestinians individually and as a people. Any of these actions could serve as a spark that the Israelis are unable to manage to their own advantage.

A major mistake in my view is that the “movement” outside of Palestine focuses only on the macroscopic. And it indeed has been a shock to come to the conclusion that if the world did not wake up after the onslaught of Lebanon and Gaza that can only be described as bringing the maximum pain possible to civilians, well, maybe they will not wake up at all. We can bring it up all the time, but it’s pointless. Never mind BDS and solidarity dinners bringing any awareness, if the Palestinians are counting on righteous indignation at atrocities that happen to them on behalf of ordinary people to bring about a paradigm shift, they are screwed. That means, the destiny of the Palestinians resides ONLY in their own hands. They have to feel not only able, but empowered and entitled to react, to resist, to respond, to all provocations and actions that they believe offend them in any way. They don’t need to seek approval for their actions, because people just don’t care. What matters is what they do, what Palestinians do.

The world might wake up once the Palestinians stop seeing that there is a possibility of in some way living with oppression, assimilating to it, or worse, collaborating with the oppressors, and we have to support their resistance and encourage it, be an eyewitness to it and spokesperson for it, because we know it is right, we know it can work. We have to remember that Rosa Parks refused to give her seat on the bus to a White man who demanded it as his “right”, and this sparked the more effective phase of the civil rights movement, even in the eyes of those who lived far away from Montgomery and were convinced it was “just how things are down there”. People tend to think “war between the Jews and the Arabs is just how thing are down there,” but maybe popular resistance that is totally out of the scheme of how we see things might bring them to ask themselves why a Jew has a right to deny a Palestinian clean water, freedom of movement, education and food, why a Jew from New York can move into a home in Jerusalem that a Palestinian has been evicted from because… he is not a Jew. They might force their leaders into addressing this situation and adapting their policies to it. That may be a dream, but people were still sleeping off their New Year’s hangover while Gazans were dying in the streets and in their homes. They apparently haven’t slept it off yet.

Some say that the solution is just to let the “demographic bomb” that Israelis fear run its course, that it is just a matter of time and the Israeli Jews will be a minority. This passive way of seeing the resistance does nothing concrete to change lives or bring any Palestinian his or her rights. It is indeed an inevitability, but what will the short-term consequences of it be? That Israel cuts off more territory but still commands over it as they do in Gaza and engulfs as much as it can now of the West Bank. If that happens during the stages of “final status” discussions, which many believe are not that far out of sight, it doesn’t seem to be a solution at all, and time is indeed running out for hope of Palestinians not only to return, but to have something to return to. An exiled Jerusalemite I am close to even told me, “at any moment, they can drop bombs on us and kill us off, so counting on our numbers is playing their game, they have the means and backing to change the numbers any time they feel like it, and they will go unpunished.”

In addition, thinking that the growth rate is the key and telling people in Palestine and those in exile to just be patient does nothing to enhance feelings of unity with the Palestinians of Israeli citizenship, as they will continue to live in a regime of discrimination, further isolated from their brothers and sisters and living in a Jewish State that does not recognise them as a people. Establishing feelings of being in the same boat will make any resistance move in the occupied territories far more effective, and will empower the Palestinians of Israel as well. All of Palestine is occupied, but in some places, the bleeding is not only internal, it is there for all of us to see.

The Palestinians have to organise themselves on each and every level, the strategic one, and yes, the emotional one, to feel united and willing to resist and not surrender, since freedom is a cause worth fighting for. People know that living in their current conditions, even some that are relatively better than those many of their brothers and sisters are living in, is simply intolerable. They are not free, and to accept being a slave, being occupied and not being able to shape one’s own future is intolerable. They have to reach an internal consensus that the Jewish Israelis must be made to feel insecure. Assuring them “security” is the way of the “international community”. This should not and must not be a Palestinian priority, because the Israelis do not have Palestinian security as a priority. If this is the case, and it is, the Israelis should be made to feel completely unstable, because they do not allow others to establish stability. This means that Palestinians need to raise the bar at every level, even among those who are collaborating. There should be an effort made at correcting those who might be thinking the only solution is that Palestinians must settle for less than others would, and by collaborating, get the “best that they can get out of a bad situation”. This defeatist attitude has never brought anything good to Palestinians. It is time to wake up. Together.

– Mary Rizzo is an art restorer, translator and writer living in Italy. Editor and co-founder of Palestine Think Tank, where this article was originally published. She is also co-founder of Tlaxcala translations collective. She contributed this article to Visit her personal blog: Peacepalestine.

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