I’ve been trying to come up with something coherent – not to mention original, interesting, and important – to say about last week’s demolition of nine houses at the Amona settlement outpost, and the violent confrontation between Israeli security forces sent to perform the demolition and the many protestors who came to oppose them. This has proven to be very difficult for me – not because I’m choked up with emotion about the incident, but simply because I’ve been unable to construct a comprehensible, reliable picture of what happened there.
Normally, I have no great difficulty in assimilating the news. I gather information from various sources, correct for known biases, add in my own experience, observations, and general knowledge, ask questions where necessary – and it’s possible in most cases to feel that I know more or less what happened. This time, though, I found that the picture simply wouldn’t come clear for me. One set of accounts – emanating from the police and many journalists – has the police acting with admirable restraint while being pelted with stones and other projectiles by settler youth who came a-purpose to make the confrontation violent. Another set of accounts – emanating from anti-demolition protestors, their supporters, and some news media – has the police engaging in wanton, unprovoked, and extreme violence against protestors who were, for the most part, completely innocent.
Were I not a raging centrist, I could make my own cognitive life easier by dismissing one side’s version as the product of extreme bias or even out-and-out dishonesty. Unfortunately, I can’t convince myself that anything so simple and convenient is true. Many of the people accusing the police of unnecessary brutality are thoughtful, principled, and careful in their judgments; but so are many of the people who accuse the Amona defenders of being primarily at fault. Both versions of the story can’t be correct, can they? It would almost seem that there were two different Amona incidents on two separate planets – both of which claim to be Planet Earth.
Let’s assume that the people involved (or at least most of them) are telling the truth as they see it. How are they seeing such different and contradictory truths?
When I contacted one of my fellow bloggers privately about this question, s/he asked in response: “How many good, honest, thoughtful left-wingers were actually at Amona, or had kids and neighbors there?” The answer, of course, is “few, if any” – but there were certainly plenty of cops there, many of whom report that they felt endangered. My colleague also reminded me that TV Channel 10’s reporter, Roni Daniel, reported that the police used unnecessary force, while Channel 1’s reporter, Chaim Yavin, claimed that police lives were definitely in danger. While my blogger friend clearly believes that the police were principally at fault, I can’t agree that only the right-wing version of the story is credible.
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The human brain is a pattern-finding machine: it is hard-wired to make sense of a chaotic flood of sensory inputs by fitting them into schemas and narratives. This built-in programming is so powerful that it can lead us to perceive patterns that aren’t really there – for example, we can often see faces in random designs, simply because we have extensive neural circuitry that enables us to evaluate facial expressions without having to think consciously about them, and which operates even when there isn’t really a face to look at. Faced with complex situations, we simplify them in order to grasp their “essentials” – which may be an excellent survival trait for dealing with emergencies, but can create very distorted perceptions of the real complexity of the world.
The Amona incident involved several thousand participants: as I recall, something like 4,000 protestors faced 3,000 or more police and soldiers. (I’ll correct those numbers as necessary and appropriate; approximations are good enough for now.) The physical confrontation took place over several hours, and was the culmination of many months of legal maneuvering. Roughly 150 protestors and 50 police sustained injuries serious enough to require medical attention. Looking at these numbers – and remembering how the human mind copes with complexity – I can begin to understand how the dissonant accounts of Amona came about.
First, let’s look at one of the complaints frequently raised against Ehud Olmert’s decision to go ahead with the forcible demolition at Amona: that settler leaders had offered a “reasonable compromise” early that morning, which would have made the whole confrontation unnecessary; and that Olmert rejected this compromise – presumably because he wanted to look “tough” for his potential voters in the run-up to Knesset elections. I won’t attempt to judge whether the offered compromise was indeed “reasonable” – other than to state that nothing offered to me before 7:30 in the morning seems reasonable, except maybe the chance to go back to sleep for a few hours. The important point here is that whether the compromise offer was in fact reasonable, or indeed credible, depends in part on how one perceives the process that led up to the final decision to act forcibly. Had the whole legal-political process lasted a week or a month, such a last-minute compromise offer might have been acceptable as a way of resolving the conflict in good faith . But after a legal process lasting many months (and including many delaying tactics), the same offer could well be construed as yet another insincere effort to force a delay, in the hope that the promised days before the houses would be moved could be turned into weeks and months, and perhaps even years. (It’s also worth noting that at least some of the protestors were themselves highly critical of the compromise offer – they explicitly rejected a non-violent resolution of the conflict, at least until things started getting rough.) So whether a “reasonable compromise” was in fact offered and rejected depends, in large part, on who you are. Long, complicated legal processes are something like Rorschach blots – what you see in them depends largely on your own viewpoint.
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Out of about 4,000 protestors, about 150 sustained injuries requiring medical attention; of these injuries, only a small number were serious and only one was at all life-threatening. While I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who were hurt, I think it should be emphasized that fewer than five per cent of the protestors were injured; given that there were almost as many police and soldiers on hand as there were protestors – and further, given that any policeman who was excessively violent is likely to have hurt more than one protestor – it seems clear that the vast majority of the confrontation took place at a level of violence below that which would cause serious injury to protestors.
Let’s assume that out of about 150 injuries sustained by protestors, around 50 were “legitimate” – that is, they would have occurred in a “normal” civil-disobedience/riot scenario, without any excess police brutality. (This seems reasonable and even conservative to me, given the number of people involved.) This leaves us with an “excess” of something like 100 injuries which we can ascribe to unnecessary police violence. Assuming that one “bad” cop, on average, would cause three injuries (a figure that seems reasonable, given the accounts I’ve read and the videos I’ve seen, and given that the protestors were not wearing armor or helmets), all these “excess” injuries would have been caused by around 33 cops – in other words, about one per cent of all the security-force personnel present in Amona.
Performing the same sort of analysis of police injuries is complicated by the fact that the police were wearing protective gear (which means that far fewer police were injured than would have been the case without armor); and further by the fact that while injuries to protestors were caused principally by batons and the like, wielded by hand, injuries to police were caused mostly by thrown and dropped objects. The first complication means that many more police were potential casualties than the fifty who were actually injured; the second complication means that a relatively small number of protestors likely accounted for most of the police injuries. I can’t give precise numbers with any confidence, but it seems reasonable to assume that as few as forty or even twenty protestors may have accounted for the majority of police injuries. (Of course, a few of the police injuries were probably “legitimate” – that is, the normal injuries you would expect to see in a civil-disobedience incident of this size and severity.)
Tentatively, then, we can say that 99 per cent of the security-force personnel at Amona were not directly involved in excessive violence (except, perhaps, as targets for thrown stones); and 99 per cent of the protestors acted more or less within accepted bounds of vigorous civil disobedience. This explains why pretty much everyone who was there perceives his own side as being in the right: The “bad” one per cent of the opposing side was much more “worthy” of attention, as it posed a threat; while most participants were themselves relatively innocent, and would if anything tend to ignore or downplay the few “bad apples” on their own side of the confrontation. Indeed, it’s likely that many participants never even saw the roughnecks on their own side.
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Where does all this tedious analysis lead me? My conclusions are simple enough.
Both sides were right, mostly.
In a highly-charged conflict involving thousands of people on both sides, only a small proportion of the participants were injured, and the vast majority acted within the acceptable bounds of a civil-disobedience scenario.
Both sides are wrong, mostly.
Left-wingers, government spokesmen, and others are wrong to the extent that they categorize all, or even most of the protestors as “violent hooligans”. Right-wingers are wrong to categorize all or most of the policemen and soldiers at Amona as excessively violent. Given the build-up, this incident could have had much worse results than it did; and rather than castigating ourselves, our government, our society, or anyone else for what happened, perhaps we should congratulate ourselves – quietly, of course – for the fact that we all handled this as well as we did.
Now can we talk about something else?
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)