The following analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest
This research examines whether disproportionate civilian casualties in foreign violent conflicts influence public support towards the more forceful actor. The article looks at whether the awareness of a skewed ratio of civilian fatalities in Israel and Palestine alters United States public support for Israel, and if so, whether American political cues provide additional influence to public support.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most publicly present and dividing ongoing conflicts of our time. United States foreign policy has traditionally sided with Israel, but the pressures of public opinion and voices from the international community challenge the seemingly unconditional support. The summer of 2014 saw a major surge in violence when Israel conducted an air campaign in Gaza, leading to protests all around the world and divided public opinion in the United States. A major concern from the 2014 Gaza conflict was the issue of severe civilian casualty inequality. Five Israeli civilians compared to over 1,500 Palestinian civilians were killed. This casualty ratio reflects the history of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Using the 2014 Gaza conflict as a case study, the researchers explored if individuals in the U.S. are inclined to oppose an unequal proportion of civilian casualties in war and reduce support for the more forceful side of the conflict when casualty ratios are skewed. They also consider how partisan (Democratic and Republican) messages about the more forceful side of the conflict affects civilian casualty information and public opinion. These questions lead to the following hypotheses:
- Support for the more forceful actor will decrease if civilian casualty inequity information is known.
- (a) In-party criticism of the forceful actor will further decrease public support. (b) Out-party criticism of the forceful actor won’t provide any additional change to public support.
The research team conducted a survey of 584 Americans over the age of 18. They provided a summary of the 2014 Gaza conflict including the skewed casualty figures, and targeted political statements from both democrats and republicans condoning Israel’s hardline stance to measure if the survey respondents’ opinion of the conflict was effected by their party’s disapproval of Israel.
The results showed that civilian casualty inequity information is very relevant in shaping U.S. public opinion towards Israel, especial for voters in the Independent political party. Interestingly, Republican and Democrat respondents were not notably influenced by their party’s or their opposing party’s criticism of Israel. This finding shows that even though most U.S. politicians are generally reluctant to voice an opinion regarding Israel, their criticism doesn’t matter as much to public opinion as actual casualty inequity information reported in the media. The authors acknowledge that although this study advances what is known about influences to public opinion, their findings are based on a single experiment with a relatively small sample of U.S. voters. A larger survey of the public is needed to confirm their conclusions on how civilian casualty inequity may impact public opinion.
Casualty Inequity: The uneven distribution of civilian casualties across two sides in a conflict.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most contentious issues in modern global politics. As the single-biggest supporter of military security for Israel, the U.S. is not an impartial party to the conflict. Therefore, understanding U.S. public opinion becomes a significant variable, as policy decisions can be impacted by public expressions of support or rejection of the U.S. role in the conflict. Reducing civilian casualties is not a partisan issue, but one that should be at the forefront of a larger foreign policy agenda. Findings from this research may help the international community apply pressure on the Israeli government to stop military escalations and pursue diplomatic approaches when civilian casualties begin to rise.
- Reporting of disproportionate civilian casualties during the 2014 Gaza conflict lowered U.S. public opinion of Israel.
- Criticism of Israel from U.S. political leadership did not provide any additional influence on U.S. public opinion.
These results demonstrate the relevance of civilian casualty information in shaping opinion. Although this study is specific to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, it provides an important foundation to public opinion research. Previous research has shown that the more the public knows about alternatives to war, and now about war’s casualties, the less they will support war or warring states. Previously, elected officials may have disregarded the effects of information regarding civilian casualty inequity, which may be due to the lack of media attention that would otherwise make these figures public. If the media includes accurate casualty information, it would be likely to see a decline of popular opinion towards violent conflict.
Leep, M., & Coen, A. (2016). Civilian casualty inequity, partisanship, and American public support for Israel. Global Change, Peace & Security, 28(2), 157-176.
- When Bibi Came to Town by Peter Certo. (http://otherwords.org/when-bibi-came-to-town/)
- Support for Palestinians Triples among US Youth, Survey Finds by Ali Abunimah. (https://www.transcend.org/tms/2016/05/support-for-palestinians-triples-among-us-youth-survey-finds/)
 Peace Science Digest analysis: Proven Decline in Public Support for War When the Alternatives Come to Light (http://communication.warpreventioninitiative.org/?p=227).