A Paradigm of Conditioning Between Israel and Hamas

On the surface it can be said that Israel is positively reinforcing Hamas’ good behavior by relaxing its restrictions.  After all, Hamas has offered Israel “calm.”  But B. F. Skinner, that old pigeon torturer, reminds us that reinforcements are only a part of a “chain” of learning.  Other types of reinforcements have occurred before, so it is important to determine who is conducting the Operant Conditioning Paradigm, and to what end.  The various links in the chain of reinforcement must be examined.

Beginning with the riots at the border fence, Hamas was providing a “negative reinforcer” to Israel’s blockade of Gaza.  The subtle thing about negative reinforcement is that it doesn’t punish behavior to extinguish it (Skinner called that plain old punishment).  Rather, a negative reinforcer is applied to produce a behavior (like relaxing the blockade).  Hamas will ultimately want more, but “relaxing restrictions” would suffice for now. Additional negative reinforcers would be applied in the form of incendiary balloons and kites.

Hamas increased negative reinforcement pressure through the court of public opinion when media was brought to bear on the 60+ deaths at the fence.  Israel’s greatest negative reinforcer was leveraged: international hostility to Israel–and all its attendant antisemitism.  However the martyrdom of innocents would be short lived as Hamas acknowledged that 50 of those killed were combatants.  The notion of “peaceful protests” was soon dispelled as pictures of 40,000 Gazans, many of them rioters, were seen undulating in masses amid smoke and flames from the burning tires they had ignited.  And so the propaganda component of the negative reinforcement pressure lost some of its oomph.

Then an Israeli was killed by Hamas rifle fire, and Israel retaliated with air strikes.  Palestinian lives were lost and so was some Gazan infrastructure.  This resulted in an escalation on Hamas’ part, who shot rockets wildly into Israeli civilian residential areas.  Some Israelis were injured.  Israel returned with more bombs, and more Palestinians were killed.

It was then that one began to hear about Hamas’ talks with Egypt and the UN Rep for a “cease fire.” Hamas would say that Israel had agreed to it.  Israel had no notion of having agreed to anything.

This created an interesting moment: who exactly was in control of the Paradigm of Conditioning?

In the meantime, the kites and balloons continued to burn more of Israel.  Falcons and other species of birds, incendiaries tied to their talons, became martyrs to the Gazan cause.

These were painful images, but also confusing.

Wanting command of the Paradigm of Conditioning, Israeli leadership met several days later to decide if the ceasefire was to be agreed to.  In this way, Hamas’ claim that Israel had already agreed to a ceasefire could be refuted; Israel was still in control.  It would not offer a formal cease fire, but meet quiet with quiet.

But Hamas had an ace up its sleeve.  The kites, the balloons, and agitation at the border fence would continue as a negative reinforcer to produce a desired behavior in Israel.  As long as these incendiaries kept flying, and Israel accepted the ceasefire (which it did, as far as Hamas was concerned, by meeting quiet with quiet), and Israel relaxed its restrictions (which it has begun to do), Hamas could say its campaign (implementation of negative reinforcement) had been effective.  And with this the writer would agree.  Hamas’ negative reinforcement of Israel has maintained control of the Paradigm of Conditioning, not the rockets and bombs.  Symbolic kites and balloons, in decreasing numbers, continue to float into Israel, just to make sure everyone knows the aversive stimulus is still in place.  Riotous Palestinians at the border fence, although in smaller number, continue to serve this purpose as well.

Hamas has come up with some ingenious ploys that should not be underestimated.  They are good at psychological warfare, perhaps their most powerful tool.  One would hope that the relief they get from an ease in Israeli restrictions and whatever international donations they receive doesn’t serve to reinforce Hamas as the Supreme Negative Reinforcer.  It does seem to be headed that way.

A new Paradigm of Conditioning should occur but the question of how to get it started is lost on everybody.  Few act as if it can be done in this lifetime.  At this point it is Pollyannaish to expect reciprocity of positive reinforcement between the two parties–components of a new Paradigm of Conditioning that would be preferable (e.g. the return of captured soldiers and civilians from Gaza in exchange for a “real” ceasefire–ignored).  This can easily be laughed off by Gaza.  They are getting what they want.  Calm for calm is a ceasefire as far as they are concerned.  No positive reinforcement for you!

The power of Hamas as Negative Reinforcer is worth acknowledging.  It is not easy, especially as they know how to mobilize the international community to leverage hostility to Israel, keeping Israel on the defensive.  It is Israel’s Achilles heel.  It is Hamas’ most powerful negative reinforcer.

There continues to be the phenomenon of underestimating Hamas, as was recently evidenced when Israeli leadership stated that the “real” threat to Israel lies to the North.  As explained, Hamas’ power does not come from their ability to punish, but to apply incessant negative pressure to get Israel to do something.  This appears to be the major strategy.  It is a strategy appreciated by all of Israel’s adversaries in the Middle East.  It may be wise to consider that a strategy employed by one is a strategy employed by all.

On a different note, Hamas admitted that 50 of the 60+ killed at the fence were combatants.  It was also a Gazan who let the truth be known that in the early stages of the riots, the eight month old baby who “died from Israeli tear gas” should never have been taken out into the field by its mother in the first place.  The baby’s serious medical condition was exacerbated by the irritants in the air, causing it to die.  These powerful negative reinforcers could have been exploited further by Hamas but were ultimately abandoned to truth.  Perhaps they did so in fear of being caught in a lie.  It is also possible that some distortions, even in a climate of so much hate, cannot be countenanced.

About the Author
Victor Salkowitz is a retired Clinical Social Worker with over 30 years experience in prisons, child welfare, and adult mental health agencies. He received his B.A. in Psychology from UC Davis and an MSW from UC Berkeley, becoming licensed in 1991.
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