Conflict Resolution And The War In Gaza: Beyond The “Bad Actor” Perspective

Photograph Source: Al Jazeera English – CC BY-SA 2.0


Heidi and Guy Burgess, the editors of the online journal, Beyond Intractability, have long been important voices in the field of conflict resolution. Now, in “Israel, Hamas, Evil, and the Bad-Faith Actor Problem” (, they have written an article deeply flawed in its analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict and seriously misleading to those interested in peace and conflict resolution.

One has to be grateful to the Burgesses for stating their views so clearly for inviting critical discussion. I will take them up on that offer in a moment, although my first impulse on reading the article was to write it off as a typical example of narrow partisanship. What else is one to think about a lengthy essay on the war in Gaza which does not mention the history of the people of Gaza or describe the prison-like conditions under which they have lived since 2006? And which describes the atrocious violence against Israeli civilians perpetrated by certain Hamas fighters as part of a “meticulously planned military operation”?

Atrocious, absolutely. What can justify the vicious killing and maiming of women, children, and elderly people as well as other civilians living near the Gaza Strip? But there is no evidence that it was planned. What was planned, but goes unmentioned in the article, was Hamas’s overrunning of eleven Israeli army bases and the destruction of the IDF’s electronic security system. The anti-civilian violence is best explained by analogy with a vengeful prison riot or an anti-colonial uprising like the Philippeville massacre perpetrated by Algerians against French settlers: inexcusable acts of violence, but neither planned nor uncaused. (For further discussion, see Ian Lustick, “Vengeance is Not a Policy,” and Adam Schatz, “Vengeful Pathologies,”

History is omitted in this discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict, except where it serves the authors’ interest to parrot the standard Israeli historical narrative. This they do even where it has been challenged by both Israeli and Arab scholars. Here, for example, is their description of the origin of the Palestinian refugees, some 200,000 of whom ended up in the Gaza Strip:

“Approximately 700,000 Palestinians fled Israel’s original (much smaller) borders in 1948 when Israel declared its independence. They hoped that Arab armies would be able to expel the Israelis from the region entirely, and they would be able to return to their homes. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, in the war that followed Israel prevailed, leaving these refugees with nowhere to go. This was what Palestinians call the “Nakba” or the “Catastrophe.””

Apparently, the authors are not familiar with the work of historians like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, and others documenting the deliberate expulsion of the Palestinians by Israeli armed forces, terrorist groups, and psychological warfare operatives, and the subsequent seizure of their lands by the State of Israel. (These sources and others are summarized in an exhaustive Wikipedia article on “Causes of the 1948 Palestinian expulsion and flight.”)

Nor do they demonstrate any understanding of the reasons that most Palestinians rejected the “compensatory” peace deals offered at Oslo in 1993 and by the Clinton administration in 2000.

To the Burgesses, these rejections are further proof of their major thesis – that the Palestinian leaders are “bad actors” bent on destroying Israel and incapable of participating in meaningful negotiations. The fact that these offers were wildly unpopular among Palestinians because they left the Israeli occupation in place, did not stop vast new settlements in the West Bank, ignored the Palestinian right of return, and refused to alter the status of Jerusalem goes entirely unremarked. (For a more complex and realistic explanation of the failure of the peace process, see Marwan Bishra,“Oslo is Dead: Long Live the Peace Process,” accessible at


That the Burgesses’ article is deeply partisan is clear.  But there is much more to it than that. What is more important, and to my mind more damaging to the field of peace and conflict resolution, is their main thesis, which is this: you can’t negotiate peace with “bad actors.”

Bad actors they define as groups or nations “irrevocably committed to the destruction of the other group . . . At the extreme, this includes those who pursue genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaigns that are rightly viewed as the most serious of all war crimes. This is what many Palestinians (and much of the larger Arab and Muslim world) has been committed to doing ever since Israel was created out of the refugee flows following World War II.” Hamas, in their view, is a quintessential bad actor, described by the authors as “a sadistic, murderous, and suicidal cult that is interested in genocide and not coexistence with Israelis . . .”

The authors seem entirely unaware that this is exactly how many Palestinians describe the Israelis: as “bad actors” interested in ethnic cleansing and perfectly willing to commit genocide against the Palestinians with whom they have been locked in conflict for the past 75 years.  At this writing, more than 7,000 residents of Gaza including at least 2,000 children have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, and officials affiliated with Israel’s Likud Party have proposed the “resettlement” of the entire population of Gaza in Egypt. The continued bombing of Gaza and a projected land invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces have the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people and to involve both Israel and the U.S. in a devastating regional war.

The fundamental problem with the “bad actor” concept advanced by the Burgesses is that virtually every party to a seriously violent interstate or intergroup conflict has reason to consider the other side a bad actor. This is certainly how most Israelis characterized the Palestine Liberation Organization during the years that it engaged in armed struggle against Israeli institutions and citizens. But in 1988 PLO leader Yasser Arafat recognized the State of Israel. He participated in the 1993 Oslo Accords and 2000 Camp David peace processes, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli prime ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Apparently, bad actors can become good actors, especially when they have been involved in processes of negotiation!

Are there “bad actors” with whom it is foolish and self-destructive to talk peace? Yes – but recognizing that highly polarized, well-armed parties with a history of injuring each other almost always consider each other bad actors, the list of nations or groups incapable of participating in meaningful negotiations is a very short one. Many would consider Nazi Germany the leading example, which is why belligerent, security-obsessed nations like our own seldom use military force against any real or fancied adversary without labeling the target Hitlerian. The Islamic State may be another, but as Ishaan Tharoor shows convincingly in the Washington Post, the analogy between ISIS and Hamas is false.  (See “Israel says Hamas is ISIS – but it’s not.”

Hamas is not a “suicide cult” as the Burgesses suggest. It is a political party consisting of some 100,000 members that governs more than 2 million residents of Gaza. Acting badly, which elements of that organization certainly have done, does not make it a “bad actor” incapable of participating in negotiations any more than the violent anti-Palestinian activities and Islamophobic statements of the Netanyahu regime disqualify that government from being a negotiating partner. The vast majority of nations, like the vast majority of individuals, are neither pacific saints nor irredeemable villains.  And, those who think that they are have no business calling themselves conflict resolvers.


In fact, adopting the “bad actor” perspective in cases like that of the Israel-Palestine conflict reduces the idea and profession of conflict resolution to irrelevance. The Burgesses seem almost to understand this, since they announce that the perspective they label “Give Peace a Chance” cannot help to resolve the current conflict. Even worse, according to them, to call for a cease-fire or advocate peace negotiations enables Hamas to continue its violence and therefore represents a form of “appeasement.” “The one thing that we are sure of,” they proclaim, “is that simplistic answers — such as Israel unilaterally withdrawing from the occupied territories or calling for an unconditional ceasefire that leaves Hamas in power and celebrating its glorious victory, are not going to bring peace, either for Israel or for the Palestinian people.”

This declaration reminds me of my days in the movement against the Indochina War, when we were constantly told that calling for an American withdrawal from Vietnam was a “simplistic answer.” What, one wonders, do the authors think will bring peace to Israel and the Palestinian people. An intensification of the same sort of bombardment and slaughter of Gazans that Israel conducted in 2008, 2014, and 2021? A ground invasion a la Mosul or Fallujah that will very likely kill vast numbers of Palestinian and Israeli soldiers? A humanitarian disaster that will make Hezbollah feel obliged to unleash its enormous force of missiles against Israeli towns and cities, almost certainly drawing Iran and the United States into the war?

It seems to me that the authors’ wholesale adoption of the right-wing Israeli perspective on this conflict has virtually nothing to do with conflict resolution, although they make a bow to the field by referring to Prof. William Zartman’s views on “ripeness for resolution.” According to their gloss of Zartman, conflicts are not resolvable until the parties “come to an understanding that they cannot get what they want and need through violence.” But, of course, a negotiating process may be the environment that persuades them that they can get what they want and need through changing the conditions that produced the violence. Thought leaders in our field from John Burton and Elise Boulding to Johan Galtung, Dean Pruitt, and Senator George Mitchell have pointed out that conflicts are ripe for resolution when the parties have a reasonable hope that negotiations will open the door to these necessary changes.

This is not just a matter of “giving peace a chance,” but also of understanding that the real choice presented by deep-rooted conflicts like the war in Gaza is that between genocide (or something approaching it) and system change. Either/or. Either annihilate the opponent or, recognizing the futility and immorality of this goal, alter the system that has induced each side to yearn for the other’s destruction. The frameworks for thinking about conflict presented by the Burgesses do not include the systemic deprivation described by Johan Galtung as “structural violence” or the goal of achieving positive peace through structural transformation. Perhaps, this explains why they have so little to say about the vile conditions under which the residents of Gaza and parts of the West Bank have lived for more than a generation.


The bad actor problem, I contend, is wildly overstated in the Burgesses’ sincere and passionately argued defense of the Israeli government’s perspective (what they term the “Anti-Semitic Genocide” frame).  The great danger of such overstatement is that one unconsciously projects the “bad actor” component of one’s own thinking of behavior onto the adversary, thus simultaneously besmirching the enemy and purifying oneself. Thus, the authors bemoan “the fact that Hamas routinely employs various types of civilian shields to protect its military operations. For example,” they say,

“its missiles are frequently shot from civilian locations — even schools and hospitals — which means that the only way Israel can defend against these attacks is by risking civilian casualties.  Hamas knows this and knows that, because of their use of civilian shields, these attacks usually cause more deaths than Hamas’ original attacks. In spite of its morally reprehensible nature, the strategy has been quite effective at turning world opinion further against the Israelis and toward Palestinians who are increasingly seen as the victims, not the attacker.”

But wait! To begin with, the “civilian shield” argument is not new. It has been used by virtually every established state – particularly colonial and neo-colonial regimes – challenged by local rebels employing guerrilla tactics. The French used it against the Algerian N.L.F., the Americans against the Vietnamese F.L.N., and so forth. The obvious answer from the rebel side is, “Where do you expect us to train our troops and store our weapons – in a field open to your artillery and bombers?” And, of course, “Why are you fighting us to begin with? Why not give us our nationhood? This is a people’s war.”

Nor is the situation of a rebel or criminal who holds someone hostage and uses that person for protection something new.  The scenario is a staple of everyday television and movie drama. In most crime or spy films, the hostage-taker is a bad character and the hostage an innocent victim. Even so, when was the last time that you saw the “good guy” – the heroic law-enforcer or soldier – kill both the guilty and innocent parties and then explain, “I had to do it – he was using a civilian shield”?

Without reasoning much about it, our moral instinct is to save the innocent life even if it means risking the guilty party’s escape. Even in the heightened atmosphere of fear and rage caused by the Hamas attack and Israeli retaliation, the Israelis recognize this principal by promising to minimize “collateral” civilian casualties in Gaza. To the extent that this is mere lip service, and the IDF is preparing to kill thousands more civilians in the effort to destroy Hamas root and branch, Israel will have become the “bad actor” that it believes Hamas to have been.

This, too, has happened before. To Americans in World War II, the quintessential bad actor was Japan, which had massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese, reduced Korean women to the status of “comfort women,” and tortured American and British prisoners, among other atrocious acts. The U.S. punished that bad actor, even though its leaders were seeking to surrender, by dropping atomic bombs on two defenseless cities and killing between 140,000 and 200,000 Japanese civilians. Ask most people in the world today who was the bad actor in this conflict.

Who, then, is the bad actor in the Middle East? Can one base a theory of conflict and the practice of conflict resolution on a distinction between good and bad actors? I think that the question answers itself. So does the question whether one should punish the perpetrators of direct violence while exculpating the creators and operators of a system of structural violence. Johan Galtung taught us that direct violence, structural violence, and cultural violence form a triad in which each form of coercion generates the others. That insight rather than the “good/bad actor” analysis should inform our approach to conflict resolution in cases like the current ghastly war in Israel/Palestine.

As atrocious as the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians was, I do not believe that it justifies either the massive bombing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza or the maintenance of that besieged community under prison-like conditions. The Palestinians need freedom and dignity and must stop attacking Israelis. The Israelis need security and dignity and must stop oppressing Palestinians. These needs and duties can be realized through negotiations that aim at ending the siege of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine and guaranteeing the security and communal rights of all Israelis.

The means to these ends, it seems to me, must involve the restructuring of the Israel/Palestine political community to provide long-term conflict resolution, not merely another temporary truce. There is no scarcity of ideas about how this restructuring might be accomplished.  It is time, surely, to stop the killing and begin the practical process of making peace in this beloved, grief-stricken land.