In this special crossover episode of Metaculus Mondays and the Global Guessing Weekly Podcast, we forecast the future of the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis.
Welcome to the 15th volume of Metaculus Mondays, and also (surprise!) the 13th episode of the Global Guessing Weekly Podcast!
Given the relevance of today’s topic to the world of geopolitics, and also the fact that it makes for a fascinating forecasting subject, we chose to combine two of our series. You will be able to listen to us discuss our forecasting process on YouTube and all podcasting platforms, and you will be able to read our more typical Metaculus Monday volume entry here, on our website. If you enjoy the format of today’s content or would like to see more combined episodes, let us know in the comment section or reach out to us on social media!
In today’s volume, we focus on the largest geopolitical story of the past week and likely of the coming week as well. Since Monday of last week, violence between Palestine and Israel has seen dramatic escalation. The outcome of this conflict has significant implications for the rest of the Middle East, as well as for the foreign actors which have become involved in the conflict over the last seven days. Unfortunately we could not find a question on Metaculus that addressed this important issue, so we decided to make this volume extra special, and create our own question and resolution criteria this week.
Instead of asking a single question like “When will there be a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestinian conflict?” or “How many Palestinians will be killed by the IDF in 2021?” we wanted to choose a set of questions that would contextualize the ongoing situation more accurately. By breaking this week’s volume into a set of six questions we aimed to put this conflict in the context of past conflicts between Israel and Palestine, as well as to help us understand how far this conflict has progressed along its own discrete trajectory. The questions we chose, and their respective implications on the outcome of this conflict, are as follows:
1. Will more than 400 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? (Link: Pending)
Implications: (A) Another week of intense fighting, (B) Sharp escalation of fighting, (C) Ceasefire before renewed fighting by end of year, (D) Low-intensity, continue fighting throughout rest of year.
2. Will more than 1,000 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? (Link: Pending)
Implications: (A) Would pass the common threshold for war in terms of deaths per year, (B) Would become the third deadliest year / conflict between Israel-Palestine since at least 2008.
3. Will more than 2,500 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? (Link: Pending)
Implication: The deadliest war between Israel and Palestine since at least 2008
4. Will more than 10,000 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? (Link: Pending)
Implication: 10x the war threshold
5. Will more than 4,500 rockets, mortars, and missiles be fired from Palestine at Israel in 2021? (Link)
Implication: Most rockets fired at Israel in any given year or conflict since at least 2008
6. Will more than 10,000 rockets, mortars, and missiles be fired from Palestine at Israel in 2021? (Link)
Implications: (A) Unless dramatic increase in fire rate, greatly extended fighting, (B) More foreign funding of Hamas than likely expected
Below we will outline the research and considerations we made to forecast each of these questions, including how we identified the reference classes and base rates we used this week. We will follow that up with a reveal of our aggregate forecasts for these questions and discuss what our forecasts indicate about the future of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Let’s get into it!
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For the Palestinian death questions, they will resolve positively if on February 15, 2022, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports over a number of deaths over the threshold in 2021.
For the Israeli rocket attack questions, they will resolve positively if on February 15, 2022 more than the threshold of rockets, mortars, and missiles were fired at Israel according to both Wikipedia and the Jewish Virtual Library. The 4,500 threshold question will resolve ambiguously if only one source reports over the 4,500 and the difference between the sources is more than 500. The 10,000 threshold question will resolve ambiguously if only one source reports over the threshold and the difference between the sources is more than 750.
We began analyzing this situation by viewing the recent historical data relevant to the two questions: Number of Palestinian fatalities by year and number of rockets fired at Israel by year.
As of Monday night (5/18), at least 222 Palestinians have died in 2021 from Israeli attacks, with 212 deaths in the past 8 days.
Since 2008, an average of 410 Palestinians are killed each year according to data from the UN. However, the distribution of deaths is highly unequal between years. Only five years (not including 2021) have seen deaths above 200 (2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2018), with two years being above 1000 (2009, 2014).
How does 2021 compare to historical years? We find the closest comparisons with 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 since these years saw sharp increases in fatalities over a short period of time, whereas years such as 2018 and 2019 (137 deaths) are not apt-comparisons since the fatalities were much more evenly distributed over time.
This would indicate that the best reference classes for the 2021 Israel-Palestine Crisis is the 2008-2009 Gaza War, the 2012 Israeli Operation in Gaza, and the 2014 Gaza War.
As of Monday night, over 3,200 rockets have been fired at Israel since the start of the year, with at least 3,100 being fired since the start of intense fighting last Monday (5/10).
Since 2008, an average of roughly 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israel from Palestine according to an aggregation of data from the Jewish Virtual Library and Wikipedia. Much like the Palestinian deaths data, the distribution is unequal between the years. Only three years (not including 2021) have seen more than 1,000 rockets fired at Israel. Those same years (2014, 2012, 2008) saw more than 2,000 rockets fired at Israel.
This would further indicate that the best reference classes for the current crisis are 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014. However, this data also indicates the potential for much higher total rockets fired in 2021 given more than 3,100 rockets were fired in a week.
Signals and Considerations
After calculating the base rates for the conflict we then turned to the outside view to get other perspectives on how the conflict has unfolded over the last week. We quickly found that procuring good intel would be difficult, as many of the news sources we consulted for this forecast ended up having pretty explicit political leanings, either towards the IDF or towards the Palestinian population. We therefore tried to lean heavily on our base rates and use the news we aggregated as supplementary to our numbers, as opposed to being the foundation of our forecast.
If you want to hear the comprehensive list of information that we filtered through to arrive at our initial forecasts for this question, feel free to listen to this week’s episode. We will, however, outline four of the main signals we identified when researching this forecast here:
- Diagnostic statements from key actors: In the last two days there have been statements from top IDF generals, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and United States President Joe Biden, that we feel all have influence over the future of this conflict. A top IDF general shared that fighting would continue for “at least two more days”, implying that fighting could continue for much longer than two days if needed. Netanyahu has shared that Israel will continue to respond to aggression from Hamas on more than one occasion. And finally, president Joe Biden has shared that Israel has the right to defend itself, and while he has supported a ceasefire he has not called on Israel to enact one. Biden’s passivity at times, and support for Israel at others, feels slightly diagnostic of a protracted conflict.
- Potential negotiation stalemate: Similar to past conflicts we have covered, both physical and diplomatic, the extent of demands of each side can often signal the short-term progression of the conflict. In the case of the JCPOA, both Iran and the United States have demands on which signage is predicated on, and neither wants to concede first for fear of domestic backlash and geopolitical losses. In this case, both Hamas and Israel have demands which, if met, would likely lead to de escalation. But given the pressure on both parties to demonstrate force, it is not likely that either will budge. In which case, international intervention may become necessary.
- Protests/domestic political constraints: According to Thomas Friedman, a writer for the New York Times who has been active during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both Hamas and Israel face domestic political constraints that affect their respective actions. This ties into the above signal in that these pressures may support the potential stalemate of violence we could witness. The United States and other countries are facing growing pressure too as the number of public demonstrations against Israel’s actions grow, and as some view foreign policy and the result of domestic squabbles, those demonstrations could have an impact on how other countries respond to this crisis.
- Israel able to attack tunnels with airstrikes: The fact that Israel can destroy Hamas tunnels with airstrikes as opposed to with a ground invasion means that they can hurt Hamas and raise the risk of destabilization in Gaza without as much potential cost on the Israeli side. This sets this conflict apart from some of the past examples we referenced in the base rate discussion, and also has an influence on the future of the conflict. As risk profiles change, behaviors change accordingly and that could mean protracted violence in this instance.
Updated Forecasts since Podcast
Although starting tomorrow we will have a dedicated page on updating this forecast, between our podcast recording last night and this post going live on Tuesday, a few signals indicating continued, and increased, fighting have come out:
- Foreign nationals being killed in Israel amid major unrest in West Bank
- Fatah urging more violence
- Hamas and Israeli leadership sharing that a ceasefire isn’t coming soon, with operations continuing for several more days with Netanyahu warning that rocket fire "after that will draw very severe responses."
These pieces of news have made us slightly more bullish on meeting our death thresholds and rocket thresholds, as it seems that violence will continue for longer than we expected. It may also be that our confidence has gone up in a protracted fight, rather than the fight duration exceeding our initial expectations on the podcast. Either way, those initial forecasts shared on the podcast have been raised accordingly:
- Will more than 400 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? 📈 65%
- Will more than 1,000 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? 📈 33%
- Will more than 2,500 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? 📈 20%
- Will more than 10,000 Palestinians in 2021 be killed by the IDF? 📈 12%
- Will more than 4,500 rockets, mortars, and missiles be fired from Palestine at Israel in 2021? 📈 75%
- Will more than 10,000 rockets, mortars, and missiles be fired from Palestine at Israel in 2021? 📈 40%
What our forecast means
Given the factors we considered for this forecast on the podcast, and the factors which have updated our forecasts since that recording, our forecasts indicate a couple of things about the future of the conflict.
- First, we see this conflict continuing at least for the next few days, and likely through the week. Recent violence escalation and verbiage from members of the IDF would imply that Israel has plans to continue launching missiles towards Gaza for the near future, and Hamas does not seem likely to balk in the short-term either
- Second, there is still large uncertainty around a ceasefire, how long a ceasefire will last, and if a ceasefire will subsequently preclude the higher fatality benchmarks from being met. This conflict has a history of enacting ceasefires before resuming violence, with violence sometimes spiking more after the ceasefire than before
We believe a ceasefire will likely come at some point in the next 7-14 days, and potentially sooner, but its effect on the overall outcome of the conflict, and even this specific flare-up are yet to be determined.
What we’re watching moving forward
Given that the nature of the conflict has been evolving quickly, there are certain things that we will watch that we feel are signals to better understand the conflict. Three of the main things we will be watching for in the coming week are:
- If the IDF general extends his statement on fighting past two days to another two days, or even further in the future
- The growing involvement of foreign actors in this conflict such as the United States and Iran. More actors may turn this conflict into a bonafide proxy war, which would in turn likely extend the duration of conflict due to increased resources and support
- Diagnostic statements from relevant leaders. If president Biden or Netanhanyu say anything in the next week that feels diagnostic we will include in our forecast update