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Like many others, I have been following the developments in Gaza and Israel over the past month with increasing horror. Of course this is not the only horrible thing happening in the world, but for me processing this one has become harder than for other cases of suffering. For other issues such as global poverty or animal welfare I have figured out some sort of sustainable guidelines for how much I expect from myself and if how I am going to contribute, and this allows me some peace of mind to just get on with it. This feels different, and I am not convinced if or how my regular guidelines apply.

One of the many things I appreciate about the EA community is that I can often find support in solving these kinds of practical moral questions, and that is one reason to bring the discussion here. Another one is that some reasoning I have seen from an EA perspective is based on an application of the ITN framework that appears quite naive to me. This post is therefore both a pushback against that naive ITN analysis and an outline of my own reasoning at this point - which is still preliminary and under development. I would very much like to hear how others are thinking about this and what you think could be constructive attitudes and “behavioral guidelines” to adopt.

Naive application of ITN

The reasoning I have seen (though mostly not this explicit) goes something like this:

  • Importance: Sure, there is a lot of suffering right now, but this is only severely affecting about 2M people. Compare this to the 650 million people living in extreme poverty, or to x-risk causes where the whole future of humanity is at stake, and this looks rather small.
  • Tractability: The Israel-Palestine conflict has been going on for a long time and appears really difficult to solve, so tractability is probably very low.
  • Neglectedness: There is lots of media and social media attention on this right now, and huge protests in cities around the world, so neglectedness is basically as low as gets.

And so, the conclusion might be that this scores really low on ITN and we should focus on something else.

Why I think this reasoning is flawed


First of all, on importance, apart from 2 million people still being a lot of people, I think the implications of how this situation develops may go far beyond the consequences for those who are suffering right now. I’m definitely not the best informed person to make a complete analysis of this, but two aspects appear particularly salient to me:

International relations: If the situation escalates further, it seems like we could face some scenarios that would be much worse for the world at large both from an immediate humanitarian perspective and from a long term, survival-of-humanity perspective. It doesn’t seem out of the question that this could potentially lead to a broader conflict with further breakdown in trust and increasing hostilities between different countries and regions in the world which could have very longterm consequences. On the other hand, in a more positive scenario we might see consequences such as strengthening of international law and an increased confidence that difficult conflicts can be solvable.

Societal values: Development of better values in society has been suggested as one of the important things we could do today that might contribute to a better long term future. The collective response to a situation like this seems like it could be significant for shaping what values become more or less mainstream and encouraged. Increasing hostilities could seriously beat back progress made toward a world where we care about everyone. 

Tractability and neglectedness

The naive analysis for tractability and neglectedness seems to hold if we are assessing the cost-effectiveness of donations. If the conclusion of the analysis is limited to that it would be better to donate to AMF than to humanitarian aid for Gaza, then yes, I think that makes a lot of sense. However, for a situation like this one money for donations might not be the most valuable resource[1]. What seems to be most in demand is that we use our political power as citizens to push our governments to work for a ceasefire[2].

For such a case, it seems to me like tractability and neglectedness are much more intertwined than when we speak about donations, and I am not sure it makes complete sense to analyze them separately. Of course this situation is not as neglected as the ongoing war crimes in Burkina Faso. Does this mean that we should rather go to protests against those other war crimes and post about them instead on social media? I don’t think that sounds convincing. For this case (and probably many other political type problems) the tractability appears to depend directly on the attention the matter is attracting. Achieving a ceasefire for Gaza could be a much more tractable cause because it is not neglected. This is different from the type of problems where one more donation can always save one more life - here it seems to be more about reaching some kind of tipping point.

Additionally, if we consider the long term consequences on international relations and societal values, this point in time might even be unusually tractable - a window of opportunity where major actors have not yet fully committed one way or the other, and there is a global movement pushing for a ceasefire that has momentum. Preventing further escalation at the point we are now may be a lot more tractable than addressing the situation at some later stage (something like the concept of plasticity outlined in What We Owe The Future?).

Not everything is a tradeoff between causes

An important aspect for my reasoning is also that this does not appear to be a clear case of prioritization between different important causes, as it is when I donate money or choose a career direction. It seems like there are plenty of pretty straightforward ways to support the existing ceasefire movement without subtracting much from my other work. In terms of cost-effectiveness, I think we could make a pretty good case for contributing in low-effort ways such as signing petitions organized by reputable organizations, writing an email to the politicians that represent us, sharing some reports from reliable sources on social media or (on the slightly more time-consuming side) attending a protest that someone else organized. I would not expect this to be the most important contribution I could make for a better world during my lifetime, but it does look like a pretty low-hanging fruit for contributing to something very important at a low cost.

I would be very interested in hearing how other people reason both about the current crisis specifically and how you think about engaging with political movements (especially on a non-professional, citizen-level) more generally.


  1. ^

    Large amounts of humanitarian aid has already been dedicated to Gaza, but very little of this is able to enter as the territory is under blockade.

  2. ^

    I don’t know if I should expect some people here to find advocacy for a ceasefire controversial - to me it seems pretty straightforward, and while I do not have deep knowledge of this conflict I am fine deferring in this case to the unanimous judgment of bodies such as AmnestyMSFthe Elders and a majority of the UN. But much of my point is anyway more general than just for this specific case.





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Disclosure: I have served in Israel Defense Forces, I live in Israel, I feel horrible about what Israel has done in the past 75 years to millions of Palestinians and I do not want Israel to end up as a horrible stain on human history. I am probably unusually biased when dealing with this topic. I am not making here a claim that people in EA should or should not get involved and in what way.

I want to add some context that I think many people are missing. (I think that context is necessary for applying the ITN framework to the topic).

TL;DR: Israel had a very problematic incentive to empower Hamas and to cause it to gain and maintain control over the Gaza strip, while weakening the much more peaceful Palestinian National Authority. The way that humanity will handle the current conflict and its aftermath may influence whether states can generally expect to benefit from acting on such incentives while violating basic, ~universal norms related to justice and human decency. A failure to uphold such norms can undermine the ability of humanity to coordinate and to achieve a peaceful future[1].

Quoting from Wikipedia (extended-protected entry):

During the 1947–49 Palestine war, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled, comprising around 80% of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants of what became Israel.

I believe it is widely accepted that if that had not happened, it would have been impossible to establish a Jewish, democratic state in the current borders of Israel borders that Israel had after that war. The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1948 resolves that:

refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.

In 1949, in the debates about Israel's admittance to the UN, Israel's UN representative promised to "co-operate with the organs of the United Nations with all the means at our disposal in the fulfillment of [Resolution 194]". It has been 74 years and Israel did not fulfill that promise so far.

The international community has put some amount of pressure on Israel over the years with respect to this issue and the related issue of allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the intensity of that pressure was negatively correlated with the amount of violence that Israel was facing from Hamas et al. But the international community was less inclined to put pressure on Israel while it was facing violence from Hamas et al. This gave Israel a problematic incentive: to make Hamas stronger and the Palestinian National Authority weaker. Israel had various ways possible ways to act on that incentive, including generally promoting violence (e.g. adapting policies that cause incidents in which settlers attack/harass Palestinian people) and allowing the establishment of new settlements that constitute "a flagrant violation under international law" according to the UN Security Council. It is often difficult to know whether a state did X due to an incentive Y. I will now provide some evidence that the incentive above was influential.

Here is a quote from a NY Times article; it refers to Benjamin Netanyahu who has been the prime minster of Israel from 1996 to 1999 and most of the time from 2009 until today (2023).

Over time, however, [Netanyahu] came to see Hamas as a way to balance power against the Palestinian Authority, which has administrative control over the West Bank and has long sought a peace agreement in Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu told aides over the years that a feeble Palestinian Authority lowered the pressure on him to make concessions to Palestinians in negotiations, according to several former Israeli officials and people close to Mr. Netanyahu.

Also, here is a quote from a CNN article that is based on WikiLeaks:

The leaked cables also indicate the Israelis appear to have seen an advantage in Hamas consolidating its control in Gaza. A cable from June 13, 2007, quotes the head of Israeli military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, as saying that "Israel would be 'happy' if Hamas took over Gaza because the (Israel Defense Forces) could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state."

  1. Though we also have an intrinsic desire to enforce (our subjective sense of) justice, which can bias our judgment and make us overweight this utilitarian reasoning. ↩︎

Thanks you for this comment - this is indeed very relevant context, much of which I was not previously aware of.

I would agree that the ITN framework, and perhaps the more quantitative analysis generally dominant within EA, is not so well suited to political questions. Great for assessing the value of a marginal dollar, or helping a person decide where to devote technical skills / a career, but not so much which protest to attend or even which representative to vote for. 

I personally believe that many, if not most, of the world's most pressing problems are political problems, at least in part. For that reason I consider engagement in political movements and democratic processes to be incredibly important and meaningful and I would really encourage you to do so, if it works for you. I think all the ideas you mentioned are very sensible. I also completely agree that for the vast majority of people, there isn't a huge, or maybe any, resourcing trade off (although this particular issue does carry its own unique political costs).

That said: while I've always struggled with the lack of political engagement in EA, I can also understand it. Precisely because it doesn't fit into a clean ITN or quantitative framework, I'm not sure the community/philosophy itself is well placed to respond to political matters, as a community/philosophy. EA fills an important niche, and it isn't that, perhaps. People come with radically different priors, evidence is less clear cut in highly complex situations, and it's hard to establish dispassionate stances. 

So as a person who cares about the world: I would say absolutely you should engage in civil society, democratic processes, and politics generally, on this issue and others. I would encourage everyone to do so, even those who have different political ideologies to me. But I would not expect this community to converge on what that should look like. 

Interesting perspective!

I personally believe that many, if not most, of the world's most pressing problems are political problems, at least in part.

I agree! But if this is true, doesn't it seem very problematic if a movement that means to do the most good does not have tools for assessing political problems? I think you may be right that we are not great at that at the moment, but it seems... unambitious to just accept that?

I also think that many people in EA do work with political questions, and my guess would be that some do it very well - but that most of those do it in a full-time capacity that is something different from "citizen politics". Could it be than rather than EA being poorly suited to assessing political issues, EA does not (yet) have great tools for assessing part-time activism, which would be a much more narrow claim?

Great discussion! I think perhaps there is some subtle conflict between EA's goal of a "radically better world" and marginal cost effectiveness. For marginal cost effectiveness, I think EA does a good job and the ITN framework is helpful. However, if we want, as CEA states, to contribute to solve "...a range of pressing global problems — like global poverty, factory farming, and existential risk", I think we need to get much more politically involved. I actually think this has happened in EA already and I have sensed a big shift with the focus on AI where the focus on politics have become almost dominating. In short: I do not think you can incrementally get to a radically better world by only chipping away at the margin. That is not how I understand that many important changes came about in the past, whether democracies, women's voting rights, civil rights, etc. I do see radical changes having come about in e.g. medical science via incremental improvements, but if we removed all improvements historically that came about through less incremental changes, I think we would live in a significantly worse world. 

I agree that the ITN framework doesn't always fit well in political contexts, especially with tipping points and wider impacts in play.

This means we probably need to look at other ways of analyzing these situations. But regarding the notion that this perspective makes advocating for a ceasefire a better option on EA grounds, I'm not so sure. While you've pointed out some positive effects of a ceasefire, we shouldn't overlook the negatives. For example, a ceasefire would mean that Hamas continues to hold power in Gaza, which is an important factor to take into account.

Thanks for commenting!

I think there are two different things to figure out: 1) should we engage with the situation at all? and 2) if we engage, what should we do/advocate for?
I might be wrong about this, but my perception so far is that many EAs based on some ITN reasoning answer the first question with a no, and then the second question becomes irrelevant. My main point here is that I think it is likely that the answer to the first question could be yes?
For this specific case I personally believe that a ceasefire would be more constructive than the alternative, but even if you disagree with that this would not automatically mean that the best thing is not to engage at all. Or do you think it does?

Executive summary: The author argues against a naive application of the ITN framework to analyzing how to respond to the crisis in Gaza, instead advocating for low-effort political activism in support of a ceasefire.

Key points:

  1. The conflict's consequences may extend far beyond the immediate suffering, with impacts on international relations and mainstream societal values.
  2. For political issues, tractability depends on attention - so neglectedness matters less. The present conflict may be unusually tractable.
  3. Low-effort citizen actions like petitions and sharing reports can contribute at little cost. This is not clearly trading off causes.
  4. The author invites discussion on reasoning about engagement with political movements.


This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

This post seems to have gotten several downvotes. I hope they are from relatively-impartial readers.

Note to Israelis who may be reading this: I did not upvote/downvote this post and I do not intent to vote on such posts going forward. I think you should do the same.

Note to Israelis who may be reading this: I did not upvote/downvote this post and I do not intent to vote on such posts going forward. I think you should do the same.


You're free to vote (or refrain from voting) how you want, but the suggestion to others feels illiberal to me in a way that I think is problematic. Would you also suggest that any Palestinians reading this post refrain from voting on it? (Or, going a step further, would you suggest Kenyan EAs refrain from voting on posts about GiveDirectly?) Personally, I think both Israeli EAs and Palestinian EAs should feel comfortable voting on posts like this, and I'd worry about the norms in the community if we tell people not to vote/otherwise voice their perspective based on demographics (even more so if these suggestions are asymmetrical instead of universal).

I think the general question about voting norms w.r.t. conflicts of interest--and the more specific questions that are relevant here--are important and very hard, and I don’t think I currently have good/well-thought-through answers.

My current, tentative perspective/intuition/feelings on this is something like:

The point of this forum is to do good effectively. If the karma of a post on a sensitive topic is determined mostly by, say, the number of Israelis vs. number of Palestinians that are involved in the EA community (and have access to electricity + internet), that seems like a problem.

In the Guide to norms on the Forum (that is linked to from the about page) there is a section called Voting norm. It says:

Voting on a post helps to organize the Frontpage — it’s a signal of what you think would be useful for others to read in order to do more good — and provides feedback to the poster.

But then the guide lists things that users should not do, followed by the sentence "Other than that, you can vote using your preferred criteria." That list of things that users should not do does not seem to cover things like [casting votes that promote international legitimacy for the actions of my government in a deadly conflict that I have extreme emotions about].

Take for example this post titled "I'm a Former Israeli Officer. AMA". It seems to me reasonable to describe what the author did in that AMA as an attempt to promote 'pro-Israel propaganda'. So far the author never wrote anything on this forum (from that account) outside that AMA. That post currently has 64 karma points. Should Israelis feel welcome to strong-upvote such posts?

Finally, another relevant consideration: If we ask people to (not) vote in a particular way, but then we do not enforce that request, we can end up in a situation where only some users--ones that are more scrupulous than others--adhere to the request.

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