The war between Israel and Hamas has claimed tens of thousands of lives, of which the majority are non-combatant Palestinians, including women and children, in addition to tens of thousands wounded. The world is grieving for these civilians caught in the violent crossfire, and masses of people are demanding a ceasefire. 

It is curious to see those masses pointing the finger at Israel as the responsible party and calling for the Israeli army to suspend the war rather than putting pressure on Hamas to disarm and surrender their hostages. Psychology research can help explain some of this.

Most people have different reactions to direct vs. indirect forms of killing. This is illustrated through variations of the “Trolley Problem,” a well-known hypothetical thought exercise used by psychologists and philosophers to study ethical judgments. Participants imagine a runaway train speeding out of control toward five people who are about to be struck and killed. Participants are told that there is an option to flip a switch, which will divert the train away, but one innocent bystander will be killed in the process. While some express discomfort with this option, surveys have consistently shown that most people consider flipping the switch ethically justified.

But in an alternative version, rather than flipping a switch to divert the trolley, participants imagine shoving a large man into its path, disabling it before it reaches the five other people while killing the large man in the process. Most people are much more uncomfortable with this option. Pushing the large man onto the tracks feels unethical compared to flipping a switch. Some neuroimaging studies have shown that these two scenarios activate different regions of the brain, suggesting that participants experience them differently on an emotional and cognitive level.

Perhaps we perceive them differently because the second scenario depicts direct killing, while in the first scenario, the killing is indirect. Pulling a lever that diverts the train is more distant from the carnage compared to making direct contact with the victim’s body.

But many utilitarians insist (and I agree) that in both cases, the outcome is precisely the same, and the intention is the same, so our ethical judgment should be the same. Having different psychological responses to such similar situations is illogical and contradictory. It doesn’t make sense to excuse killing someone through indirect methods.

This helps us better understand the reactions worldwide to Hamas’ immoral military tactics, which include indirectly killing their own people while taking advantage of human psychology to gain popular support. They have committed intentional (albeit indirect) mass violence toward Gazans by embedding themselves within densely populated civilian areas, including hospitals, schools, and mosques, as they battle the Israeli army, ensuring that innocents will be caught in the crossfire. 

Hamas also reportedly blocked civilians who were attempting to flee from the war zone and forced them to remain in North Gaza, showing Hamas’ desire to raise the Palestinian civilian death toll. But they aren’t doing the killing directly. The Israeli army is. This is part of Hamas’ deliberate, explicitly stated strategy to provoke an intense response from the Israeli military that would claim massive Palestinian casualties and spark a larger war in the region. 

Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas leader, said as much in an October interview: “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.” 

Because Hamas’ intentional violence toward Gazans is indirect (like flipping the trolley switch), many are slow to judge it as immoral. Instead, millions view Israel as primarily responsible for the civilian deaths.

Furthermore, Hamas also can put an end to the war and stop civilian deaths in Gaza immediately. This would require them to surrender, disarm and release the Israeli hostages, which would eliminate the need for more conflict from the Israeli side. 

A morally just Palestinian leadership would seek to reduce the suffering of its own people. But Hamas’ goal is to continue the fighting, no matter the humanitarian cost. As experts have noted, there should be more public pressure on Hamas to end the war and spare the remaining Palestinians further suffering. It is hoped they will come to their senses and stop the fighting soon.