A data-driven history of U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict

The Arab-Israeli conflict may be one of the most infamous political histories across the world, and for good reason. Each dimension of this complex series of events carries its own actors and narratives, all of which cannot be neatly reconciled together. My U.S.-Middle East Relations history course and a recent trip to Israel and Palestine have begun to educate and sensitize me to this topic, and I’ve come out wanting to learn more.

One specific dimension outlined in Sowing Crisis by Rashid Khalidi is the increasing U.S. involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past 75 years as it evolved into Israel’s closest ally. The U.S. may not always get the credit it is due in supporting Israel and its repression of the Palestinian people, so I set out to find new insights from this story through a data-focused lens. Check out the final project here.

The Data

The most quantitative and accessible source of data to tell this story is the foreign aid given to Israel and Palestine by the United States government over the course of the conflict, as this economic and military support is crucial for countries in successfully enacting their policies. The United States Agency for International Development has a Foreign Aid Explorer from which I accessed data on aid given to Israel and Palestine through the 20th and 21st centuries, broken down by the category of aid, the agency involved, and more.

However, aid does not fully encapsulate the level of support given to a country at war. I also wanted to visualize a timeline history alongside this foreign aid in order to provide a historical and political context to the reader. This includes historical events in the Palestinian region such as the various Arab-Israeli wars and various actions taken by the U.S. government in relation to the region involved. Historical events were sourced from the following article published by The Guardian, while U.S.-specific events were sourced from the following article published by Reuters. Qualitative descriptions like this of course will be baked in with biases, but these two articles were chosen based on descriptions that had the following qualities: political balance (relatively), simplicity and context given in explanations, and only larger and fewer events described (too many smaller events would crowd up the timeline and overwhelm the reader).

The Design Process

I started out the design with a few goals: to visualize a historical timeline of the conflict, a comparison of Israeli and Palestinian aid over time, and a comparison of military vs. economic aid given to each country.

The first design exploration introduced the concept of the X-axis functioning as a classic timeline but also acting as the X-axis for a graph visualizing aid amounts. This allowed for a clean integration of the events on the timeline and the aid points into a single chart. The timeline events were the larger bubbles along the X-axis, while the smaller points represented the amount of aid given in each year. The large circle represented the breakdown of the aid in that year (shown here to be fully economic) when hovering on a specific aid point.

Design Exploration 1

Using a scatter plot of unconnected aid points on the chart meant it was harder to see the larger trends of change in aid, which was the main goal of the visualization. I then switched from a scatter plot of points to a filled line chart with the aid points connected that would make it easier to see the larger trends over the decades in how aid was changing.

Design Exploration 2

This change helped in the expected manner, but there were still issues remaining. Having to hover on each point in order to see the breakdown between military and economic aid that year means that it would be harder for the reader to understand how this breakdown changed over time, as they would have to remember what the pie chart looked like the previous year while looking at the current year. Thus, I abandoned the idea of a pie chart appearing with aid breakdowns each year, and instead explored a stacked chart with economic and military aid stacked on top of one another.

Design Exploration 3

This stacked chart helped in more quickly and easily visualizing and understanding how military aid changed in comparison to economic aid without having to hover over points. The reader can see the sharp rise in military aid and a steady decline in economic aid given to Israel, showing a change in focus on military relations that help support conflict and ultimately violence. Also, the reader can see how Palestinian aid was almost entirely economic in breakdown, emphasizing a bias in military support in two opposing sides of a conflict.

Further Design Changes Included:

  • General Arab-Israeli events were distinguished from events specifically dealing with U.S. involvement through the use of color and size. Size was important in order to deal with overlap in the bubbles on the timeline that were associated with the same year.
  • A legend was added in order for the reader to clearly understand the meaning of each colors on the chart, as multiple dimensions of information are displayed here.
  • On hovering on timeline events, a description appears at the top explaining relevant context for that year. Originally, this description would appear in the top left corner of the screen, regardless of what year was hovered on. However, I changed the description position to move relatively along with the year so that it would be directly above the point in case the point was too far along the horizontal axis to be seen in the same original fixed position.
  • Palestinian aid and Israeli aid were put on mirroring sides of the Y-axis instead of the same axis. One drawback of this decision would be that it is harder to directly compare aid values between the two countries when they are not overlaid on the same axis. However, separating the two helped to make the visualization more clear since Palestinian aid is so small and hard to notice in front of the Israeli chart. Furthermore, the difference is so vast and extreme that direct comparison is not necessarily even necessary in order to make the point. Overall, the benefits of this decision outweighed the drawbacks.
  • I added interactivity to the total aid points so that the reader could specifically see the exact amount of aid if they chose to, especially since visually recognizing the amounts on the Y-axis is not easy for the reader without grid lines and numbers. The main goal of the visualization was to see an overall comparison and general trend, but this was added for those who would be more interested. Values for economic or military aid alone were not included because I did not believe those individual ones to be as important compared since the relative amounts of the total can be visually seen.

Finally, after presenting to my class and receiving feedback from critics, I made some more polishes to the design:

  • I updated the color scheme from green for economic and red for military to orange for economic and red for military. Green could denote a more positive tone, whereas both economic and military aid can have similar effects, although military will be more extreme in perpetuating violence. For that reason, orange and red were used to keep the two types of aid in the same family of colors, as they both serve the same goal of supporting a country. (Note: color palettes were chosen from the following Google Material Design resource)
  • The typography was updated to a serif font to give more of an informational, serious, and newspaper-like feel. The colors were also darkened in general to give a more serious tone that reflected the subject matter.
  • The timeline originally started by including dates from 1917 onwards. I had done this to include historical events that were crucial to the development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, even though this was decades before the State of Israel was formed and receiving aid. However, this meant that a large portion of the timeline was empty of data since aid did not start for Israel until 1951. I decided to forego the few events before the 40s in order to make the timeline and data more clear. Bias could also be involved in what events were included before the data started.
Final design

Future Direction

  • There are events that are potentially linked to changes in aid that might be more painstaking for the readers to deduce themselves. For example, unexpected Arab victories in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War may have caused a wake-up call to U.S. agencies that led to subsequent spikes in military aid given to Israel.
  • The data provided by USAID is more nuanced than just economic vs. military aid, providing more information on the aid amounts such as the agency that authorized it (i.e. Department of Defense), what project the aid is defined for (i.e. Conflict, Peace & Security). It would be interesting to take a deeper dive into these dimensions of the dataset.
  • Israel and Palestine are not the only companies involved in this conflict. Looking at aid given by the U.S. to other relevant actors such as Egypt and Jordan would be interesting, i.e. aid given to Egypt may have played an important role after the 1978 Camp David Accords where the U.S. brokered a peace deal between Egypt and Israel.

Conclusion

What I learned about data visualization through my process:

  • How to use P5.js to visualize data points, to draw lines and points in order so that they will on the correct Z-index order, to use certain colors to evoke certain responses
  • How to use data to tell a story in the most intuitive way for the reader, giving full context of the subject matter, only showing what needs to be shown, while also leaving room for interaction and further exploration

What I concluded about the Arab-Israeli conflict from my exploration:

  • The United States has been closely tied with Israel, and foreign aid can show this relationship alongside important events of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The aid developed and increased over time as the U.S. shifted towards a more involved role in Middle East relations, using Israel as a regional policeman to enact their foreign policy and maintain their influence on the rest of the neighboring states. Israel is now the top recipient of aid by the U.S., and it has been given up to $4.8 billion directly from the U.S. government.
  • Aid to Israel shifted from originally only economic to primarily military in nature. A shift can be seen in the chart to more and more military aid being given through the 70s onwards, alongside a decline in economic aid. This adds to the narrative that the U.S. is more strongly supporting the use of force in addressing Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, and less about the economic development of an already rich country.
  • Palestinian aid from the U.S. began more than three decades after Israeli aid after many wars and events had passed. Aid to Palestine is devastatingly dwarfed by Israeli aid, now about six times less than the latter. This is striking given the fact that Palestine deals with a refugee crisis and is in need of much more humanitarian assistance as a developing country with many economic and human rights violations conducted by Israeli state.
  • Palestinian aid is also almost entirely economic, not military, showing a clear bias from the U.S. in the current conflict between the two sides that often results in a skewed devastation of the Palestinian land and people.

References