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The Zionist Worldview and the Pitfalls of Confirmation Bias: A Rebuttal to Gamaliel Isaac

by
Lawrence Davidson


 

A

mong the fallacies that get in the way of clear thinking there is one that is known as “confirmation bias.” Here is a common definition for this type of one dimensional thinking, “confirmation bias refers to a form of selective thinking that focuses on evidence that supports what the believers already believe while ignoring evidence that refutes their beliefs. Confirmation bias plays a stronger role when people base their beliefs upon faith, tradition and prejudice.” Actually, this is a quite common practice that seems to have all but taken over the thinking of Zionists, neo-conservatives, and the holy rollers of the religious right. Its most dangerous recent manifestation is the creation of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP) by the Bush administration. The job of the OSP is to search high and low for selective evidence that might support the hypotheses of those now in charge of our country. The OSP has worked hard to confirm our leaders a priori beliefs and, as a result, has given us such deadly bloopers as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and alleged partnership with Al Qaeda. Gamaliel Isaac is not in the same league as the OSP, but he certainly uses the same flawed thinking process.

Dr. Isaac is trying to demonstrate that charges of misconduct on the part of the Israelis in the Occupied Territories are false and malicious. Just like the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, he so firmly hold this belief that he just knows it has to be true. Thus, in his hunt for supporting proof, he inevitably sees what he wants to see. As a result he ends up with mostly selective, particularistic evidence, which then allows him to conclude that Israeli policies have not produced an occupation that has harmed the Palestinian people.

In addition Isaac steps forth with what sounds like a sensible and fair method for discerning the truth of his claims. He tells us that he will examine what both sides say and compare it to what “neutral observers have observed.” And, he speaks of the importance of verifying evidence and looking for contradictions and inconsistencies. Well, these are all nice words and I quite agree with his methodological goals. The problem is that he does not do what he says he is going to do in a convincing and satisfactory way. Indeed, his examination of the evidence is superficial and incomplete.

To put it simply, Dr. Isaac ignores the countervailing evidence that renders his particular cases either exceptions to a rule or possible examples of misinformation.  His ideological commitment to Zionism apparently prevents him from recognizing that weight of the evidence against his claims is so great that it does not matter if one or more of his examples are true. They simply do not add up to a body of data that outweighs contrary evidence. Therefore, they do not warrant the kind of definitive conclusions he draws from them. Alas, one must conclude that he has been led astray by “confirmation bias.”

 

The Examples

1. Dr. Isaac begins with an attempt to disprove “the allegation that Israelis imprison Palestinian students for non-violent dissent.” To accomplish this he refers to two incidents of Palestinian protest from 1984, the details of which can be found in his article. The Israeli response to these Palestinian demonstrations was allegedly restrained and considerate of civilian life and property. To verify this he cites a report on these incidents by observers (who witnessed only one of the incidents first hand) from two organizations, The World University Service and the International Commission of Jurists. Based on this scant evidence, Isaac draws the general conclusion that statements coming from the Israeli military about how they approach peaceful demonstrations in the Occupied Territories are more reliable than allegations of brutality and unwarranted arrests made by Palestinians.

I do not know who told the truth about the two particular incidents cited by Dr. Isaac. However, I do know that the great weight of evidence tells us that the Israeli government and its occupation forces not only often imprison and mistreat Palestinians, but they also imprison and mistreat internationals and Israeli citizens engaged in non-violent dissent. The Israeli military and police have repeatedly attacked, often without provocation, peaceful demonstrators (be they students or otherwise) particularly as relates to demonstrations around the Wall. Injuries are commonplace, as are arrests. Sometimes undercover police mingle with the protestors and, acting as agents provocateur, provoke violence. Reports of such police and army brutality come from eye witnesses, many of whom are Israelis. Reports of these attacks can be found in the Israeli press (the latest report came on April 29, 2005 in Ha’aretz in reference to the attack on demonstrators the previous day at Bil’in on the West Bank. Video of this incident, specifically addressing the issue of the Israeli use of agents provocateur, can be found at http://gush-shalom.org/video/bilin–4-5-05.html ) as well as by such organizations as Gush Shalom (which has recently documented the use of “painful plastic bullets covered with salt” used against peaceful demonstrations), Ta’yush, Women in Black , Machsom Watch and Israel’s own human rights organization B’tselem (which has repeatedly asserted that “Israeli security forces use of excessive force...against unarmed demonstrators.”) Finally, it should be noted that on the website of International Commission of Jurists, on whose judgment Isaac relies in this instance, can be found repeated condemnations of Israel’s “widespread and gross violations of human rights and international law.”

One should weigh the cumulative evidence supplied by these and other organizations, that have been observers of Israeli behavior in the Occupied Territories for years, with the scant and selective evidence provided by Dr. Isaac. The massive nature of that evidence, put forth by many organizations (many of them Israeli) that are considered to be reliable observers by all but the Zionist right and its supporters, successfully undermines Isaac’s assertion that the Israeli forces do not arrest and otherwise mistreat Palestinian (and other) non-violent protesters in the Occupied Territories.

Of course, I suspect that Dr. Isaac and other Zionists will argue that such sources are unreliable or that the literally hundreds of reports critical of Israeli behavior coming in fast and furious over many years are just the product of some anti-Semitic conspiracy. This is their “confirmation bias” surfacing. Counter evidence to their a priori beliefs, no matter how overwhelming and consistent it may be, is to be ignored or rationalized away. However, reasonable observers confronted with a pattern of evidence reported by multiple, independent and reliable sources over an extended period of time will agree that such proof has to be taken seriously.

 

2. Dr. Isaac’s second example has to do with the allegations that innocent Palestinians in Bethlehem have been bombed by the Israeli military, lethally attacked by armed settles in Hebron, and had their homes burned in the town of Nablus. According to the author these charges were made by the Voice of Palestine in October 2000. All three reports were supposedly investigated by a reporter for USA Today and found to be untrue.

I do not know if the particular incidents in Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus ever took place. However, it should be noted that the time in question marked the beginning of the second intifada during which, according to Human Rights Watch and B’tselem, Israeli forces used indiscriminate and lethal force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. Where then does the  weight of evidence take us?  

A) In the case of home demolitions, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has concluded in a January 24, 2004 report that “more than 10,000 houses were demolished since Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.” Amnesty International, in a report issued on May 18, 2004 documented the facts that “more than 3,000 homes, vast areas of agricultural land, and hundreds of other properties have been destroyed by the Israeli army and security forces in the Occupied Territories in the past three and a half years.”

B) As to the Israeli bombings of civilian targets. This has been going on since the creation of the state. Following the precedents laid down by the British and French in their own suppression of Arab revolts in Palestine and Syria, David Ben Gurion ordered “retaliatory” air strikes against refugee camps as early as 1953. Almost every prime minister since then has followed his example. Perhaps the best known recent incident of this sort of barbaric behavior is the dropping of a one ton bomb on a residential neighborhood in Gaza City in July of 2002. The Israelis were going after Salah Shehade, a resistance leader. In the process they managed to kill not only Shehade, but also 14 innocent people including nine children. This was no mistake, the Israelis knew the nature of their target area. It was rather the product of a conscious policy that discounts the death, injury and destruction of Arab civilian lives and property. As a consequence of such callousness 30 Israeli air force pilots now refuse to fly combat missions against Palestinian population centers. As one of them has put it, “we are air force pilots, not mafia.”  Dr. Isaac might claim that such Israeli bombings are a response to Palestinian terrorism (the Palestinians claim their violence is a response to Israeli terrorism), or made necessary because Palestinian resistence fighters hide out among the civilian population, but taking such positions would negate his suggestion that stories of Israeli atrocities of this sort are false.

C) And finally, In the case of attacks by armed Israeli settlers, Z Net, the web site of Z Magazine, has put together a revealing article on Israeli settler violence. It is by John Petrovato and is dated April 3, 2005. However, if this source is suspect to Zionists and their supporters we can go to an Israeli source. B’Tselem  characterizes the problem this way, “over the years settler attacks on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have become routine....from the beginning of the intifada, in late September 2000, to the end of 2004, Israeli civilians have killed thirty four Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.” B’Tselem goes on to comment that “all law enforcement agencies and judicial authorities demonstrate little interest in uncovering the substantial violence that Israeli civilians commit against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.”

On the topic of settler violence, it seems uncertain if Dr. Isaac really finds this behavior repulsive or criminal. In his essay he appears to justify the atrocity committed by Baruch Goldstein on the 25th of February 1994. On that date Goldstein walked into a Hebron mosque and shot dead 29 innocent worshipers. Isaac tries to explain Goldstein’s criminal act by telling us he was “radicalized” by Jewish deaths caused by terrorist acts and the anti-Israeli shouts of Palestinians. This sounds very much like the Hamas supporters who justify suicide bombings by pointing to the deaths of innocent Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers and the racist treatment many of them have experienced at the checkpoints.

Additional evidence speaking to Israel’s behavior in all of the above three categories can be had from organizations such as Rabbis for Human Rights, the American Friends Service Committee, and even the State Department’s yearly Country Reports. Once more the cumulative evidence undermining the positions taken by Dr. Isaac is overwhelming. One can ignore it or deny it only through a willful act of self-deception.           

 

3. Dr. Isaac’s third example of alleged misrepresentation of Israel’s policies and behavior has to do with Israel’s assault on the town of Jenin and its refugee camp. This attack began on April 9, 2002 and lasted nine days. 23 Israeli soldiers died and anywhere between 52 and 500 Palestinians. The latter number is hard to ascertain for reasons we will come to shortly.

The Palestinians claim that Israel massacred people in Jenin, and it is this claim that Dr. Isaac seeks to refute. Once more, however, he makes the mistake of relying on overly specific and thin evidence.  He calls into question the statements of Palestinians about damage done to the Jenin hospital and allegations of Israeli torture. He cites a French documentary that was made a full nine months after the invasion. He cites as evidence aerial images allegedly taken on the last day of the Israeli incursion and pictures from Israeli drones.  He accuses the Palestinians of staging scenes for reporters’ cameras and manufacturing atrocity stories.

It is, of course, possible that some Palestinians exaggerated or misled when reporting about what happened in Jenin. Just so, it is possible that the Israelis understated or misled when describing the consequences of their actions. As to the French documentary, it may be accurate or itself a piece of propaganda. In a long and drawn out conflict, with deep hatred felt on both sides, one can no doubt find any number of lies and exaggerations coming from all quarters. However, this once more misses the point. The real question is, what does the weight of evidence indicate about the nature of Israeli behavior in Jenin?  In the case of Jenin that evidence comes from recognized and respected international sources, as well as Israeli newspapers. Reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen (who described Israel’s invasion as “horrifying beyond belief” and “morally repugnant.”) indict Israel for its inhuman behavior in Jenin, whatever the final death count. Nor does one have to rely on these sources for verification of this behavior. One can turn to the Israeli press, such as the reports in Israel’s largest selling daily, Yedioth Ahronot, about the widespread use of armed bulldozers (manufactured by Caterpillar here in the United States) to demolish large numbers of houses with their occupants still inside. In reporting this the paper does not rely on Palestinian or UN sources but rather interviews the drivers of the bulldozers.

Israel’s government claimed that it had nothing to hide when it came to Jenin, but nonetheless it refused to let the United Nations come and investigate. When the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a fact-finding mission to be sent to Jenin to determine just who was telling the truth, the Israeli government prevented the mission from proceeding by demanding endless changes and adjustments to its personnel and mandate. It was a transparent and successful use of bureaucratic obstructionism to prevent what most neutral observers would agree was an attempt to objectively ascertain the truth. The short and incomplete report that was issued by the UN declared that there had been no massacre and only 52 Palestinians had died, but then added that its conclusions were based on mostly second hand  information because UN investigators could not go to Jenin to see for themselves or directly interview the people there.

On the subject of Jenin, Dr. Isaac goes on to assert that the Israeli army staged an invasion of the town, rather than bombarding it from the air or from distant artillery, just because of Israel’s humanitarian concerns. “The fact that the Israeli army endangered their own soldiers in Jenin in order to avoid killing civilians is a dramatic testament to the efforts of Israel to avoid hurting civilians.” I guess that Isaac actually believes this. You can convince yourself of just about anything by concentrating very hard on selective evidence, by cultivating a kind of tunnel vision that renders suspect or invisible any evidence that does not fit your set world view. Fortunately, there are many Israelis who are breaking through this mold and their testimonies are the best antidote to baseless claims such as this one. I recommend that Dr. Isaac consult a recently published (2003) collection of interviews with Israeli soldiers entitled, Breaking Ranks , edited by Ronit Chacham. It lays to rest the myth that Israel’s military constitutes a humanitarian force. To relate just one of the many condemnatory descriptions of Israeli military behavior related by these soldiers, “I refuse to be a terrorist in my tribe’s name. That is what this [Israeli action in the Occupied Territories] is, not a ‘war against terror’ as our propaganda machine tries to persuade us. This is a war of terror.” Of course, Dr. Isaac might claim that these Israeli soldiers, all of whom have served in Gaza or the West Bank, are traitors and thus not to be trusted. Yet, their numbers are growing. There are now over 1650 Israelis who openly refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

 

Flights of Fantasy

From this point on the Isaac’s claims become ever more bizarre. For instance, he denies that any Israeli occupation exists. (Some may conclude that occupation denial has the same bad odor as holocaust denial). What he wants us to believe is that the Jews ancient connection with Palestine justifies their modern displacement of the indigenous population. But then Dr. Isaac would object to the notion of displacement because he is sure that such a thing never took place.  After all, he tells us, “the majority of Arabs living in the ‘occupied’ areas are recent immigrants who immigrated there after the Jews created a thriving economy and made the desert bloom.” As evidence he uses statements from Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad as well as Ephraim Karsh and others. Mixed into this assertion of recent immigration, Isaac claims that the pre-Israel Palestinian population who were resident in the area did not have a sense of Palestinian national identity but saw themselves as part of a greater Arab nation.

The claim that a good part of the Palestinian population are recent immigrants is a far fetched myth produced by Joan Peters in a now discredited 1984 work entitled From Time Immemorial. The evidence she used to support this claim has been refuted by Norman Finkelstein in his book Image and Reality of the Israeli-Palestine Conflict (second edition 2003). Finkelstein has shown that Peter’s assertion in this regard constitutes an extravagant exaggeration of the movement of seasonal migrant labor. If Dr. Isaac will take the time to read Finkelstein (specifically chapter 2), and do so with the open mind he demands from others, he will see that, the immigration argument is completely bogus. I am sure Isaac will complain that Finkelstein is a self-hating Jew and traitor to his people, but never mind. Finkelstein’s destruction of the immigration argument is quite definitive.

For more evidence that there was a thriving Palestinian community and culture before 1948 one can consult the visual and other evidence available at www.Palestineremembered.com and Walid Khalidi’s massive collection of photos in Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948.

The assertion that, because nomadic tribes of monotheistic persuasion were roaming about the Palestine area thousands of years ago, twentieth century Jews have the right to ethnically cleanse the same region of its Arab population is ludicrous on the face of it. If Jews claim that God is somehow making them do this or sanctioning it all, then what are we to make of the values espoused by the Jewish religion? Nor, is the fact that Palestinian nationalism is a relatively recent development (largely arising in conjunction with modern Jewish nationalism) any excuse for the brutal behavior of Zionists. A certain moral blindness is needed to take these sort of arguments seriously. Even if these myths and biblical fables were true (and there is no hard evidence they are) is he actually trying to tell us that they excuse the destruction of a society and its way of life?

Dr. Isaac can get away (at least in his own eyes) with this perversity because he simply does not believe that Zionists are devastating an entire people and its culture. Indeed, using the selective and questionable data of hard line Zionists like Efraim Karsh, the author asserts that, up until the outbreak of the intifadas, Israel had actually turned at least the West Bank into a prosperous economic community--much better off then they were under Jordan. (If the Israelis had improved the lives of Palestinians so dramatically, one wonders why they have so energetically rebelled?)  In addition, he quotes Menahem Milson, who was once the civil administrator of the West Bank, to the effect that Israeli occupation (the same occupation that Isaac suggests does not to exist) is more culturally benign than the American occupation of Japan. Switching over to Shlomo Gazit, who was head of the Israeli Military Government in the Occupied Territories from 1967 to 1974, Isaac cites the old argument that Israel is in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only because it has been forced to be there for its own security. To back this claim he quotes a few lines from “a memorandum for the Secretary of Defense by the Joint Chiefs of Staff” that concurs with this judgment.

Karsh and Gazit are hardly the “neutral observers” that the author promised us at the beginning of his essay. And, I will leave it to the readers to figure out whose side the Joint Chiefs are on. As to the economic situation in the Occupied Territories, the weight of evidence from observers considered reliable by most, tell a different story than Isaac and his selective sources. Prior to the intifadas there was employment improvement due to the Israeli economic policy of using the Palestinians as a cheap labor pool. But this did not result in economic development and hardly created “a thriving economy.” Why not? Here is how Shlomo Avineri, past Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains it, “Israeli GNP per capita is 20 times as high as that in the Palestinian territories....A common Israeli-Palestinian economic space cannot be based on equal...cooperation, but only on a...hierarchical relationship which at best would make the Palestinian state a virtual Bantustan on Israel’s doorstop. One can see why Israeli industrialists were eager to have a cheap, non-unionized, docile Palestinian labor force at their disposal.” What is true for a prospective Palestinian state was certainly true for occupied territories.  In 1985 then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin described Israel’s economic policy toward the Palestinians this way, “There will be no development in the Occupied Territories initiated by the Israeli government, and no permits given for expanding agriculture or industry which may compete with the State of Israel.” The result was the cessation of what little Palestinian economic growth had been allowed up until that time.

For post intifada years we can look at the seven World Bank reports on poverty in the West Bank and Gaza issued between 2001 and 2004 which tell us demonstrate that “an estimated two million Palestinians live in poverty, dependent on aid agencies, with 60% living on less than $2 per day and 22% of children under five suffering acute or chronic malnutrition.” The accuracy of this picture is confirmed by reports of the UN Special Coordinator in the Occupied Territories; the International Monetary Fund comprehensive reports on the economy in the West Bank and Gaza; the reports of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN on the “rapidly deteriorating food situation” in the Occupied Territories; and additional information provided by US AID, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for International Emergency, Disaster, and Refugee Studies, and the well respected organization CARE. All of these show without question that the economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is bad and getting worse every year, and that this situation is due in large part to Israeli policies.

Finally, is it really security that has brought the Israelis into the Occupied Territories and kept them there for the past 38 years? Most Israelis and their diaspora supporters will reply to this question with a simple formulaic answer: all Palestinians are potential terrorists seeking the destruction of Israel. Terrorists come from the Occupied Territories and so Israel must control these areas. This simplistic analysis completely ignores the repeated Palestinian efforts to secure a compromise peace with Israel leading to a two state solution based on Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 Green Line. Such a withdrawal would end the occupation and remove the major cause of violence against Israel. Even Hamas’ leaders have suggested that this is the case. To this end, in 1988, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders (which negated its charter statement seeking a Palestinian state in all of Palestine), subsequently it has accepted most of the international and American overtures for negotiations, signed the Oslo and Geneva agreements, and still knocks on the door of the Israeli leadership whose desire for peace is much more suspect than that of the Palestinians.

These efforts on the part of the Palestinians are rationalized away by Zionists who prefer to live with their myths (such as Barak’s “generous offer”) and fantasies (such as the notion that Palestinians are latter day Nazis). They ring their hands over the threats from Hamas as if that organization, or any other group of Palestinians even be they allied with Israel’s Arab neighbors, could actually muster the power to “kick the Jews into the sea.” There is no intelligence service outside of Jerusalem which really believes this can happen. No military engagement (including those of 1948) has ever come close to suggesting this scenario was or is possible. And, let us keep in mind, that thanks to enormous and continuous US military aid, Israel is ranked somewhere between the fourth and seventh strongest power on the globe. Indeed, it is the Palestinians who are being slowly but surely kicked out of their land, not the Israelis. The truth is that the occupation does not make Israel secure, it is in fact the source of the country’s insecurity.

If Israelis want peace and security they must allow peace and security for the Palestinians within a viable state. But they won’t do this because many of them, and that includes both the Labor Party and the Zionist right (to say nothing of the settler lunatic fringe) do not want peace at all. They want the land. That is why Israeli governments have spent 38 years making the lives of millions of Palestinians miserable while dancing around most of the international peace initiatives (as well as violating the spirit of those few they have engaged in). That is why they have illegally moved hundreds of thousands of colonists into the Occupied Territories. No rational and independent observer would conclude that the placement of over 200,000 colonists in hostile territory amidst millions of Palestinians is a sane policy for the promotion of Israeli national security.

Since the Zionists have seen fit to colonize the Occupied Territories in a manner that threatens the indigenous population with, at best ghettoization and an apartheid existence, and at worst forced expulsion, it is sheer hypocrisy for them to cry foul when suffering the consequences of the inevitable resistance of their victims. For, despite Dr. Isaac’s blindness to this fact, occupied people have a right to resist. One may debate the wisdom of some of their tactics, but the inherent right of resistance is only denied by oppressors and their supporters. It is the Palestinians who are the victims of Zionist expansionism and not the other way around. And, in the process the Israelis have terrorized the Palestinian population. That they are now terrorized in turn is but a reflection of the sorry truth that the violence of the oppressed usually rises to the level of the violence of the oppressor. 

 

Conclusion 

I began this rebuttal by explaining that one can affirm one’s a priori beliefs by concentrating on the selective evidence that supports them. This is what all ideologues do whether they are driven by political, religious, or ethnic obsessions. When such people gain power their policies usually lead to oppression, violence, destruction, and death. Democracy is not a sure remedy for this problem because, as we saw in US election of November of 2004, it is often possible to fool most of the people most of the time.

In the 20th century two world wars were fought by leaders with one or another form of obsession supported by selective evidence. The second war almost wiped out European Jewry. So traumatic were these wars that they resulted in a series of rules for the behavior of nations in war and in peace. These are incorporated into international treaties such as the Geneva conventions and Hague conventions. Such treaties represent rare moments of international sanity.  Most of Israel’s activities in the Occupied Territories (the colonization, the vast majority of the house demolitions, the destruction of fields and wells, violence against civilians, the building of a ghetto/apartheid wall, and most of all the insatiable stealing of land) are illegal under these treaties. Israel and the United States, having taken on the role of 21st century Prussians, might now disparage these agreements. However, to throw them over in favor of policies driven by ideology, religion or ethnicity is criminal folly that recasts the world stage for future decades of death and destruction.

Dr. Isaac seems not to understand any of this. His world appears to be one-dimensional and the defining parameters of that world are the rigid, ethnocentric, and all inconclusive demands of Zionist ideology. To justify that small and closed world he has resorted to believing only the selective evidence that confirms his biases. I recommend that, if possible, he step back from that practice and consider the possibility that Zionism has not saved the Jews, but rather brought them to the edge of moral disaster. From this point the Jews can go one of two ways: continue on the present Zionist-inspired path into a future of insecurity, fear, paranoia, and increasingly brutal violence where might makes right and ends justify means. Or, they can harken to that old Talmudic saying, “By three things is the world sustained: by truth, by judgement, and by peace.” That requires the vision to see the truth of one’s own sins as well as others, the objectivity to judge when compromise is needed, and a sincere desire for peace for all who reside in Israel/Palestine. Which path has Dr. Isaac chosen?

 

Lawrence Davidson is a frequent contributor to Logos and is Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West Chester, PA. He is author of two recent books: Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003) and America's Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001). He also has written over twenty published articles on US perceptions of and policies toward the Middle East.

 


Logos 4.2 - spring 2005
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