While there is no shortage of venom heaped on Israel’s Gaza incursion, and plenty of chicken vs egg discussion of who started this mess, there is scant acknowledgement of one basic truth: that this war, with its civilian deaths and horrible infrastructure damage, is the desired outcome of carefully thought out strategies by both Hamas and the Israelis. The two sides are fighting two different wars, which happen to intersect in the streets and alleys of Gaza.
Hamas: The Picture War
In studying guerrilla groups and strategies for my novel, The Army of the Republic, it became apparent that guerrilla or terrorists groups are not usually fighting a war of conquest or military victory, but rather, a propaganda war, designed to discredit their enemy and to polarize the population. Hamas’ quixotic launching of rockets is decried either as the desperate gesture of a captive people or as the suicidal expression of hatred by irrational religious fanatics. In fact, it’s a pre-meditated strategy with defined political ends.
Hamas does not launch rockets because it hopes to defeat Israel militarily or to improve conditions in the Gaza Strip. It launches rockets for the purpose of provoking a reaction. Hamas is telling a story, and they are using bullets and bodies to tell that story. Their narrative is that Israelis are blood-thirsty child-killers who blow up mosques and schools, engaging in sadistic “collective punishment.” For this reason they intentionally store explosives in mosques and launch mortar rounds without regard to the civilian casualties that return fire will cause. With Israel blocking foreign journalists, Hamas controls the picture war. You will rarely see an image of a Hamas militant holding a weapon or launching a rocket. Instead, the media is full of images of dead and bleeding children, the blame for which falls heavily on the Israelis, especially in the Arab world. We may know it’s a complex situation, but a horrific image of a dead child provokes revulsion towards whoever fired the shot. In the war between words and pictures, pictures usually win.
In the short term, Hamas’ purpose is to isolate Israel diplomatically, turn world opinion against it and to further polarize Middle Eastern opinion against Israel and against moderate Arab regimes. They also want to raise their profile as heroic defenders of the Palestinian cause. Their long-term goal is to weaken Israel enough diplomatically so that it can eventually be defeated and destroyed militarily. Thus, in the twisted logic of jihad and martyrdom, every dead child is a victory for Hamas, bitter as it may be.
Not that Hamas is composed of inhuman monsters. Certainly their own family members are among the dead and wounded, and their own homes are being destroyed. But for an absolutist mindset locked in a Great Struggle against Pure Evil, such sacrifices, or even death, are part of a stirring narrative in which they are the heroic protagonists, paving the way for future victory. For those who have no hope of anything else, this is the struggle which gives life meaning.
Israel: The Memory War
From the Israeli side, the desire is to implant in the memory of present and future border states that they will not tolerate harassment by irregular forces who operate under cover of civilian populations. While Israel is often portrayed as the bully, a country of 7 million beating up on a poverty-stricken Palestinian population of nearly 4 million (including the Gaza Strip), the Israelis see themselves as being surrounded by much larger hostile nations such as Syria (pop. 20 million) and Iran (pop. 66 million) who have been inveterately opposed to Israel since its creation and who now use the Gaza Strip and Lebanese border area as forward beachheads in a war of harassment, attrition and, potentially, invasion. For this reason, and others, Israel is loathe to give up its grip on either Gaza or the West Bank, and has walled, partitioned and controlled them to the point where they can’t function as states. If Israel is going to live cheek by jowl with their enemies, as any ultimate settlement with the Palestinian Authority will necessitate, they want it crystal-clear what the consequences of trying to harass the Israeli state with terrorism and irregular forces will be. This war is both to deal with the present harassment of Hamas, and with any harassment that future enemies may consider.
The paradox is that as the world laments the loss of life in Gaza, both sides are successfully pursuing their respective strategies. It’s hard to tell which strategy, if either, will be the ultimate winner. It is, however, easy to see who the losers are.