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Weakness and Strength

July 25, 2014

Haviv Rettig Gur, a political correspondent and analyst for The Times of Israel and an alumnus of Tikvah’s advanced institute “American Grand Strategy”, has written one of the deepest analyses of the forces at work in the latest war between Israel and Hamas. Building off an observation that Hamas sees itself as something very similar to the anti-colonial Algerians, Gur points out that the Jews of Israel are not the French occupiers. Unlike the French in Algeria, “Israel’s Jews have a shared sense of national history and identity, a narrative of ancient belonging in the land and a language spoken nowhere else… [and, of course,] Israelis have nowhere else to go.”

So we must ask: What happens when the anticolonial strategy of terrorism is employed against an indigenous national identity? Or more bluntly, what happens when you send a suicide bomber to murder the innocent children of a tribe that does not believe it has anywhere else to go? The response to such violence is the very opposite of the colonialist’s: instead of flight, war.

Hamas’s campaigns of terror have not caused the Jews to leave, but rather have strengthened and unified Israeli. Gur notes that Israel has not had a consensus of this magnitude on the Palestinian dilemma in decades. Gur continues:

But alongside this bravado, Hamas’s most fundamental strategy is to magnify and exploit Palestinian weakness and suffering. In Qatar last week, Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal spoke of starvation in Gaza. Hamas has committed to continuing the fighting and rejected a cease fire proposal that was backed by the Arab League and already accepted by Israel — while decrying Israel’s “aggression” as responsible for the suffering in Gaza. It speaks with pathos about Palestinian victims — while declaring that it is the Israelis, not the Gazans, who are cowering in fear.
For Israelis, the mingled sensations of power and vulnerability are rooted in the mixed legacy of their history. For Palestinians, the tension between the narrative of victimhood and the ideology of ultimate, violent victory produces a similar contradictory rhetoric.
And both sides understand profoundly the usefulness of this mixture of weakness and power. In a war where decisive military victory may prove elusive, the contest over victimhood has become a contest over strategic maneuvering room.
Hamas’s greatest – and arguably only – strategic advantage over Israel is Palestinian weakness and suffering. It is the only pressure that the organization can bring to bear to limit Israeli responses to the group’s terror attacks.
For Israel, international sympathy for the plight of Israeli civilians caught in the rocket fire, or in past years in the blast radius of a bus bombing, similarly translates into the political window it needs for an effective military response.
It is a strange logic, but one that seems to fit this strange sort of conflict, where one must seem weak to be able to use one’s power, but also simultaneously powerful to have any hope of influencing the other side’s calculations.
In the end, when all is said and done, it is Israel that has the upper hand. This is not because of its economic or military supremacy, which are effectively neutralized as a deterrent by Hamas’s sheer willingness to suffer, and to have fellow Palestinians suffer alongside it. Nor is it because Israel has been particularly effective in fighting the global public-relations fight so critical to the conduct of this sort of war. It isn’t even because of Israelis’ measurable and remarkable psychological resilience in the face of indiscriminate rocket fire.
Rather, Israel’s supreme advantage in this war lies in the enemy’s own misunderstanding. The entire edifice of Hamas as an organization, together with its affiliates, allies and ideological fellow travelers, is built to fight a particular kind of war with a very specific sort of enemy. The tragic and ongoing catastrophe that is Gaza will not be healed until the Palestinian national movement starts seeing Israelis for what they are, a flawed but rooted people living in its home, rather than what the Palestinians wish they were, sunburned Frenchmen in a land not their own.

Read the whole thing.

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