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Hamas vs. Israel: Who Won?

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From a conventional military standpoint, there is no question: Israel won, hands down. The barrage of rockets Hamas rained down over Israel (more than 4,000) could be considered a giant waste of resources. They did not even dent Israel’s military capabilities, caused few casualties, and did nothing to advance Hamas’s primary cause: the establishment of a Palestinian state. Arguably, the campaign massively backfired in that Israel inflicted tremendous damage on Gaza, with buildings destroyed, tunnels collapsed and lives lost.

But from another standpoint—terrorism—Hamas’s campaign was brilliantly successful.

But first, we need to define terrorism, and for that, I’m going to rely on Thomas Perry Thornton’s classic 1964 essay, “Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitation,” the first to analyze terrorism as a “rational tool,” as opposed to the act of “the mad and the bad,” to use a nineteenth-century description of anarchists and Irish nationalists. Terrorism’s distinguishing characteristic is “its extranormal quality; that is terror lies beyond the norms of violent political agitation that are accepted by a given society.”

By that definition, Hamas’s tactic—lobbing thousands of unguided rockets into Israel—definitely qualifies as terrorism. Odd as it may sound, there are rules to warfare, and civilians are supposed to be out of bounds (as much as possible). Obviously, launching rockets into cities to land randomly is “beyond the norms” of conventional warfare.

So why did Hamas respond as they did? Surely they knew that their rocket campaign would not damage the Israeli military, that the Iron Dome system would intercept most of their rockets, and that Israel would respond with overwhelming force. Surely they knew that storing and firing weapons from densely populated areas, including, hospitals, schools, and mosques, would lead to Israel’s striking supposedly off-limits targets as well as civilian casualties.

Several reasons explain Hamas’ actions.

First, one of terrorism’s primary goals is “to make life unendurable for the enemy,” to quote Brian Crozier (who also coined the phrase, “Terrorism is a weapon of the weak”). That clearly happened. Every time Hamas launched a barrage, the sirens went off and Israelis rushed into bomb shelters. While the damage in property and lives caused by Hamas’s attacks was relatively small, Hamas nonetheless created a widespread atmosphere of fear that made everyday life impossible. One could never be far from a bomb shelter, because one never knew when and where a rocket might land.

Second, terrorism is not so much a military tactic as a pubic relations tool. The point is not to kill as many of the enemy as possible, but to broadcast a message, to tell their side of the story. By that standard, Hamas’s bombing campaign succeeded brilliantly.

Terrorism is not so much a military tactic as a pubic relations tool. The point is not to kill as many of the enemy as possible, but to broadcast a message, to tell their side of the story. By that standard, Hamas’s bombing campaign succeeded brilliantly.

In 2020, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put forward a peace plan that all but ignored the Palestinian question, and Netanyahu was more than happy to play along. For a while, Kushner’s strategy seemed to work with the four Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco) that established diplomatic relations with Israel. The greater danger posed by Iran seemed to eclipse the Palestinian issue, allowing Netanyahu to continue establishing settlements in the West Bank without interference.

But the eleven-day rocket barrage from Hamas radically changed that calculation by placing the Palestinian question front and center. The world’s attention was now rivetted on Gaza, not on Iran and its supposed nuclear ambitions.  For eleven days, the fight between the Palestinians and Israel was the lead story for The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, The Guardian, and other media outlets, and nearly every story featured a section on Palestinian grievances.

Even further, the world sided with Hamas. To give a few examples, comedian and pundit, John Oliver, delivered a lengthy tirade against Israel, repeatedly accusing the state of war crimes while ignoring Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he was “furious” at Israel airstrikes but neglected to mention what caused them. A Facebook ad from Amnesty International features a photo of an Israeli bomb going off in Gaza and promotes their campaign “for an IMMEDIATE end to arms sales to Israel” (but says nothing about Hamas’s own arms). Statement after statement from higher education across the world denounced Israel and supported Hamas in equal measure.  Faculty from 19 North Carolina colleges and universities “strongly condemn[ed] Israeli attacks on historic Palestine” and expressed their “solidarity with the Palestinian people in their just struggle for liberation.” Students from Goldsmiths University, London, condemned “the escalating violence committed by Israeli Occupation forces on Palestinian citizens of Gaza” (again, without mentioning Hamas’s indiscriminate bombing).

Now that a ceasefire has taken effect, world leaders have unanimously said that resolving the conflict is their first priority. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres tweeted that Israeli and Palestinian leaders “have a responsibility beyond the restoration of calm to start a serious dialogue to address the root causes of the conflict.” President Joe Biden reiterated that he remains “committed” to the two-state solution because it is “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and, of course, the only way to give the Palestinians the state to which they’re entitled.”  Secretary of State Antony Blinken has just embarked on a diplomatic mission to rebuild ties with Palestinians.

So Hamas’s terror campaign not only got the world’s attention; it has the world’s sympathies. Their narrative dominates. But there’s more.

So Hamas’s terror campaign not only got the world’s attention; it has the world’s sympathies. Their narrative dominates. But there’s more.

Hamas’s terror campaign also unleashed a wave of antisemitism. Across the world, Jews have been attacked by people supposedly outraged by Israel’s actions in Gaza. In North London, a caravan went through a Jewish neighborhood with someone shouting “F— the Jews! Rape their daughters!” Numerous synagogues in the United States have been vandalized (e.g., Tucson, Salt Lake City, and Skokie). In Germany, an orthodox Jew who is idly standing in front of museum is kicked by a man while the person recording the incident laughs.

In “Munich”, Stephen Spielberg’s movie about the 1972 Olympics Massacre, a Palestinian terrorist says that their goal is to “make the whole planet unsafe for Jews.” That is exactly what the Hamas terror barrages have done: they have gone beyond enlisting sympathy for the Palestinian cause to unleashing a wave of hatred against Jews to the point where many Jews no longer feel safe publicly acknowledging their religion.

The problem Israel needs to confront is that terrorism cannot be defeated militarily. In every conflict between David and Goliath, between conventional and asymmetric warfare, asymmetric David always wins, partly because terrorism’s larger goal is not military victory, but narrative dominance. If Israel is to survive, the country’s leaders need to change their strategy, because using overwhelming force just isn’t working.


Peter C. Herman’s books include “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11,” and “Critical Contexts: Terrorism and Literature.” His opinion pieces have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Areo, Inside Higher Ed, and Times of San Diego. 

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