ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Analysis

A wounded, weakened Israel is a fiercer one

The assault on Israeli towns was as cruel as Hamas could make it, and every agonizing minute was broadcast to Israelis as a message and a humiliation. Now comes the Israeli answer

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

A home in Ashkelon damaged by a rocket fired by terrorists from the Gaza Strip, October 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/ Flash90)
A home in Ashkelon damaged by a rocket fired by terrorists from the Gaza Strip, October 7, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/ Flash90)

It was a horror, interminable, impossible. Hour after hour, families sat huddled in their homes awaiting rescue from the Hamas gunmen streaming through their towns and villages.

Families were butchered in cold blood. In one home, a terrorist shot the parents dead, took a child’s cellphone and started broadcasting it all in a livestream on their Facebook account. Grandmothers were pulled in wheelchairs to waiting vehicles ready to carry them as hostages into Gaza. Then came the mothers carrying babies. Footage circulated on social media, put there by Hamas, of an Israeli child asking his mother if the gunmen that surrounded them were going to kill them. “They said they won’t,” the mother replied as they were taken outside to some unknown fate.

The stream of videos didn’t stop. An IDF soldier’s body was paraded in Gaza. A young woman, bleeding, was pulled by the hair from a car after being kidnapped and taken into the Strip. And all of it was broadcast by Hamas to the world in joyful pride, sparking celebrations in Tehran, Ramallah and no small part of the online pro-Palestinian activist world.

And all the while came the stream of messages on Twitter and WhatsApp from Israelis still surrounded by the roving gunmen, friends and relatives begging for a rescue that never came.

Hour after agonizing hour.

Where was the army? Where was the powerful Israeli state? Police, who fought bravely in several locations and saw some two dozen officers killed on Saturday, were too scarce and too poorly armed to repulse the attack.

Israeli soldiers deploy in Sderot, Israel, on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The great and vaunted Israel Defense Forces, a 64-billion-shekel per year (over $16 billion) institution, seemed to evaporate in Israel’s moment of desperate need. And not just because of the initial surprise. Five hours into the event, battalions had still failed to materialize, government ministers failed to explain the events. Everyone seemed shell-shocked. The whole state apparatus, from the politicians on down, disappeared.

And a great and deadly quiet seemed to come over the Israeli body politic.

Humiliation

Until Saturday, Israelis believed they were strong and safe. On Saturday, they started to believe that they were neither.

In that simple shift, the Hamas attack was massively successful.

As Palestinian Islamic Jihad spokesman Abu Hamza put it while the attack was still underway: “This powerful enemy is an illusion made of dust and capable of being defeated and broken. Our heroes made the enemy small and humiliated, feeling death everywhere.”

People dance in celebration of the attacks that the Hamas terror group carried out against Israel, at Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, in Beirut, Lebanon, October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Theories abound about Hamas’s reasons for the assault. Many suggested it was an Iranian-ordered disruption of Israeli-Saudi normalization. Others focused on internal Palestinian politics and suggested Hamas was positioning itself, even at the cost of an inevitable and crushing Israeli retaliation, as the unquestioned leader of the Palestinian struggle after Mahmoud Abbas’s death. Still others said the reasons were simpler: The two Hamas leaders in Gaza who prepared and launched the operation were military chief Muhammad Deif and political head Yahye Sinwar. The first lost his family to an Israeli airstrike aimed at him, the second sat for 22 years in an Israeli prison. Neither needed an overwrought geopolitical rationale to piece together such an operation.

There is probably some truth in all these theories. All make sense. But none are how Hamas itself explained the operation in real-time.

Here lies a part of Palestinian thinking and discourse that many of Palestine’s Western defenders ignore, both because it’s a hard sell to Western audiences and because they don’t really understand it themselves. Palestinian “resistance,” as conceived by Hamas, is about much more than settlements, occupation or the Green Line. A larger theory of Islamic renewal is at work.

As he announced the start of Saturday’s attack, Hamas military commander Deif said it was meant to disrupt a planned Israeli demolition of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And when Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh called on Saturday for “every Muslim everywhere and all the free people of the world to stand in this just battle in defense of Al-Aqsa and the Prophet’s mission,” he meant just that, that the fight was over holy things, over Islam’s redemptive promise.

This reclamation of Islamic dignity through the ultimate defeat of the Jews occupies a great deal of Hamas’s political thought, permeates its rhetoric and profoundly shapes its thinking about Israeli Jews and its strategy in facing Israel. Israel is more than a mere occupier or oppressor in this narrative, it is a rebellion against God and the divinely ordained trajectory of history. And by showing Israelis in their weakness, the thinking goes, Israelis are somehow actually made weak. Redemption requires only the faith of its believers to be fulfilled, and seeing is believing.

The footage from Saturday, the snuff videos shared gleefully by Hamas supporters, including in some Western far-left circles, weren’t an aberration. They were the essence of the whole enterprise

The footage from Saturday, the snuff videos shared gleefully by Hamas supporters, including in some Western far-left circles, weren’t an aberration. Hamas gunmen didn’t get “carried away,” as some explained. They were the essence of the whole enterprise. They were Hamas’s basic message to Israelis: That they weren’t being killed and kidnapped just for tactical advantage in the struggle for Palestinian independence, but rather were being humiliated and dehumanized as traitors against God.

Israelis being kidnapped and taken into Gaza by Hamas terrorists, October 7, 2023, as seen in pixelated videos from social media screened on Israeli television (Channel 12 screenshot)

It was the message at every turn. In one video released for Israelis to see, a little Israeli boy, perhaps six years old, was put in a circle of Gazan children who were told to bully and terrorize him while he stood there helpless. It was a planned and purposeful moment. Israelis’ weakness was paraded through Gaza’s streets and celebrated on social media. It was the point.

Hamas did everything it could to shock Israelis, to humiliate and horrify, kidnapping children, desecrating corpses, and then crowing about it to the world.

And Israelis watched it all, minute by agonizing minute. And they agreed. Their weakness had become clear, unavoidable.

And very, very dangerous.

The power of weakness

The Israel that emerged from Hamas’s “Al-Aqsa Deluge” operation was different from the one that went into it. A tectonic shift had occurred in the country’s psyche. The horrors inflicted by Hamas sparked rage and an intense feeling of vulnerability. Where Hamas had always seemed an implacable but ultimately containable enemy, it had now proven it could bring the danger into Israeli homes, could slaughter children and kidnap grandmothers while all the vaunted power of the Israel Defense Forces was helpless to stop it.

Bodies lie on a main road near Kibbutz Gevim on October 7, 2023 following an attack by Hamas terrorists. (Oren ZIV / AFP)

Hamas had made itself an intolerable threat.

The change is so profound and palpable that many Israeli analysts, apparently assuming that Hamas understands the consequences that this psychological fallout will have for Gaza, argued on Saturday that the terror group was surprised by its own success.

“In my estimation,” tweeted analyst Avi Issacharoff, “the military and political leadership of Hamas did not expect these successes. They meant to kidnap two or three as part of a massive killing spree. But this many? Their problem is that this success may turn into a pyrrhic victory. It seems to me there’s now a consensus in the Israeli elite and among the public that nothing will be the same anymore.”

Arab opponents of Israel speak of it often as an artificial, rootless construct doomed to collapse in the face of Palestinian faith and resilience. It is at heart, they say, a colonialist project that for all its outward power lacks the inner authenticity and conviction to survive.

That interpretation of Israel isn’t just a put-down. It’s a call for action, including and especially the kind of sustained terrorism and cruelty that pushed other colonialist projects out, from the French in Algeria to the British in Kenya. This interpretation of Israel is the basic logic behind Palestinian suicide bombings, rocket fire and the whole slew of terrorist tactics employed by Hamas on Saturday.

And it always, always fails. Decade after decade, the Jews only grow more numerous.

A young woman reacts as she speaks to Israeli rescuers in Tel Aviv, after a rocket strike from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israeli Jews are immune to anticolonial terrorism, not in the sense that they are not traumatized by it — they possess no more courage or conviction than any other people — but in the sense that they cannot respond to it in the way Hamas wants them to. They cannot, as Haniyeh promised on Saturday, choose to leave their homeland. There’s nowhere for them to go.

Hamas’s threat, then, is double-edged: the raw cruelty of the assault on the one hand and the impossibility of ever satisfying the assailant’s demands on the other.

And so Israelis are uniting, from left to right, liberal to Haredi. None of the domestic fractures are healed, none of the political problems resolved. But Hamas brought home to Israelis the intolerable weakness of a divided Israel. And this weaker Israel that now faces Hamas, and with it the many allies and murderous ideologues who stand behind it from Lebanon to Iran, believes it has been left no choice but to fight desperately to ensure Saturday’s images never return.

There are many different kinds of power. There is the power of the confident, safe and strong. But there’s also the very different sort of power of the wounded, weak and desperate. These are psychological states, not objective realities. And pivoting from one to the other changes everything.

“A wounded tiger,” Arthur Golden wrote in “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “is a dangerous beast.”

It’s an image with a long pedigree in Israeli strategic thinking. Moshe Dayan was said to have urged Israel to act like a “wounded tiger,” unpredictable and desperate, to deter its enemies from attack.

Israeli fire brigade teams douse the blaze in a parking lot outside a residential building following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on October 7, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Palestinians sometimes use the image to mock Israel or shrug off the impact of an Israeli reprisal attack.

A strong Israel may tolerate a belligerent Hamas on its border; a weaker one cannot

Hamas is now putting that old adage to the test. Israelis can handle humiliation; they are less moved by the politics of honor than are their enemies. But these heirs of a collective memory forged in the fires of the 20th century cannot handle the experience of defenselessness Hamas has imposed on them. Hamas seemed to do everything possible to shift Israeli psychology from a comfortable faith in their own strength to a sense of dire vulnerability.

And it will soon learn the scale of that miscalculation. A strong Israel may tolerate a belligerent Hamas on its border; a weaker one cannot. A safe Israel can spend much time and resources worrying about the humanitarian fallout from a Gaza ground war; a more vulnerable Israel cannot.

A wounded, weakened Israel is a fiercer Israel.

Hamas was once a tolerable threat. It just made itself an intolerable one, all while convincing Israelis they are too vulnerable and weak to respond with the old restraint.

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