The tragic self-delusion behind the Hamas war

In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, weakness is power, and power — well, it’s complicated

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

An Iron Dome missile defense battery set up near the southern Israeli town of Ashdod fires an intercepting missile on July 16, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An Iron Dome missile defense battery set up near the southern Israeli town of Ashdod fires an intercepting missile on July 16, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the mid-1960s, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol began to doubt – presciently, as it turned out – the long-term commitment of France to supplying Israel with the military hardware it needed to defend itself. He began the process of replacing Israel’s arsenal of French weapons systems with their American counterparts.

As part of that process, Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizman (who would become Israel’s seventh president) was slated to go to Washington in a bid to convince the American government to sell Israel the F4 Phantom jet fighter.

But before leaving for Washington, Weizman had a question for the prime minister. According to an apocryphal but widely believed account of a meeting between the two, Weizman asked: “When I meet the Americans, should I tell them Israel is strong (and thus a reliable ally), or weak (and thus liable to be destroyed without American support)?”

Eshkol, famous for his old-world Yiddish wit, answered: “You’ll present Israel as Samson the nebechdicker” – at once the indomitable hero and the pitiable weakling.

Contact sheet from Levi Eshkol's visit to the ranch of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 7, 1968. (photo credit: LBJ Library, courtesy of Moriah Films)
Contact sheet from Levi Eshkol’s visit to the ranch of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 7, 1968. (photo credit: LBJ Library, courtesy of Moriah Films)

Weizman assumed he could not simultaneously argue that both are true, but Eshkol was the more subtle politician. Maintaining both, he believed, was the essence of Israel’s diplomatic strategy.

This seemingly contradictory rhetoric remains a defining characteristic of Israeli political discourse today. When Israelis from right and left argue about the prospects for peace, the argument largely, if sometimes only implicitly, centers on the sides’ different views as to which side of the vulnerability-strength equation they feel more acutely.

It is important to note that this feature of Israeli rhetoric is not merely tactical, and often not even done consciously. Israelis truly believe themselves to be simultaneously strong and weak. In the wake of the 20th century, no fate is too terrible to be plausible – and so Iranian nukes or Syrian chemical warheads loom far larger in Jerusalem than in the cold calculations of more distant capitals. At the same time, Israelis are aware that they wrested a homeland out of the ashes of their history, that they survived and triumphed against their enemies, and emerged as the most powerful and stable political community in a rapidly declining region. Both experiences leave their marks on the Israeli psyche. There is a palpable feeling among Israelis that their long-term safety is not assured, that they are exposed, alongside a startling confidence in their ability to weather the dangers that surround them and to defeat or at least outlive the machinations of their enemies.

The phrase “Samson the nebechdicker” encapsulates as only Eshkol could this tension in Israel’s perception of itself: “at once invincible and mortally vulnerable,” in the words of historian and former ambassador to Washington Michael Oren.

Rachelle Fraenkel crying over the body of her son Naftali at his funeral, July 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)
Rachelle Fraenkel crying over the body of her son Naftali at his funeral, July 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

As Israel has grown stronger and more prosperous, the sense of national danger has faded. But the paradigm has not. Hamas, with its dilapidated economic base in Gaza and earnest but incompetent efforts to kill Israelis, cannot meaningfully threaten the existence of the Jewish nation — but it can harm individual Jews, innocent Israelis, schoolchildren or the handicapped who cannot run fast enough to a nearby shelter when the siren sounds. The rhetoric of weakness has shifted from the nation to individuals, from the digging of mass graves in Tel Aviv in the run-up to the 1967 war to the more private yet somehow no less collective trauma of the Fraenkel family’s grieving for their murdered son.

The wrong war

The Palestinians, too, tell a story characterized by these contradictions.

The Palestinian national narrative is one of calamity and victimhood at the hands of the Jews. But their politics are largely driven by those who insist that they possess an innate, unstoppable strength, that Israel, for all its tanks and jet fighters, is a paper tiger that will wither in the face of sheer Palestinian willpower.

This rhetoric is rooted in the grand strategy of the Palestinian national movement since the days of Yasser Arafat, a strategy upheld today mainly by Hamas.

This strategy is a classically anti-colonial one: A colonial power invades a territory in order to exploit its resources, and in response, the anticolonialist attempts to make the cost of staying exceed the benefit. The brutality of anti-colonial warfare in the 20th century flows from this logic. As scholars of suicide terrorism have pointed out, the perpetrators’ very willingness to die is a key part of the strategic logic behind the operation, since it signals to the enemy not only that its own civilians are not safe, but that the attackers cannot be deterred, not even by death, and therefore that each attack foreshadows worse to come. (It is in response to this aspect of suicide terrorism that Israel sometimes pursues the much-criticized strategy of destroying the homes of terrorists’ families — a kind of third-party deterrence against those too eager for self-sacrifice to be deterrable on their own terms.)

In nearly every case throughout the 20th century, when a colonialist has faced such escalating brutality, the benefits obtained from the occupied territory lost their luster, and the would-be exploiter soon returned home.

That, at least, was what happened to French Algeria, the most obvious and oft-repeated historical parallel among Palestinians.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri (photo credit: AP/Hatem Moussa)

Earlier this week, faced with growing criticism in the Arab world, including the Palestinian Authority, for having dragged Gaza’s civilian population into a costly conflict with no apparent aim or clear exit strategy, Hamas was forced to defend its practices and policy — and the growing death toll in Gaza that has resulted from them. In a July 14 interview on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri explained:

“We are paying a price, but we remember our brothers in Algeria, who had at least a million and [a] half martyrs… In 1945, in a single day in Algeria, 45,000 Algerians died. In a single day. It wasn’t described in Algeria’s history as forsaking the blood of the Algerians, as some defeatists are describing today the number of martyrs as ‘trading with Palestinian blood and forsaking Palestinian blood’… We are not leading our people to execution as we stand by and look on. No. We are leading them to death — I mean, to confrontation.” (Translation from Palestinian Media Watch)

Abu Zuhri was mocked by Hamas’s opponents, especially Israel, for the telling slip (“We are leading them to death — I mean, to confrontation.”), but that was not the most revealing part of what he said. It was the Algerian reference that revealed the deep rationale behind Hamas’s belligerency.

The Algerian anticolonial struggle cost that country dearly, but ultimately resulted in liberation from the colonial oppressor. To Israelis, Hamas is a terror group engaged in wanton and pointless killing. But in Hamas’s vision of itself, it is the Algerian resistance, braving the horrific costs of the struggle in order to bring about the inevitable outcome: the expulsion of the occupier.

The anticolonial strategy depends on its ability to influence the psychology of the colonialist. So it only works if the colonialist believes he is one, if he has a separate “home country” to which he can return, if the only thing being weighed against the violence is the economic benefit of exploiting the occupied territory a little longer.

It is in these features that the strategic error (for the purposes of this argument, let’s momentarily ignore the moral problems) at the root of Hamas’s anticolonial struggle can be discerned. Israel is not the French occupation of Algeria. Again, that’s not a moral judgment, but a sociological fact. 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. More prosaically, Israel has eight million citizens, two million of them schoolchildren, living in 76 cities connected by 18,000 kilometers of road. It is no mere political system or settlement; it is a civilization. And, of course, unlike the French in Algeria, 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.

Needless to say, the historical truth of either the Israeli or Palestinian national narrative is irrelevant to the argument being made here. Hamas’s anticolonial strategy depends not so much on what Israel is as on what it believes itself to be.

From terror, strength

The debate over peace and Palestinian independence once marked the defining fracture of Israeli politics, one that claimed the life of an elected prime minister and threatened to tear apart the fabric of Israel’s public life. Then came the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada in 2000, followed by a decade and a half of rocket volleys, shootings and other attacks.

As countless polls, voter turnout data and a library of qualitative research has shown, this violence did not convince Israelis to abandon Israel. Instead, it helped Israelis to draw together and overcome their internal social and political divisions, unifying a majority of Israelis behind a simple, clear demand for security. As the vast majority of Israelis viewed it, peace had been offered, at great risk and with great sacrifice, but was rejected by the Palestinians in favor of yet another wave of terrorism aimed not at Israeli policies, but at Israelis’ very existence.

An Israeli man carries an injured woman from the scene of a triple Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem on September 4, 1997. (photo credit: Flash90)
An Israeli man carries an injured woman from the scene of a triple Palestinian suicide bombing in Jerusalem on September 4, 1997. (photo credit: Flash90)

This lesson was bolstered in the wake of the Gaza disengagement of August 2005. The withdrawal from Gaza was carried out to the last centimeter and the last settler. The following year, Ehud Olmert won a national election after expressly promising to deliver a similar unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. But instead of acknowledging and accepting Israel’s keenness to end the occupation, Palestinian “resistance” groups simply insisted that the strategy of the Algerian resistance was paying off. The colonialist was slowly withdrawing in the face of the pain inflicted by Palestinian terror, and so that terror must be increased, must become a permanent feature of Israeli life. That, after all, is the logic of Algeria.

And so Hamas set about turning Gaza into the steppingstone for an expanded anticolonial campaign designed to liberate Jerusalem, Beersheba and Tel Aviv. In its inability to view Israelis except through the lens of its own ideology, Hamas misunderstood the nature of the Gaza withdrawal, the Israeli exhaustion with the dysfunction, violence and ideological ossification of the Palestinian national movement — and failed to realize that Israel’s desire to disentangle itself from the Palestinians did not mean it would no longer defend itself.

Instead of transforming Gaza into a haven for foreign donations (as the PA did in Ramallah), or linking it economically to Israel, the wealthiest and healthiest of regional economies, as it partly was during the Oslo years, Hamas led the impoverished territory into a state of permanent confrontation. And in doing so it brought upon the beleaguered Strip wave after wave of conflict, an eight-year siege and a stiffening of Israeli security demands for any possible future peace in the West Bank. Over the past two years, it even managed to make enemies of the Egyptian military on the one hand (having sided with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s revolution) and Hezbollah, the Assad regime and Iran on the other (having sided with the Sunni Syrian opposition in that country’s civil war). This has further impoverished the beleaguered residents of Gaza, who are forced to watch helplessly as their government subordinates their economic and political conditions to the dictates of its ideological vision.

In 2012, when rockets rained down on Israeli cities and the Israeli cabinet seriously considered a costly and almost certainly bloody ground invasion of the Strip, the dovish Meretz party, the last bastion of the Oslo faithful, openly supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s air assault on Hamas. The very strategy meant to dismay and ultimately dislodge the Israelis from Israel has become the glue holding Israel’s otherwise fractious politics together. When rockets fall, the gaps between left and right, dove and hawk, fade almost to irrelevance.

Hamas’s leaders and planners are not stupid. They know the strategy isn’t working. They know Israel continues to strengthen and prosper even as the Arab world around it crumbles and their own fiefdom in Gaza collapses. They know they have been able to deliver only minuscule tactical successes while Israel continues to emerge overwhelmingly triumphant.

But Hamas cannot relent. To surrender their anti-colonial campaign, to move from a strategy of violence that cannot possibly liberate Palestine to one of compromise that might liberate at least part of Palestine, Hamas must surrender a basic fixture of its ideology and identity – the assumption that the Jews are rootless foreigners in this land, or at least that the Jews can be expected to behave as foreigners when confronted with terrorism. If either of those assumptions are wrong, then the strategy’s very premise is undermined, and Hamas’s endless war is doomed to ignominious failure.

And so Gaza is locked into a war of fruitless aggression, battling an enemy that only really exists in the Palestinian imagination, and doing so with an arsenal of tactics that only serve to strengthen the resolve and cohesion of the actual opponent it is facing in the real world.


It is in the context of this futile war that the Palestinians have developed their own rhetoric of victimhood and power. The enemy’s power is obvious, but also – by sheer ideological necessity – temporary and precarious, while Palestine’s power lies in its very weakness.

In his 2005 account following the failure of the Barak-era peace talks with the Palestinians, former foreign minister (and, like Michael Oren, historian-turned-diplomat) Shlomo Ben-Ami referenced this dialectic of weakness and power. In the late 1980s, with the outburst of the First Intifada, he wrote, the Palestinians “discovered the power of their weakness and the Israelis the weakness of their power.”

Clashes in Ramallah during the first intifada (photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Clashes in Ramallah during the first intifada (photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90)

What Israel discovered in that violence is obvious. Israel’s tanks and warplanes may hopelessly outgun any conventional force the Arab world might throw at it, but what good were such military marvels in the face of stone-wielding children? Faced with the image of the child staring down the barrel of an assault rifle, the Israeli left began to look for a way out of the trap set by this inversion of weakness and power. It won the 1992 election, launched the Oslo peace process and attempted to sell the Israeli public on a future no clear-headed Israeli had previously thought possible: peace.

But what did Palestinians learn in that intifada? It was not simply that weakness could be powerful, but that, as Eshkol understood decades before, the perception of weakness, vulnerability and victimhood could be a strategic weapon.

Thus, Hamas now speaks simultaneously of Palestine’s terrifying might — of once-proud Israelis cowering “like mice” in their bomb shelters — and of Palestinians’ terrible vulnerability.

Last week, early in this latest round of fighting, Hamas’s Gaza spokesman Fawzi Barhoum declared, “This is not the time for calm. We have a diverse bank of targets. [Israel] will need an Iron Dome in every Israeli home.”

Hamas television has produced videos in stilted Hebrew in which the group, to a triumphant background score, promises “suicide attacks on every bus, café and street.”

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.

Israeli soldiers patrol along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip before a five-hour truce went into effect, on Thursday, July 17, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/JACK GUEZ)
Israeli soldiers patrol along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip before a five-hour truce went into effect, on Thursday, July 17, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/JACK GUEZ)

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.

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