I am not here to make an impassioned appeal about how Israel is right and Hamas is wrong (though this much is true). I am here to point out just how slick Hamas' incredible propaganda coup has been.
Obviously, I despise fanatics who harbor genocidal tendencies. But you've gotta give it to them. Hamas has played Western liberals like a fiddle.
In many ways, it is clear that militarily at least, Israel "won" its confrontation at the Gaza border, killing scores of Palestinians and injuring many hundreds more without suffering a single casualty of note.
But it is actually the other way around. It is Hamas that won a big victory against Israel.
Military theorists the world over have been increasingly excited about something they call "hybrid warfare." To invade Crimea, Vladimir Putin resorted to mercenaries and others with a semi-plausibly deniable link to the Russian military, cyberattacks on a previously unknown scale, and, of course, the manipulation of the media.
It's this latter tactic we need to focus on. The phrase "hearts and minds" has become a hoary cliché, but it's still as relevant as ever. Insurgents, and counterinsurgents, are fighting not just to win military victories, but to change perceptions.
As Max Boot points out in his magisterial history Invisible Armies, this is completely natural. The reason insurgents become insurgents in the first place is because they couldn't beat their enemy in the conventional way. So by its nature an insurgency is not about military victory, since insurgencies happen when military victory cannot.
An operation can be a complete tactical blunder and a strategic victory. Militarily, the United States won the war in Vietnam. Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster that broke the back of the North Vietnamese army — a "Dien Bien Phu" in reverse, as U.S. commander General William Westmoreland put it at the time. It didn't matter. How did the Viet Cong insurgency work out for the United States? What happened when young Americans and the media turned against the war in Vietnam?
Israel is a unique state in that it has to fight every day not just for its security but also its legitimacy. And as a tiny state, its survival rests on this legitimacy. By now, many thousands (if not millions) of people have seen photos and video seeming to show defenseless Palestinian protesters exterminated by heartless, faceless Israelis. Much of the American media has taken an unseemly delight in villianizing Israel and the Trump administration while glorifying the Palestinians.
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) May 15, 2018
Say what you will of the resolute and increasingly right-wing Israeli leadership, Israeli settlements in disputed territory, or the Jewish State's tough restrictions in and around Gaza. There are still some incredibly basic and obvious facts about Gaza that have been almost entirely missing from most media reports in the West. For instance, Gaza is governed by Hamas, a terrorist group. In the days leading up to the events, Hamas leaders had called on the populace not to peacefully march, but to attack. Hiding among civilians to launch attacks is a time-honored tactic by Hamas, and in doing so put Israel in a no-win situation. Let the attackers go on and they would murder indiscriminately; but respond (and inevitably kill or injure unarmed civilians mixing in with actual attackers), and invite global opprobrium. If "civilian" North Korean "protesters" showed up at the DMZ tomorrow and started throwing rocks and molotov cocktails at South Korean soldiers, nobody would buy the charade for even half a second.
From Hamas' perspective, what happened was an extraordinarily successful insurgency operation. Not because it killed any Israeli soldiers, but because it killed Palestinian civilians, whose lives have always been so cheap to their leaders. Not because it achieved any tactical objectives, but because it didn't. Hamas' objective was not to breach any point at the border crossing, but to win the hearts and minds of journalists and social media users everywhere.
It worked like a charm.