In the conventional wisdom and historical sense of “winning wars,” the photo of the white flag, the raised hands and the empty shoes of fleeing enemy soldiers used to be the staple of Israeli “victory” albums. But after this latest Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, we see Hamas chief Khaled Mashal gloating, Palestinians in Gaza celebrating, and Israelis complaining that “things are unfinished.”
Not exactly the formula for a resounding Israeli victory. But that’s not the whole story. Just as with the Vietcong, the Taliban, and the Khmer Rouge, Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not care about Geneva or the Hague. They do, however, recognize that a picture is worth a thousand words, and the more that picture shows the suffering inflicted upon their people by the enemy, the more the chances that the enemy will be forced to cease attacking them.
In the new reality of asymmetric warfare, militarily inferior forces “win” battles they had no business winning because of factors present today that were not present years ago. Today, it is the psychological asymmetry between legitimate and stable democracies and bands of fighters for whom ethical conduct and rules of war mean nothing that actually mediates what victory means.
This psychological asymmetry is fueled today by the cynical exploitation of democratic institutions by non-democratic actors. Former government minister and IDF officer Effie Eitam recently noted three of them: the force of international law, the use of the media, and the sentiment and public opinion of the “international community.” That is where Israel has lost time and again and that is where the danger was in the confrontation with the Palestinians of Gaza.
This time, however, despite the fact that the “white flag” victory Israelis hoped for was not achieved, there was no media criticism, no charges of violations of international law, and no break in the wall of international support. And unlike the hoped-for effects of human shields in Gaza, the defensive shield of Israel’s new “Iron Dome” anti-missile system foiled the plans of Hamas.
By dealing a massive military blow while avoiding any serious accusations of Goldstone Commission-like abuses, Israel managed to maintain a basically high moral ground while bombing Hamas nonstop. Media reports of civilian “massacres” were largely avoided. A significant share of media footage focused on the reactions of Israeli civilians to the constant barrage of incoming Hamas missiles as much as on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The legitimacy given by the West for strong Israeli action to limit attacks from Gaza was a clear departure from previous calls for Israel to immediately cease military action. This time, military activity ended when it was acknowledged that whatever could be accomplished was accomplished – without launching the ground invasion that many Israelis were clearly ambivalent about.
So, has Israel “won”?
For the time being, it seems so. Quiet is hopefully restored, battlefield causalities are avoided, and the feared scenes of mass Israeli causalities were blunted by Iron Dome. Israel now stands as perhaps the only country in the world that has a functionally effective response to the threat of incoming missiles. The frustration that Israelis feel at “not finishing the job” cannot possibly reach the levels of the frustration that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and, most importantly, Iran have in realizing that years of stockpiling, building, and smuggling missiles have largely been wasted.
So Palestinians are feeling good and cheering wildly about missiles being intercepted over a still intact and vibrant Tel Aviv, while the streets of Gaza are strewn with rubble. Their government is faced with rebuilding – again – and their military commanders, those that are still alive, need to find an answer to Israel’s incredibly successful defensive shield. Hamas leaders needs to ask themselves if the price paid for their 15 minutes of self-declared glory was worth it and if their people will “buy it.”
Israelis all realize that Hamas will not give up and their struggle to eliminate Jewish sovereignty in Palestine will go on and likely be renewed in the future. But for now, the anxiety felt during the war will quickly fade into the background as Israelis go back to their routine of working, studying, shopping, and complaining. Gazans will hear the chorus of victory speeches from Hamas, then go back to nothing better, but much visibly worse. Israeli frustration will fade into productivity. Palestinian frustration will surely grow into more pointless hatred.
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Dr. Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf directs the Israel-Arab Studies Program and conducts research in political psychology at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.