Perceptions and Prospects: Israel-Hamas Conflict
Col Pradeep Jaidka (Retd.)

“History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” - Mark Twain

Biblical descriptions record the divergent fates of Issac, the patriarch of Israelis and Ishmael, the prophet of Islam, both sons of Abraham. The confluence of places holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity i.e. the region between the Mediterranean and Jordan River is dominated by religious fundamentalism, political and military struggles between the inhabitants since formation of Israel in 1948. The recurrent outbreak of wars shows a peculiar resistance to every attempt to tame periodic turbulence and reflects the ongoing replay of Cain and Abel story of brother slaying brother.

The following discussion discusses selected aspects of Hamas attack, hostage taking, perception management and the future prospects of the region.

Geography

Israel is 424 km in length and has a width ranging from 114 km at its widest point to 10 km at its narrowest point. Bounded by hostile neighbours, trouble spots like Gaza strip and West Bank also lie within its area. Thus Israel lacks “strategic depth”.

The survivors of many ethnic cleansings and relentless violence settled in and created Israel in 1948. They arrived carrying not only their own wounds but also of their ancestors and family members. These wounds open and bleed at every incident of violence. Irrespective of their age and gender, they serve Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Their initial life in Kibbutz infused strong camaraderie, nationalism and pride. Collectively, these sentiments come to fore when any challenge to its existence manifests. These sentiments surface in equal measure when the nation is confronted with external threats or protesting against government policies, or over IDF accidently killing three Israeli hostages and pressurizing authorities for early return of hostages. Israeli citizens in the war zone display robust morale and psychological strength by willingly staying away from and visiting their homes only when permitted by IDF.

In 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, it tacitly accepted Hamas’ rule over Gaza thus reducing the need to maintain a permanent IDF presence. Instead it adopted the “mowing the grass” policy i.e. chastising any Hamas provocation with appropriate force primarily using air and artillery power.

The Gaza strip is a 41km long and 10km wide enclave. 80% inhabitants are impoverished; 40% are unemployed. Roughly 108000 cubic meters of untreated sewage flow daily into the Mediterranean. Its geography, economy, technology and infrastructure impart a sense of inferiority and deprivation on its inhabitants. One such disparity is reflected in a Gaza labourer who can earn ten times daily wages working in Israel than he can earn in Gaza itself.

The 2.2 million Palestinians consider Israelis as tyrants, oppressors who employ force, beatings and shootings to control Gaza. All Israelis being combat trained, Palestinian attacks do not differentiate between Israeli civilians and combatants. Any act of rebellion against Israel domination is justified as dealing with their own trauma. In so doing, Palestinians also visualize themselves as flag bearers, seeking to eliminate all ignominies heaped on Arabs.

Psyches and Implications

As stated, emotions drive behaviours, extreme psychological states drive extreme behaviour on either side. Political, economic and technical imbalances pervade the psyches of both adversaries. Both fantasize that they will make the adversary to vanish.

Israel aims to finish Hamas who in turn is avowedly committed to destroying Israel. The 07 October Hamas attack was brutal. It asserted Arab pride and vengeance against Israelis. The attack also derailed the ongoing reconciliation talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In November, a Hamas leader said, that it intends to carry out more 07 October type massacres until the Jewish state is eliminated.

Palestinians, frustrated by the state of affairs, turn to Hamas and Palestine Islamist Jihad (PIJ) to vent their suppressed anger, hatred and trauma. These organisations are elusive and flexible, feed on the discontent and attack Israel. Israel responds with “mowing the grass” - killing perpetrators and some civilians, imposes restrictions and blockades on Gaza; living conditions further deteriorate and more discontent builds. The cycle continues unabated leading to hardening of attitudes and polarization preventing meaningful mutual communication and eliminating the middle ground essential for dialogue.

Hamas knew its limitations of inflicting harm on Israel in a direct confrontation and launched an audacious attack taking Israel by surprise. Israel realized that the ‘containment’ under mowing the grass or keeping the IDF east of the Israel Gaza border strategies cannot guarantee Israel’s security. It changed its approach to ‘annihilating’ Hamas, discarding negative global fallouts of using maximum force. Israel mobilized 360000 reservists effectively tripling the IDF. That many of these reservists have had no recent refresher army exposure in recent years was overlooked.

Perception Management

In the initial days, Israel circulated a captured “Abduction Manual” purportedly issued by Hamas to its cadre prior to the attack. The manual contains phase wise instructions listed in eight sections. (1) Hostage taking. (2) Isolation and Control including killing those who resist. (3) Safety and security including administering sedatives to hostages. (4) Stocking supplies and not feeding hostages except in emergencies. (5) Camouflage and concealment of numbers and location where hostages were held (6) Prohibiting internal and external communications including videos (7) Restrictions on live broadcast – to conserve phone batteries (8) Negotiations, other than central, were dissuaded. Expectedly, Hamas denied issuing the booklet.

Both sides employed social and electronic media to spread large amounts of disinformation depict atrocities heaped, in order to garner opinions for and against. Both described the current conflict as ‘unprecedented’ and equated it to ‘holocaust’. Interestingly, the videos aired by both sides failed to alter prevailing local attitudes. More likely these periodic projections did little to justify the excesses committed by either. They only resulted in resurfacing of intergenerational wounds, consequently hardening attitudes. The animosity prevailing over decades remains unchanged.

Initially, Israel gained favourable world opinion by highlighting the trauma resulting from murder, rape, hostage taking. Later as its offensive progressed, it appealed to Gazans to move to safer areas in the south, ostensibly to separate Hamas from the population. About one third complied. The IDF then modified its earlier demand that all Palestinians evacuate southwards and issued an interactive map containing numbered zones. All Palestinians were to pay attention to their area’s number and migrate out to other zones when IDF ground troops expand their offensive. However, Israel lost world sympathy due to the choking of Gaza and the intensity of its offensive.

Conversely, Hamas projected the severity of Israel’s offensive as inhuman and gained international sympathy. The sufferings inflicted on Gaza population due to Israel’s bombings, choking the supply of food, power, water, fuel and internet were effectively publicised. Sample these facts:
As on 03 November, 12% of Gaza buildings were damaged, 318600 peoples’ homes were destroyed by Israel bombing. Hamas propaganda also highlighted that 40% of all schools and 12 out of 35 Gaza hospitals were damaged.

Between 21 Oct and 07 November, Israel allowed 667 lorries carrying 1.15 million litres water and 3000 tons of food to enter Gaza. Till 15 November 1139 aid convoys had been allowed, 500 trucks reached Gaza per working day. None of them carried fuel resulting in no electricity.

The inadequacy of aid to sustain the 2.2 million population was highlighted by showing the daily average of aid worked out to 29 ml water and 74 grams of food per person. That Gazans were drinking dirty water, allegedly leading to dehydration and diarrhoea, was highlighted. It was also aired that the UN shelters in South offered less than 2 sq. metres personal space and each toilet was shared by 660 people. Hamas also referred to recent images showing its cadre in Israeli detention clad in only underwear. Israel countered this, reiterating that these men were allowed to dress after a thorough search was completed for hidden body explosives.

Such propaganda swung world opinion against Israel; world bodies urged Israel to slow down on humanitarian grounds.

Truce Negotiated and Broken

Qatar, Egypt and US, negotiated a four day truce from 24 November allowing phased release of hostages by either side. Hamas released a total 105 civilians, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and 1 Filipino. Hamas still holds 137 hostages - 115 males, 20 women and children - the youngest being 10 months old. On the other hand Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners all women or minors. Additionally it allowed 200 trucks, including four fuel tankers and four of cooking gas into Gaza each day.

The truce was extended to 7 days and ended on 01 December 2023 with both sides blaming the other for the failure. Israel contends Hamas started firing rockets at 7 A.M. on 01 December and did not release 10 women primarily to conceal their ill treatment before and during captivity. Palestine blamed Israel for demanding release of women IDF soldiers.

Resumption

On 01 December Israel conducted air strikes against over 400 targets across Gaza, Israel Navy engaged Palestine naval forces and Israeli Army attacked Khan Younis. Fighting also broke out along the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah renewing its attacks after a week’s truce in Gaza.

IDF claims killing of 7,000 members and allied fighters in its campaign towards destruction of Hamas, freeing hostages and preventing future recurrence. Israel struck a total of over 22,000 targets in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the war, 3,500 of them since the ceasefire ended on 01 December.

Earlier, on 19 November 2023, the Likud Intelligence Minster Gila Gamliel suggested that world should promote voluntary resettlement of Gazans rather than funnel money for rebuilding Gaza. “The international community can assist in _ _ helping people of Gaza to rebuild new lives in their new host countries”. Her statement avers to Israel’s determination to relentlessly persecute and obliterate Hamas, aware that neighbouring Arab nations will refuse Palestinians any refuge.

USA supported Israel by deploying two aircraft carriers USS Gerald Ford and USS Normandy into Mediterranean to prevent Lebanon, Syria and Iran escalating the tensions. It also vetoed a UN Security Council resolution demanding immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Recently, USA ‘advised’ Israel to soften its offensive and adopt precision targeting of Hamas leadership rather than indiscriminate general bombing.

Israel remains adamant, asserting that the blockade and military actions will only cease after Hamas is destroyed. In a new report, a Israeli military official stated IDF requires 3 to 4 weeks to complete operations in Khan Younis followed by another 3 to 4 weeks of intensive fighting to completely destroy Hamas.

The Economic Costs

A 2015 RAND study postulated the economic damage to Israel at $400 billion and costs that prohibitively undermine prospects of an independent Palestine. In a 64-0 vote on 24 July 2023, Moody Investor Services cautioned over the negative consequences of a war. These projections would now stand much higher.

The daily cost of Israel’s offensive is estimated at $260 m per day. Compare this to IDF budget of $23.6 bn and overall Israel budget of $139 bn. Israel budget deficit in October was $6 bn and $4.5 bn in November. In contrast Hamas budget is of $500 mn and its military budget ranges between $150 to 350 mn. Thus, paradoxically, the economic losses itself may force the belligerents to accept peace.

Contradictions

As stated, although Israel stands united in its war, its citizens are pressurizing the government for early release of hostages as also protest the IDF killing three Israeli hostages accidentally.

In a 14 minute video, a captured, former Hamas communications minister, Yousef al-Mansi, criticized Yahya Sinwar as autocratic and having “delusions of grandeur,” further saying “People in the Gaza Strip say that Sinwar and his group destroyed us, we must get rid of them.” He also estimates that, “over 90%, 95%” of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad Din al-Qassam Brigades, had been decimated in the war”, adding, “Al-Qassam is finished.”

It is worth recalling that in 2014, the daughter and mother in law of Hamas leader, Ismael Haniyeh, were treated in an Israeli hospital. While Hamas leadership avails such facilities it projects an evil Israel to the masses. In the present case, these require examining– how did Gazans survive so many days of multiple deprivations? When power supply was missing from 16 October, how were videos aired and communications work when Israel had terminated the internet connectivity? Simultaneously Al Jazeera videos showed no damage at all on Ramallah streets. Normally bombed out population gets busy retrieving whatever possible or escapes to safer sanctuaries so how crowds assemble to protest in bombed out North Gaza streets? Was it engineered, by whom?

The Way Forward

Hostages present ‘valuable currency for negotiations’ and tools for psychological propaganda. Both parties have exploited this fact and continue doing so. The Israel offensive, may, slowly and systematically destroy Hamas weapons, armaments, positions above and below ground level and deny Hamas administrative control over Gaza. Who would then administer Gaza? Possibly, Israel may explore thereafter other solutions including a two state solution.

Retd Lt Gen Ben Hodges of US Army opines that ‘to eliminate Hamas, Israel will have to destroy the very reason of its existence’ – its ideology that prevails in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and maybe Qatar. Israel’s insistence on destroying Hamas by lethal kinetic force only, can at best, displace the latter from Gaza but will lead to its regrouping in other areas if its deeper social and political aspects are not eliminated. The multitude of Gaza youth struggling for a job may join Hamas for want of a better option.

Prospects of Saudi Arabia – Israel normalization may have temporarily receded but remain on the horizon. The Gulf States see US support for Israel as out of synch with regional realities and at variance with their own priorities of developing their own areas. They would rather prefer an internationally acceptable solution to the war. Towards this end, their delegations have visited China, although China has showed little inclination to intercede.

Israel’s international bandwidth to prosecute the war against Hamas increases when it allows more aid into Gaza. Yet, it refuses to find a non-kinetic political solution. This would bring about only temporary changes. Both have to realize that continuously projecting own victimhood limits the ability to see others as victims. As long as neither side visualises relationships, rapprochement with the other, the space for empathy and dialogue shrinks. Conflict resolution becomes remote and truce even if it is reintroduced will remain fragile. Peace would remain a chimera.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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