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.
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.
Haviv Rettig Gur, “The Tragic Self-Delusion Behind the Hamas War”, The Times of Israel (17 July 2014) [http://www.timesofisrael.com/the-tragic-self-delusion-behind-the-hamas-war/]