Palestinian Israeli conflict

War on Gaza: Israel’s tactical victory but strategic failure

Joe Buccino
Joe Buccino
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Israel defeating Hamas militarily may take a year or more, but Israel has military overmatch across all capabilities and is committed to eradicating the terror group. By the end of the fighting, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is capable of removing most, if not all, of Hamas’s missiles, rockets, drones, air defense systems, and anti-tank weapons. They will destroy Hamas’s tunnel networks, military command centers, and defensive positions. Along the way, however, Israel will lose the war for public sentiment and commit irreparable harm to its reputation.

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The images of bloodied babies, wounded and dead children, and portions of the Gaza Strip laid flat will proliferate international broadcast news. Thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed and the devastation will get worse as the fighting continues. Israel is, thus far, largely ignoring international calls to lessen the impact of the fighting. Nonetheless, total prevention of catastrophic consequences inside such a tightly-compacted urban space is beyond the capabilities of Israel or any other military force. As the situation grows more gruesome, Hamas, in going down to military defeat, will get exactly what it sought in striking into Israel on October 7th.

For many years, Israel has been the recipient of extensive military, political, and economic backing from the United States, which enables the IDF to maintain its dominance over other regional military forces. Beyond striking a savage and stunning initial blow, the fighting on the ground was one Hamas was never going to win. Hamas’s strategy extends beyond the physical battlefield. For the terror group, this is a war of narratives, a war of perceptions, and a long-term war for a Palestinian homeland currently occupied by Israelis. Hamas has long understood that its power lies not in its military capabilities, but in its ability to shape narratives and influence public sentiment.

Hamas, an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Resistance Movement”), formed by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a cleric and activist with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, established itself in Gaza and the West Bank following Israel's occupation post-1967. Long advocating for Israel's destruction and an Islamic society in Palestine, the “resistance” advocated within the group’s name is an armed force against perceived occupation by the Israeli people.

Hamas has been successful in tapping into deep feelings of injustice, real or imagined, among Palestinians. The group has masterfully crafted a grievance narrative that tells a story of the systematic theft of their land over the past 75 years, compounded by the crushing poverty of their daily lives. This narrative is not just for their followers, but for the world to see and sympathize with.

Palestinians carry a child killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip during his funeral at a UN-run school in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (AP)
Palestinians carry a child killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip during his funeral at a UN-run school in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (AP)

The empowerment narrative that Hamas has created is written in blood. It tells their followers that they are not helpless victims. Terrorism serves this purpose well, which is why 19th-century anarchists called it “propaganda of the deed.” This narrative keeps hope alive among Palestinians. As long as the struggle continues, they believe things might someday change.

Hamas’s ultimate goal is to turn global public sentiment against Israel and create a rallying cry for an independent Palestinian state. The group has had success thus far, at least within the United States: immediate US support for Israel following the savage October 7th attacks has shifted. Americans are now turning against Israel’s military action in Gaza. Meanwhile in Europe, the images of conflict, bloodshed, and destruction in Gaza are shaping public sentiment against Israel as well, causing significant harm to its reputation.

In this information war, Hamas has been agile and timely, conducting rapid information operations while the rest of the world struggles to understand what’s happened. This strategy has allowed them to take the initiative and shape the narrative, often hours ahead of the IDF public affairs operation. Hamas’s messaging priority is speed and evocative images over facts and accuracy. To date, the IDF’s corrections to Hamas’s propaganda do not resonate in the information environment. Once a story takes root - particularly one told through compelling visuals - it generally manifests permanently in the mind of the receiver.

Israeli soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing ground operation of the Israeli army against Palestinian group Hamas. (Reuters)
Israeli soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing ground operation of the Israeli army against Palestinian group Hamas. (Reuters)

So, in the narrative fight ahead, every advantage is proffered to Hamas. After October 7th, Israel believes it can no longer exist with any lingering remnant of Hamas on its borders. Israelis view the fight in Gaza as their second war for independence; they will take every measure possible to wipe Hamas off the earth. Hamas, meanwhile, is fighting a more prolonged war, a conflict of narratives. In this fight, every IDF strike serves Hamas’s interest and serves the cause of the armed resistance to Israel. It is this greater fight that Israel seems destined to lose.

Joe Buccino is a retired US Army Colonel who served as the communications director for US Central Command from 2021 to September 2023.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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