The war was not fought by Gazans in 2018 to inflict damage on Israel or kill Israeli soldiers – only one soldier was injured over 7 weeks on the final day of the series of battles. Palestinians from Gaza would have killed or maimed Israelis if they could. They could not and did not. They did do some relatively light property damage, albeit enough to give Israel a smidgen of justification for the tactics the Israelis adopted.
The war was fought primarily to win international public opinion to the Palestinian cause, the larger cause being a return of refugees to Israel and the displacement of Israel as a state. The more immediate cause, given the dire economic straits in Gaza, whatever the responsibility of Hamas for that, was to eliminate the fluctuating blockade without surrendering their long-term goals. Alternatively, or as a minimum goal, it was to open the Rafah crossing – a goal achieved. After all, before the 2018 war, Gazans could not even travel abroad unless it was for at least a year if they used the crossing to Israel. For some, protesting Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was a more immediate goal, but, considering all the evidence, that seemed more like an add-on which did exploit the even higher media presence than was usual..
As to tactics, Hamas had learned very well that international outrage was a product of apparent non-militant deaths on the Palestinian side rather than missiles, kidnapping of Israelis or damage to property. For Hamas, it was critical that its martyrs be counted as civilians rather than militants in the death totals even as it knew that there would be no martyrs if only peaceful demonstrations were conducted. The challenge was how to combine the two effectively. At the same time, such tactics would help restore Hamas’ image especially in the competition with the Palestinian Authority.
The target might also have been public opinion in the West Bank and Israel. If those were also goals, the exercise had some minor successes, especially in Israel, but overall seemed an abject failure. Israelis in particular have largely become apathetic towards Gaza, tired of Hamas’ swings between posturing and outright conflict. Further, they are well aware of Hamas’ record of suppression of rights – of women, of dissidents and gays – and of its ultimate and repeatedly stated goals of eliminating Israel. Across Israel, only hundreds protested Israeli use of live ammunition. (+972) One could note the same effect among Jews who associate with the Jewish community in the diaspora, including those organizations highly critical of Israeli policy. If this observation that the target was primarily public opinion is correct, the media report that Hezbollah refused a Hamas request to send missiles against Israel was probably false or, at least, misleading.
However, that was on the surface. In the Journal of Conflict Resolution (7 June 2016), Thomas Zeitzoff asked, “Does Social Media Influence Conflict? Evidence from the Gaza Conflict.” Note, he was not asking how the conflict affected public opinion in the Middle East or abroad, but how the use of social media affected the conflict, both that it took place and the extent. The most interesting finding was that it did. It did so within Israel to reduce public support for conflict intensity. International pressure on Israel had a much smaller effect.
In the 2012 conflict, Hamas had primarily employed traditional mechanisms of war available to it. This time, it primarily emphasized the peaceful nature of the demonstrations even as it sent small groups of militants to attack the fence. In that case, though proof is not yet in, one might expect public support for the use of live ammunition against those who attacked the fence to reduce the support for the Israeli response even more than open war did. I suspect public support in Israel for the use of live ammunition decreased as Israelis became conflicted over the number of casualties. Was a prime target of Hamas’ media war public opinion in Israel?
Actual protests by critical Jewish groups on the ground decreased. IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice protested against the use of live ammunition, even against Hamas members who neared the fence but were unarmed. But the protests were not very loud and the backing seemed muted. For example, J Street expressed mostly a “sickening sense of frustration.” In contrast, in 2008, J Street had taken a very hard line against Operation Cast Lead.
Ethan Miller, a spokesman for IfNotNow that had been formed in the first place to protest American Jewish institutional support against Operation Protective Shield in 2012, promised action this time with the intent of building a stronger protest movement. However, only 100 protesters showed up on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington to participate in the IfNotNow demonstration; nevertheless, they had sufficient participation to block Pennsylvania Avenue for two hours in front of the Trump International Hotel between the White House and the domed Capitol.
In Boston, eight IfNotNow members of that chapter chained themselves to the doors of the Israeli consulate and were arrested before the consulate could reopen. In Minneapolis, other members were arrested outside that city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. Small protests were held at almost two dozen other sites across America. The Jewish Voice for Peace protested in 45 different locations across America, but those demonstrations were also small. In the general hubbub, these voices were drowned out.
More attention was paid to J Street. They held a rally addressed by Bernie Sanders on 16 April. He accused Israel of “massively overreacting” while insisting that “when Israeli soldiers are in danger, we can all agree that they have a right to defend themselves.” He went on to condemn “Hamas’s use of terrorist violence…but that violence cannot excuse the shooting of unarmed protesters and it cannot excuse trapping almost two million people inside of Gaza.”
I suspect, however, that among unaffiliated Jews in America, the majority followed a general trend and felt considerable sympathy for the Palestinians in Gaza and became further alienated from Israel. In any case, they were generally inactive even as their inner ethical tensions increased.
Internationally, the results were mixed. Iran and Turkey offered a full-throated denunciation of Israel. South Africa withdrew its ambassador. Saudi Arabia and Egypt denounced the killing, but seemingly more as a matter of course than a deep-seated outrage. Federica Mogherini of the EU called for “restraint” by both sides. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in spite of the growing divide between them and Trump’s America, did focus on Israel and urged a more gentle approach, but, at the same time, insisted that Israel has a right to defend itself. Almost certainly because a Canadian doctor treating Palestinian casualties was shot in the legs, Justin Trudeau issued an unusually strong implied criticism of Israel. (See the first blog in this series.) UN Secretary-General expressed his “profound concern,” while Zeid Ra’ad, the head of the United Nations Human Rights Council, typically denounced the Israeli use of force as “wholly disproportionate.”
Of course, the U.S. was unequivocal in its backing of Israel. UN Ambassador Nick Haley asked the General Assembly, “Who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No one would…No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has.” After his 9 May meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the same explanation for the Israeli response to the Gaza protesters: “it is the right of every state, certainly it is Israel’s right, to take such steps as are necessary to defend itself against this aggression.” The question, of course, for most was not the issue of the right of self-defence, but the means used.
How does a belligerent conduct an international media war? Hamas could have led Gaza into a fourth Gaza War in which Gaza sustained enormous physical damage and even a much higher sacrifice of lives. In the past, that did have a temporary international public opinion advantage, but the costs were enormous. Further, Gaza fought those wars inevitably behind the backs of civilians, often using hospitals as shields.
This time, the war was not openly led by Hamas but by an independent civilian group helped and backed by Hamas with Hamas and other militants out front openly risking their lives to cut and damage the widely hated fence. The war was one based on a coalition of forces, including supporters of the Palestinian Authority. This had at least four domestic purposes. It helped unite rather than divide the Palestinians. The means deployed distracted from the fact that the domestic policies of Hamas in running Gaza had failed and the military policies utilized in the past – open warfare and underground tunnels – had proven to be an unmitigated disaster. At the same time, the martyrs and the larger Hamas message won the attention of the international community while the Palestinian relatively weak rhetorical and diplomatic protest of the American embassy move was swamped in the media by the events in Gaza. Most importantly, the effort allowed Palestinians the choice of how to be involved. But incentives and deceit were both used to get some to attack the fence and try to break through.
Instructions on the internet in Arabic previously had suggested that protesters bring knives, daggers and guns in order to breach the Israeli border and kidnap civilians. As the New York Times wrote, “After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshipers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.” The Washington Post described organizers as urging “protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.”
Nevertheless, in spite of these deceptions, Hamas retained effective control of the Great March of Return. At 5:30 pm local time on 14 May, Hamas ordered the protesters to move away from the fence. They had enough martyrs by this point – 55 – though more would die in hospital later – to make their point to the international community. Media coverage already had established their PR “success.” Further, the hospitals in Gaza could not cope with the 100 who were critically injured and an additional 2,500 being treated for injuries. Third, as the peaceful protesters drifted home, Hamas did not want to lose either control or attract attention to how small the Great March of Return had really been compared to the original ambitions. Fourth, Hamas’ precarious control of Gaza had now been reinforced. Finally, Hamas had demonstrated to Egypt, which two days earlier had summoned Hamas to Cairo to try to persuade the organization to discontinue the demonstrations, that it would not bow to Egyptian pressure.
The Hamas political bureau head, Ismail Haniyeh, his deputy, Khalil al-Hayya, and Politburo member, Rouhi Mushtaha, flew to Cairo and met with Abbas Kamel, the Egyptian intelligence chief. The Hamas representatives not only refused Egypt’s offer to open the Rafah crossing in exchange, but won that opening anyway, at least for Ramadan, without any evident concessions to Egypt.
Perhaps the most important target of the Hamas media war was public opinion in Egypt and in Israel. In Israel, if my few interviews are any indication, the recent Hamas tactics may have led to increased ethical post-traumatic stress disorder (E-PTSD) as Israelis were perhaps even more affected by the combination of peaceful demonstrations and relatively poorly armed militants who martyred themselves in attacking the fence (what Matti Friedman in the New York Times 16 May 2018 called the Split-Screen tactic) even as Israelis appeared sublimely indifferent as they continued to go about their daily lives over the 7 weeks of violence. Psychological ethical distress might have been the main tool of warfare used by the Gazans since Israelis did not really need to worry about missiles, even if the Iron Dome intercepted them. Israelis did not have to seek shelter when sirens sounded.
However, they could hide from but not escape the ethical dilemmas they faced.