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The Israeli-Palestinian media war inverts itself
Both sides tried aimed to gain Western sympathy for their plight during the 2021 uprising. Now they want to project strength.
Gaza has broken out of containment. Palestinian guerrillas from Gaza, led by Hamas, stormed Israel proper in a coordinated military assault last night. They have captured police stations, military equipment, and Israeli prisoners. The guerrillas have reportedly shot Israeli civilians in the street, and Israel has leveled a Palestinian apartment building with bombs in retaliation.
The level of fighting is unprecedented. Hamas has flipped the script. The few conventional wars between Israel and Gaza have involved Israeli attacks on Gazan soil. Now a Palestinian army from Gaza is fighting a conventional war on Israeli territory. Hamas launched its attack on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war, when Egypt and Syria similarly took Israel by surprise and inflicted heavy conventional military losses.
For the past several decades, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been a slow-burning, media-heavy struggle between the Israeli state and stateless Palestinian people. Both sides tried to win sympathy and bolster their political position during short violent explosions. As former White House official Steve Simon wrote a few days ago, Palestinian violence had been “expressive” while Israeli violence had been a matter of “conflict management.” Now it is a real clash between armies.
So, too, has the media strategy changed. In the past, both sides have tried to magnify their own victimhood and downplay the suffering of enemy civilians. Today, Hamas seems eager to broadcast its ability to invade Israeli towns, kill Israelis, and take Israeli hostages. (It’s worth noting that turning prisoners into a “public curiosity” is itself a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.) Meanwhile, images of Palestinian suffering were slower to emerge from Gaza, despite the massive reported death toll of Israeli retaliation.
This media strategy is not aimed at winning Western sympathy for the Palestinian cause, like the 2021 uprising aimed to do. It is much more like old-fashioned wartime propaganda, meant to rally the troops and demoralize the enemy. Hamas wants to be the conquering army in control of the situation, and it wants the enemy to feel like helpless victims.
The image of an omnipotent Israeli intelligence apparatus has been shattered. Israel failed to discover Hamas’ sophisticated preparations before it was too late. And the high-tech Israeli border fence around Gaza has been breached. Just a week ago, Palestinian protesters were having their ankles shot while protesting outside the fence. Now Palestinians are filming themselves dancing on top of capturing military equipment and joyriding around Israeli towns that they never would been able to set foot in.
The propaganda is probably aimed at Hamas’ rivals as well. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is collapsing, and several factions are gearing up for a civil war to take its place. New guerrilla groups such as the Lion’s Den have captured a lot of public support. The latest war is probably meant to show that, although the Lion’s Den can carry out small-time raids, Hamas is the only real Palestinian army.
While Palestinian atrocities may rouse the Israeli public to anger — and rally Israel’s backers abroad — Hamas is betting that it can come out on top of the next stage of the war. In fact, more Israeli anger may bring Hamas some military advantages, since it forces Israel to retaliate on Hamas’ timeline and Hamas’ terms.
If the 1973 war is the model, then Israel’s shock will also serve Hamas at the negotiating table. Between 1967 and 1973, the Israeli leadership thought it could hold onto Egyptian and Syrian territory by force while putting off negotiations indefinitely. The Arab states demonstrated that the conflict had a cost for Israelis — and most importantly, that the cost would not be manageable or predictable.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been manageable and predictable for Israel over the past few years. Israeli leaders talk about “shrinking the conflict” if they’re being nice about it, or “mowing the lawn” if they’re not. Random Palestinian shooting and rocket attacks show Israelis that Palestinians are a malicious but easily-contained enemy. Israeli raids on the West Bank and Gaza are out of sight, out of mind.
The 2021 uprising had gained more Western public support for the Palestinian cause, but that did not fundamentally change Israel’s calculus or improve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. (In fact, Israelis elected a more nationalistic government afterwards.) Hamas has decided instead to show Gaza to be a source of urgent danger. The strategy is now to look as ugly and frightening as possible.
Hamas’ endgame in this war is unclear, and probably will not be clear for at least several days. But the taking of prisoners suggests that Hamas wants leverage for some kind of deal at the end of the war. Whether this gamble pays off or not, the people who pay the greatest price will be innocent Palestinians and Israelis. We can only hope these dynamics play out over days rather than months, and that the violence is resolved quickly.
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