The recent escalation in conflict between Hamas and Israel gives new meaning and salience to the term asymmetric warfare. Asymmetric warfare typically refers to war in which a qualitative (or gross quantitative) imbalance of military power exists, and the weaker entity attempts to compensates for military inferiority by abusing or exploiting international humanitarian laws of war (IHL). This understanding is broadly applicable to the Hamas-Israel relationship: the IDF enjoys technological superiority over Hamas as well as an obvious qualitative armament edge; Hamas regularly abuses IHL. However the asymmetry between Hamas and Israel is more profound. Given considerable economic, political and moral interests, it behooves concerned Americans (and other world citizens) to understand this fundamental asymmetry as we analyze the conflict from afar.
Israel’s national army is the IDF, or Israeli Defense Force. Hamas is a four-letter Arabic acronym for a tripartite appellate which translates to the Islamic Resistance Movement. That is the organizational name; Hamas’s military wing (the Qassam Brigades) is named after a radicalized ex-Sufi Salafi who championed attacks on civilians. Hamas is the ideological epitome of extremism: created as an alternative to negotiation with Israel, the two-state solution and Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy. Hamas’s Charter reads: “Nothing is loftier or deeper in Nationalism than waging Jihad against the enemy and confronting him when he sets foot on the land of the Muslims.” (Article 12); “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” (Article 13). Tellingly, Article 8 declares “death for the case of Allah its [Hamas’s] most sublime belief.”
Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence on the other hand, is replete with calls for cooperation and dialogue with its neighbors and the pledging of full rights for her Arab citizens, guaranteeing to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; …freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” At the same time, ” We appeal- in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”
Israel is a country founded in the wake of the near-destruction of the Jewish people and is comprised of a multiethnic, multicultural, politically diverse society which shares one common value: respect for human life. Israel invests tremendous assets and undertakes incredible burdens to minimize risk to human life. While every act of Israeli self-defense, even killing a clearly legitimate, high-value military target like Ahmed Jabari, is criticized, the thousands of rockets fired into Israel in the last decade are generally deemed un-newsworthy by Western media. It is inconceivable to imagine the US or any other country putting up with an average of 2-6 incoming rockets per day, or escalations upwards of 100 rockets per day. Yet Israel’s red lines are remarkably conservative, instead hundreds of millions of dollars are invested in defense systems like the Iron Dome, in hopes that rockets can be deflected and wars avoided. Even as Israel does engage militarily, it drops flyers in Arabic, sends text messages and issues phone calls in attempts to minimize the threat to Gazan civilians. (Tragically these efforts are frequently undermined by Hamas efforts to maximize these very threats.) From its investments, its tactics, its decisions on when and how to engage, Israel and her armed forces are fundamentally guided by one principle—respect for and protection of human life. Can a country with Israel’s history know any other way?
Contrast this attitude and behavior with that of Hamas. The internationally condemned terror organization, in its constitution and practices, promotes a deep-seated attitude of callousness (at best) toward the loss of life. It glorifies martyrdom and exploits religion while using its own members as political pawns. Suicide (a concept forbidden in traditional Islam, or Judaism for that matter,) was popularized by Hamas; so too have the use of children as human shields, ambulances as military transports, universities as armaments, all become Hamas tactics. Israel is called to task for every errant military strike and every credibly reported incident of civilian harm, not by international media or the UN, but by internally formed national commissions; committees are created to receive grievances. Hamas operates with an entirely different form of transparency—Hamas openly acknowledges, nay brags, of its indiscriminate attacks aimed at civilian populations, not military targets (see here for just one day of activities to which the organization lays claim on its website). And somehow there are otherwise reasonable voices who would conflate Israel and Hamas?
Israel and Hamas are fundamentally different. Military discrepancies, albeit significant, pale in comparison with the basic distinction in guiding principles: Israel dedicated to protection of life at all costs; Hamas committed to violent resistance, opposed to peaceful negotiation or compromise and possessing an ideological callousness to the loss of human life. Until we recognize that the entity in de facto control of Gaza, not merely militarily, but of all economic, educational, media and social programs, is inherently flippant about human life, any efforts to change the status quo may well be for naught. Most Israelis and many Palestinians have already come to this realization; for them the situation is quite literally one of life and death.