The rocket fire from Gaza that broke the latest ceasefire, for which Hamas is responsible, was presumably launched on the assumption Israel could be cowed into being more forthcoming in negotiations by the specter of further conflict. Though it is hard to know the ultimate impact of the renewal of warfare, there is good reason to think Hamas’s position will be weakened, as Israelis will be less likely to make concessions that could enable the Islamist organization to rebuild its terror infrastructure and the leadership of the U.S. and Egypt less inclined to push them to do so in light of further proof of Hamas’s predilection for violence. Why, then, is Hamas seemingly acting against its own interests?
One key reason is that Hamas’s leaders have grossly underestimated the resilience of the Jewish state, assuming Israeli morale would collapse under prolonged rocket fire on our cities and mounting casualties in Gaza. Hamas’s leaders did not expect Israel to react to the kidnapping of three teenage boys by arresting hundreds of terrorists throughout the West Bank, nor did they anticipate such a strong military response to the indiscriminate rocket and mortar fire they unleashed following those arrests.
Hamas made its contempt for Israelis evident in a music video produced early in the war, “Strike, Carry Out Terror Attacks,” in which listeners were told they should “annihilate all the Zionists” because Israelis “cannot endure war” and “are like spider webs when they encounter knights.” (For the video and English translation by MEMRI, see here.) The song, written in Hebrew and meant as psychological warfare, secured the opposite effect as it became the anthem of Israeli soldiers, for whom it symbolized the bloodthirstiness against which they were fighting. Today’s attacks continue the pattern of assuming incorrectly that further violence and threats will break Israelis’ spirit and lead to capitulation.
Why, then, does Hamas consistently underestimate the resilience of Israelis? First, Gaza is a dictatorship and Israel a democracy, and dictators historically have viewed democracies as weak, seeing their liberties as leading to licentiousness and their economic freedom and prosperity as making their citizens too complacent to risk war. What they miss is that citizens of a democracy, when their way of life is threatened, often marshal great courage and the vast resources their freedoms have helped create in order to defend it. Napoleon dismissively called the British “a nation of shopkeepers,” only to be defeated by them in the Battle of Waterloo. Hitler thought the U.S. a trifling adversary, asking rhetorically in 1940, “What is America but beauty queens, millionaires, stupid records, and Hollywood?” A couple of years later, too late to save Nazi Germany, he discovered the answer.
Moreover, the Islamists are blinder on this score than typical dictators. They typically view Westerners as godless, immoral, and lacking the backbone to stand up to devoted Muslims. This is doubly true when their adversary is Israel, as Islam has traditionally viewed Jews as a subject people lacking in courage — stemming from the Islamic experience of the Jews, for the first thirteen hundred years after Muhammad, as a people ruled by Muslims in Arabia and North Africa. Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic movement, sees Israeli Jews as lacking in the character to stand up in a prolonged struggle against steadfast believers.
There are other, more particular factors that have prevented Hamas’s leaders from seeing the strengths that enable the Jewish state to weather a sustained conflict. Most tangibly, they underestimated the effectiveness of the Iron Dome system and were dumbfounded when their rockets were made impotent by what proved to be a nearly hermetic defense. The success of Iron Dome has bordered on the miraculous, and even the Israelis and Americans responsible for its development have been amazed. But Hamas’s leaders were utterly incapable of anticipating this success, because they have little experience with the technological breakthroughs that can be achieved by individuals educated for creativity, working in an environment that encourages trial and error, and driven by an all-consuming desire to protect lives.
Israeli society is also relentlessly self-critical, constantly examining its actions in the most public way. After virtually every war or prominent failure, Israel’s government establishes a commission of inquiry, with some of the best-known among them addressing the Yom Kippur War, the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla, and Baruch Goldstein’s murderous rampage in Hebron. To the Palestinians, whose collective has been among the least self-critical in the modern period — it has undergone no real soul-searching despite three-quarters of a century of disasters brought about by turning down opportunities to establish a state and opting for violent rejection – Israel’s national stock-taking must look like the product of self-doubt. Yet it is precisely this obsession with figuring out what went wrong that enables us to learn from our mistakes and grow stronger. Following the Second Lebanon War, a witty colleague said it was obvious which side had won, since “we’ve set up a national commission of inquiry and Hezbollah is handing out victory t-shirts in Beirut.” Yet the lessons from that war have helped guide Israeli governments in the subsequent conflicts in Gaza. Hamas’s leadership, though, doubtless saw the t-shirts and the bravado they symbolized as a sign of strength and misinterpreted Israelis’ fixation on problems as a symbol of weakness – which led them to underestimate how well prepared we would be to counter their strategies and take the offensive.
Finally, Hamas’s leaders have correctly identified Israelis’ love of life and their own followers’ love of death, and seen this as the Achilles’ heel of the Jewish state. At a March 2014 rally in Gaza on the theme of “Strike Tel Aviv,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared, “We are a people that yearn for death just as our enemies yearn for life.”
During the ground war in Gaza, Muhammed Deif, the leader of Hamas’s terror wing, declared defiantly on its al-Aqsa television, “Today you [Israelis] are fighting the soldiers of God who yearn to die for the sake of Allah just as you yearn for life.”
Hamas’s leaders are partly right: Unlike Islam, which at least in the Hamas version glorifies death and martyrdom, Judaism has embraced life ever since the God of the Bible said that “I have set before you this day life and death” and enjoined us, “Choose life that you might live.” Hamas’s leaders are blind, though, to the advantages this gives us. It means our engineers do their utmost to create systems that protect lives, our soldiers do everything they can to defend comrades injured in battle, and our medics and doctors do the impossible to restore to health fighters who are hurt. Love of life does not make Israelis incapable of risking their lives when necessary; rather, it instills in them the passion to defend a way of life precious to them and their families. While Israelis feel connected to every soldier and civilian who falls, their love of life enables them to understand why such sacrifices are necessary when opposing an enemy who glorifies death, and thus gives them the fortitude to fight on.
In recent weeks, we Israelis have surprised ourselves time and again with our remarkable social solidarity and resilience. Hamas’s leaders have been incapable of perceiving this strength. So long as they fail to recognize it, they will continue to make mistakes that will hurt them and the population whose interests they purport to defend. So long as Israelis maintain our spirit, we will be able to give the lie to Hamas’s illusions and emerge strengthened from the conflict.