OpinionIsrael at War

Hamas seeks to divide Israel

The division between Israelis who want the hostages returned and those who want absolute victory harms Israeli resilience.

Families of Israeli captives in Gaza speak to reporters outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art after returning from talks in Qatar, Jan. 7, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Families of Israeli captives in Gaza speak to reporters outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art after returning from talks in Qatar, Jan. 7, 2024. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and a member of the emergency division of IDF Homefront Command.

A psychological war against Israel is taking place in several arenas. In one, the war is between Gaza terrorists and Israel. In another, it is between Israel and a variety of international actors. In the third, which need not exist, it is between Israel and itself.

This is a war that, just like the physical war, Israel did not start; it has been dragged into it. Despite talk of all Israelis being “together” and repeated pleas from numerous people, including parents of soldiers who have fallen in battle, pressure from contending interests is creating fissures that only serve the enemy’s purposes.

The resilience needed to continue this long multi-front war is dependent on a united society; a society with common interests, goals and strategies. When these come into conflict, social resilience, an essential element in any war strategy, is damaged.

At the moment, two goals are beginning to clash. First, the goal of defeating Hamas. Second, the goal of returning the hostages home safely. If one believes that military pressure will ultimately force a hostage deal, these goals do not contradict each other. But once confidence in a military solution to the hostage situation is weakened, the two goals ultimately clash.

With each passing day that the hostages are not returned, frustration and distress among the hostages’ families increase. Along with this come expressions of anger against the government and demands for a hostage deal “now.”  At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers have been conscripted and over a hundred have been killed or wounded in the quest to defeat Hamas. Their feelings and the feelings of their families also deserve consideration.

Watching all this is the Hamas leadership. We understand this on an intellectual level, but the slogan we have all been hearing is not “release them now; it is “bring them home now.” There is a subtle difference between the two that may indicate who is believed to be more responsible for securing the hostages’ release: Hamas or Israel.

It is impossible to disagree with the claims made by many hostage families that they were abandoned on Oct. 7 and that Israel has a responsibility to redeem that failure and return their loved ones. Despite a partial success in that effort through an interim deal that freed many hostages, the lack of progress since then is viewed by many, perhaps unfairly, as a governmental failure.

However, we must also consider the feelings of Israelis who despite mourning for the past also fear for the future. They insist that eliminating the Hamas threat is an existential necessity and the war must not end until that goal is accomplished.

We know why Hamas agreed to the previous hostage deal. Hamas’s primary goal was not to secure the release of prisoners but to suspend hostilities in hopes that the suspension would become permanent. Hamas is now less ambiguous in its demands. It has stated quite clearly: Stop the war if you want your people back alive. To emphasize this, they are using the brutal psychological tactic of releasing videos showing hostages alive one day and dead the next. This strategy is clearly designed to manipulate public opinion in Israel.

There is no reason for Hamas to keep hostages alive other than to end the war and remove Israeli troops from Gaza. But even if Israel were to agree to that deal, the more hawkish sector of Israeli society needs to consent to it. After all, the government has an absolute responsibility to ensure that there will be no future massacres and mass kidnappings. An end to the war would demonstrate to the terrorists that their strategy was effective and they can survive a war on their terms no matter the horrors they commit.

So, Israel is divided against itself. Few if any Israelis are prepared to openly criticize the hostages’ families, but few are willing to cede this war to Hamas. Israelis and their leaders will have to decide which is more important to them: Responsibility for the errors of the past or the responsibility to prevent such errors in the future. We would like to have it both ways, but this may not be possible.

Let’s hope Israelis choose wisely.

For a more extensive discussion of Hamas’s psychological warfare, see here.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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