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Hamas vs. Israel: Psychological asymmetry in action

One recurring example is the ability of an inferior military force to fight a superior one by resorting to tactics that the latter cannot and will not undertake.

UNRWA staff members protest against cuts in financial aid outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on April 14, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.
UNRWA staff members protest against cuts in financial aid outside the agency's offices in Gaza City on April 14, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90.
Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. Mansdorf

What we are seeing these days in the fighting between Israel and Hamas is the principle of “psychological asymmetry” once again in action. Simply put, “psychological asymmetry” refers to the difference between what is real in theory and what is real in practice, depending on perspective and ideology. And when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, reality is often not what it seems.

One recurring example of psychological asymmetry is the ability of an inferior military force to fight a superior one by resorting to tactics that the latter cannot and will not undertake. Arab terror entities and organizations, which care little for international humanitarian standards when it comes to the protection of civilians, benefit from this asymmetry by having no restraints when it comes to targeting civilians.

Not only do they not care about targeting Israeli citizens, but they also care little about and even exploit to the point of sacrifice the well-being and lives of their own people, using them as cover in their missile-launching aimed at Israelis. When civilians in Israel are victims, psychological asymmetry sees them as collateral victims of strong and formidable military force. But when civilians of the militarily weaker Hamas are hurt, they are seen as “true” victims of the supposedly worthy underdog.

Hamas realizes this well, and in the past has used the images of wailing mothers and injured and dead children to promote the perception of military asymmetry—i.e. the military superiority of Israel—as being unfair and illegitimate. So terms such as “disproportionate” are inaccurately attached to Israeli actions and, in practice, weaken the ability of Israel to continue to act militarily according to plans.

What follows is a depraved interest by Hamas to create a civilian crisis in Gaza, one whose images serve its interest. And so, at some point, dead babies and wailing mothers are perversely part of the psychologically asymmetric strategy of Hamas, and one that Israel has had difficulty dealing with.

This time, the above tool has so far been taken away from Hamas. By strategically, carefully and surgically isolating Hamas targets, the civilian victim card has not fully come into play. But, curiously enough, this may not be due to the strategy of Israel, which always has been to minimize civilian involvement, but rather to three cardinal missteps of Hamas.

First, its increased bombing of major population centers in the center of Israel—places where they had some limited success in wreaking havoc and creating casualties—inversely weakens their ability to claim unique victim status in the psychological realm.

Second, and more complex, is the co-occurring unrest, fueled and encouraged by Hamas, where Israel’s Arab citizens are seen carrying out attacks on Jewish citizens and bring to mind images reminiscent of the dark days of pogroms and base anti-Semitism.

Third, and perhaps a misstep that leads to a series of subsequent missteps, is the behavior of Hamas that results from frustration. Frustration—the blocking of a goal, the thwarting of a plan—leads to aggression. This frustration moves Hamas from acting according to a thoughtful plan and creates more spontaneous and reckless reactions that come from failure to see results from its military, and perhaps more important, psychological strategy.

The raining of massive missile barrages on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, especially after announcing it first, is a self-goal in the usual psychological asymmetry advantage enjoyed by the terror entity. So are images of Jews beaten and synagogues set on fire by Hamas sympathizers.

The ultimate success of a strategy that stems from psychological asymmetry, however, is dependent on the reactions of those such as political leaders, diplomats, journalists and social-media influencers in the international community, who are seen as key in what Hamas is trying to accomplish. Here, the psychology of the reaction depends on the source. While, for the political echelon, practical considerations and reality often cynically play a significant role, this is less relevant for the ideologically driven, whose beliefs and attitudes determine their stance.

When a Hamas target that also houses foreign reporters is hit, journalists are less interested in the justification of eliminating a Hamas target and more interested in themselves. For the progressive left, ideology and belief that calls for understanding the grievances that drive the behavior of Hamas will dominate.

For those who believe that the “truth” in any conflict is what is important, the principle of psychological asymmetry comes to teach us that the truth we seek is very often obscured by subjective realities created by parties to the conflict and regularly manipulated to serve a strategic purpose.

Hamas, which understood and used these psychological tools for years, may now have gone a few steps too far. Hopefully, those that enabled this behavior and served as pawns in the chessboard of Palestinian terror will now see it for what it is.

Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and an adjunct professor of psychology at Long Island University in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has conducted studies on lone-wolf terrorism, the Jewish American community and on the behavioral aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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