OpinionIsrael at War

Resisting demoralization

Surrendering to Hamas’s demands will endanger Israel.

Israeli forces during operational activities in the Gaza Strip on March 10, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli forces during operational activities in the Gaza Strip on March 10, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Eran Lerman
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.

Basil H. Liddell Hart, one the most prominent military theoreticians of the 20th century, explains how Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler gained its initial dramatic success: The Austrian corporal shook off the strategic mistakes of the World War I generals and focused on the psychological aspects of warfare (at least until the point at which hubris led him to the ill-fated assault on the Soviet Union). “He was contemptuous of assaults and bayonet-charges—the ABC of the traditional soldier,” writes Liddel Hart. “His way in warfare began with a double D—demoralization and disorganization.” He proved, in his prime, to be the master of breaking his enemies’ spirits and undoing the political and military order of most of his rivals.

Hitler’s students—the Hamas leaders hiding in their tunnels in southern Gaza—are now left with demoralization and the hope of disorienting and disorganizing Israeli society as their one effective weapon. The impact of Nazi teaching upon them is evident not only in the copies of “Mein Kampf” regularly found in the homes of Gazans, but also in the manner in which the Hamas Covenant of 1988—particularly the interpretation of modern history on offer in Article 22 thereof—echoes Nazi Arabic World War II propaganda.

In the actual fighting on the ground, despite several tragic events that resulted in relatively high Israeli casualties, the Israel Defense Forces has maintained absolute military superiority in Gaza. This is reflected in the casualty ratio—about 50 to 1—and the results of practically every engagement with Hamas fighters. The illusory claim that their heroic spirit would enable them to stop the IDF’s advance was shattered, and unlike in previous confrontations with “muqawamah” (resistance) Islamists, many have surrendered. Their ability to target Israel’s civilian population has been largely eroded, their rocket stockpiles have dwindled, and overall—in the days after Oct. 7—no more than six people, four of them Israeli citizens, were killed by the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza.

Moreover, the guiding assumptions of the Hamas command structure as to the expansion of the fighting into Israel proper—based to some extent on the lesson of “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, when there were serious disturbances in Arab towns and mixed neighborhoods in Israel itself—proved wrong. Hezbollah did join in, but only in a very limited way. This led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Israelis and required a massive deployment in the north but did not hamper the main effort in Gaza (in any event, there was a limit to the scope of forces that could be engaged there). Nor does the Houthi campaign, troublesome as it may be, amount to the “unification of fronts” Hamas had hoped for—and which has now met with counter-action by the United States and its allies. Thus, demoralization and propaganda, and above all the brutal use and abuse of the hostage situation, are the one effective toolbox left to Hamas.

The key nodes of psychological warfare

Specifically, there are three tools in this box, which are aimed at undermining the fighting spirit shown so far by Israeli society and weakening the resolve and determination of decision makers, military and political alike:

First and foremost, the hostages—Hamas brutally uses deliberate reports and leaks to enhance fears regarding their fate and the outcry to bring them home “now” (and hence, “at any price”). The call for their release is understandable and touches the hearts of all in Israel and many beyond it, and therefore also generates a powerful pull in the media and social networks, increasing the pressure on the government.

And yet a potential hostage-release deal could involve severe strategic and even moral consequences. The potential cost in blood of the release of a massive number of terrorists could be quite high: after all, the assessment, or pious hope, as presented at the time, that the Israel Security Agency and defense establishment would “contain” the fallout of the Shalit deal had been shattered well before the horrors of Oct. 7.

Moreover, voices in Israel—and not only among the families of the hostages—have called for acceptance of Hamas’s demands as to the outcome of the war. What Sinwar and his colleagues seek is an end to IDF operations in Gaza, international guarantees that the war will not be resumed, and an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. This would in effect constitute a Hamas victory; the immense losses it sustained and brought upon the people of Gaza will only be used to illustrate its resilience and endurance. This will have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s deterrence and regional standing.

Second, in the intensive discourse in Israel—and in line with some of the dire warnings sounded by former senior commanders in the early stages of the fighting—questions have been raised in some quarters as to the purpose of the military effort. There are obvious links between these signs of skepticism, deriding the government’s talk of “total victory,” and the prioritizing of the hostage issue. The issue has also been tainted by politics, as the prime minister is regularly accused, even by former senior officers, of deliberately prolonging the war in the service of his personal interests. Commentary in this vein may actually be fed by hesitant elements within the defense establishment. Such signals, easily picked up by Hamas, are clearly not supported by evidence on the ground in terms of operational results or IDF morale: but in the public domain, they are liable to add to the demoralization caused by singular tragic events—such as the accidental shooting by Israeli forces of three escaped hostages or high-casualty incidents. losses.

Third and last, de-legitimization efforts in the international arena, chief among which—so far—has been the South African decision to accuse Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. These initiatives are also part of the effort to demoralize Israel and reduce its fighting spirit. So far, the gains for Hamas and Iran—which used South Africa as a cat’s paw—have been rather limited, but the campaign is far from over and it is important to ensure, as much as possible, that radical elements in Israel, both left and right, do not play into their hands.

Israel must stand on its red lines

Under these circumstances, Israel’s policy should be driven by the same basic considerations that guided the Meir Shamgar Commission (appointed in 2008 to determine policy in the case of such abductions: it submitted its classified findings in 2012; the Shalit deal was implemented in October 2011). The commission reportedly suggested a tough stance on the number of terrorists to be released for every abductee. The top political echelon in Israel should make it clear both to the public at large and to mediating parties that side by side with tactical flexibility—including a willingness to contemplate a prolonged pause in the fighting—two red lines cannot be crossed:

1. No murderers—as distinct from those who spent decades in Israeli jails—may be released unless the exchange deal mandates their removal from the area so that they cannot again constitute a threat to Israeli lives.

2. The war will not be brought to an end, and the IDF will not pull out until Hamas governance is eradicated everywhere in the Gaza Strip.

A firm and consistent stand on these legitimate requirements should also be accompanied by an unambiguous public message—“no further”—which will clarify what must stay out of the discussion, and should preclude in advance the raising of such ideas even in private, let alone their presentation in public.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

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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