The Hamas Authority for Refugee Affairs has called Israel’s already notorious directive that all civilians should evacuate the northern part of the Gaza Strip “fake propaganda”.
Whoever wrote that is dead wrong, and was certainly not involved in the planning of last week’s armed incursion into Israel carried out by the Palestinian group’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. The last thing that matters in any propaganda operation is whether there is any truth in it.
Multiple surprise breaches of Israel’s security barriers between it and Gaza were carried out in a very determined and efficient fashion, as were the executions and captures of members of Israeli armed forces and civilians in the settlements swarmed by Hamas’s fighters.
But the main purpose of the attack was not military, except possibly to the limited degree of taking hostages who can be used as human shields in case of (expected) Israeli armed retaliation on the ground. The real purpose of the action was Hamas’s desire to demonstrate what it is capable of, militarily and in terms of willingness to use extreme violence.
The action was planned as a message saying “This is what we can and will do” – and as such it falls under that important, even crucial, part of the art of war we call psychological warfare.
The term may be new – it was first used barely 80 years ago, at the beginning of World War II – but the actions it describes are as old as warfare itself, as old as humanity.
From time immemorial, military commanders knew that they stood a better chance of being victorious in battle if their enemy was weakened and demoralised by fear and uncertainty.
Ancient warrior chiefs knew that surprise is one of the most efficient military tactics. If you make your foes guess when and how you will attack, and especially if you make them expect you at a different place at a different time, you have already half won your battle. The other half of victory is achieved by striking your enemy when and where he did not expect you and overcoming his weakened resistance.
Many wars in the past have been won without ever waging or winning one decisive battle. US senator and former military officer in the Vietnam War, John McCain, stated that Vietnamese Commander-in-Chief General Vo Nguyen Giap beat the United States in war but never in battle. In that sense, Hamas beat Israel in last weekend’s battle, but it has not won the war. Yet it scored an important propaganda victory.
Scenes of Hamas machinegunning Israelis – soldiers and civilians – caused outrage in Israel and most of the Western world. But in the eyes of many Palestinians, most of the rest of the Arab world and many Third World countries, the armed fighters demonstrated determination, nerves of steel, skill in the use of modern military technologies and total disregard for their own lives in an action that proved that underdogs can successfully challenge the domination of the big and the mighty. In that vast part of the world, Hamas scored an important propaganda victory.
In Israel and in the West, it shot itself in the foot, giving additional proof to those who consider Hamas fighters cold-blooded murderers and “terrorists”. It also unified Israelis who rallied together regardless of differences in politics or opinions.
Was Hamas aware of the effect the raid would produce? Certainly, but it obviously calculated that it was worth it for them to show themselves in a new light and again raise awareness of the Palestinians’ plight.
The Israeli response was as expected: first came deliberate aerial bombing of Gaza with doubtful military effect, and then came an immediate psychological warfare campaign. Propaganda and guns – a classic military strategy.
Israel’s call to civilians to evacuate northern Gaza in 24 hours is pure propaganda in the function of war. Every military planner knows that even under extreme threat, civilians, who cannot be disciplined the way armies can, who resist attempts to instil order, who try to take with them possessions that slow them down, and try to find alternative routes and means etc, may only cover 20-25km (12.5-15.5 miles) in a day.
But when their numbers swell, with even 10,000 being huge, not to mention a million, they will simply block every road, including ones needed by the military to manoeuvre, and create chaos, panic and demoralisation.
This is exactly what Israel intended to do, but it succeeded only partially. Why? We’ll examine it tomorrow.
Just to add that I was right about the Israeli land attack on Gaza not happening on Friday night. I believe it will not happen today, either.
But I will not say it might not happen next weekend. That might be a realistic time for the Israeli army to have achieved their desired level of operational readiness.