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Hamas Is Winning the Information War
The international community is calling for cease-fires, which may be a poor military tactic for Israel but an essential political one
The terrorist organization Hamas is winning the information war. One month after Hamas’ complex terrorist attack on Israeli civilians, killing 1,400 people and kidnapping 241 hostages, the media narrative has shifted to the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza. The bombing attacks that have killed Gazans, especially children, have become the story of the war, while the victims of Oct. 7 are fading from media view. This narrative has caused many world leaders, from the U.N. secretary general to Pope Francis, to call for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war. This action would almost certainly benefit Hamas and harm Israel, but the country may have no choice but to bow to public opinion and do it anyway.
Shifting Media Narratives
Left-wing media in the U.S. are stepping up the attacks on Israel. The Intercept’s coverage is dedicated to exposing Israeli war crimes in Gaza—ignoring Hamas’ many war crimes so far. U.S. media outlets helped the Hamas cause with sloppy reporting on rocket casualties at a Gaza hospital. Likewise, the state-run media of authoritarian regimes worldwide have broadcast Hamas’ message accusing Israel of war crimes, which has been amplified by Western outlets and Hamas’ activist networks in Western countries. According to The New York Times, Israel has been surprised by the ferocity and success of this messaging.
Initially, it seemed the methods used in the terror attacks of Oct. 7 would drain Hamas’ supporters of power to influence subsequent events. Like a game of “red light, green light,” the current war has exposed the bloodily enthusiastic Hamas supporters in the West. They have identified themselves with their paragliding logos and expressions of exhilaration at the actions of the attackers. They can’t put that genie back in the bottle, even if they subsequently try to wriggle back out of the spotlight to save their careers. They exposed what they believe before hearing the “red light” command from top hiring firms and deep-pocketed donors who opposed the attacks.
Yet Hamas hasn’t suffered any media backlash and seems emboldened by its information war success. One Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamad, has bragged that his group will continue making Oct. 7-style terrorist attacks on Israel. Last week a Hamas politburo member disavowed his organization’s responsibility to aid Gaza’s civilians. The international community expects Israel to care more about Palestinian lives than Hamas, the sole political authority of Gaza, does. Hamas’ advocacy of terror and rejection of all responsibility doesn’t matter: The international media is now focused on Palestinian kids being killed by Israeli airstrikes against Hamas military positions.
With the ground war in Gaza now in its second week, Israel’s most important ally, the U.S., appears to be wavering in its support for Israel’s strategy. According to the Brookings Institution, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are shifting public opinion in the U.S., though in October Americans demonstrated strong support for Israel. Civilian casualties are causing more U.S. leaders, including prominent members of Congress, to call for a cease-fire.
In the past few weeks, the White House’s focus has shifted from the war to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The New York Times reports that the White House has become more critical of Israel’s handling of the humanitarian situation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is now urging a reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to institute more “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid for civilians in Gaza, even though the Israelis have already established some humanitarian aid stations and corridors.
International pressure is hindering Israel’s war effort and its ability to defend itself. Destroying Hamas is a war of necessity for Israel; it will take months to clear this group from Gaza. As we noted a few weeks ago, the Oct. 7 attack on Israel is the rough equivalent, population-wise, of an attack on the U.S. that would kill 40,000. Israel’s fight against Hamas is part of the global fight against radical Islamic terrorism, which has been crippled but not yet destroyed.
Hamas’ Strategy: Press Democracies’ Tender Hearts
Hamas’ path to victory doesn’t depend wholly on its warrens of defensive positions in Gaza City. Far more importantly, it must win the information war to survive and fight another day. As the media urges cease-fires on Israel, Hamas has room to breathe, and Israelis’ lack of caution in bombing populated areas in Gaza risks turning the conflict in Hamas’ favor.
Those calling for a cease-fire may not realize such an action will only prolong the war. Nearly 200 years ago, Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz warned about such “kind-hearted” people who think war can be fought with minimal bloodshed. Avoiding civilian casualties is an important consideration, but it can't be the main goal for any war. “War is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst,” he wrote. In his analysis, however, Clausewitz didn’t have to account for the intense media environment of today. The information war has become the center of gravity of modern conflict.
Especially for democratic governments, losing the information war often makes its war efforts unsustainable. The British gave up 26 counties of Ireland to the Irish Republican Army in 1921 largely because of the IRA’s superior propaganda and shifting public opinion in England. We Americans lost in Vietnam despite dominating on the battlefield because, especially after the 1968 Tet offensive, our media turned on the war. But the British and the U.S. could walk away from those conflicts. With Gaza and Hamas, Israel doesn’t have that luxury.
Contrary to the mainstream media narratives, Israel is sensitive to public perception and civilian casualties. According to Ronen Bergman in “Rise and Kill First,” in Israel’s intense intelligence war against Hamas from 1998 to 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon halted Israel’s targeted killings after the nation had lost too much ground with the international community. Hamas, also shaken by the losses to its leadership, ended its suicide bombings.
American experts have been warning Israel about what the high cost of a ground war in Gaza might look like, citing our 2004 experience in Fallujah during the Iraq War. But this incident is really an example of the perils of cease-fires. As military analyst Bing West notes in his writing on the Iraq War, the Bush White House first demanded the assault, then countermanded the order after the press focused on civilian casualties. Months later, the methodical Marine operation in the city—fighting house to house and room to room—shut down al-Qaida’s bomb factories and torture chambers and killed 2,000 insurgents. The battle of Fallujah was won, but only after a cease-fire and negotiation had failed.
Beware the Siren Song of ‘Cease-Fire’
Often in war, a cease-fire can be a useful and productive tactic. It is usually a temporary battlefield condition with no political dimension. Military commanders might arrange a cease-fire so both sides can retrieve exposed wounded and bury their dead. Or a cease-fire might be an invitation by one commander to pause hostilities for his opponent to consider surrender terms. There are plausible humanitarian reasons for cease-fires. But in this case, a cease-fire is unlikely to achieve any of these laudable goals; instead, it will simply hinder Israel’s ability to fight back against Hamas’ attacks.
Ironically, a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel was already in effect on Oct. 6, and had been since 2021. The relationship seemed peaceful enough that Israel had issued work permits to Palestinians in Gaza for jobs in the Jewish state. There is no reason to suggest such rudimentary relationships could not have expanded into more mutually beneficial ones in due time, given goodwill on both sides.
Sneak attacks, however, do not engender goodwill. Imperial Japan understood this prior to its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor but hoped that the scale of the impending war would deter the U.S. from prosecuting it. On the contrary, the nature of the attack inflamed America’s anger such that it would go to any lengths to destroy the offending regime. The nature of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7—even as Gazans worked in Israel—has ended Israel’s interest in accommodating Hamas in any way. It is worth noting that the Gazan workers trapped in Israel on Oct. 7 have been sent home, in contrast to Hamas’ policy on hostages.
Those calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, whether they are kind hearts or cynical operatives, for all intents and purposes are acting to prevent Hamas’ defeat and give it time to reconstitute its forces to attack again at a time of its choosing. This is why Netanyahu said there will be no more “rounds” with Hamas. He has subsequently said there will be no cease-fire unless Hamas frees its hostages, a climbdown from his earlier declarations.
Adapt to the War You’re In
In America’s many wars, we have had a somewhat checkered track record of avoiding civilian casualties. We have often taken steps to avoid them, but the priority was always to defeat the enemy. Civil War Union General William T. Sherman understood the reality of war and knew it must end quickly. He wrote once to inform the people of Atlanta to vacate because his army was coming in. Sherman warned the Confederate commander, “I am not bound by the laws of war to give notice of the shelling of Atlanta, a fortified town, with magazines, arsenals, foundries, and public stores. You were bound to take notice.”
As the Israelis have recently pointed out, avoiding civilian casualties is not how the U.S. achieved victory in World War II. Israel likewise is waging a just war—it is not a war crime for the nation to defend itself against a deadly enemy. Its response has been reasonable, Israel’s attacks were a last resort, and civilians are not being deliberately targeted.
It is unfortunately true that blunders, such as the deaths in the Jabaliya refugee camp, will be inevitable. In Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021, a mistaken drone attack killed 10 civilians. We committed many such errors in the war on terror, admitted our mistakes, made amends in some cases—and moved on to the next terrorist target. Israel should do the same, but it will need to exercise even greater care in its war against Hamas so as not to lose the essential information war.
This is not 1945, let alone 1864. Public opinion matters; it is an important domain of modern war. It may be distasteful to talk of “cease-fires” after what Hamas did, but considering such an action is essential if Israel is not to lose the information war, which is already slipping away.
Israel must adapt to this reality. It may be inclined to muscle through the mounting criticism and pressure to “pause” now coming from the Biden administration. But it might not be able to do so. Israel should calculate how a humanitarian pause would aid its approach to the information war. It must demonstrate that—unlike its enemy, Hamas—it appreciates the humanitarian dimension to this conflict.
The U.S. can best help the Israelis by emphasizing a realistic public stance that this war will be terrible but necessary. Our message must be that Israel is also fighting our fight against international terrorism and its sponsor, Iran. Last week FBI Director Christopher Wray and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas both warned that there will be more terrorist threats to the U.S. inspired by Hamas’ success. Still, urging the Israelis to be strategically flexible and not surrender the information war to Hamas is in the common interest of Israel and the U.S.