Power Shift: Jordanians wave Palestinian flags during a protest against Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip and in support of Gaza's people on Aug. 1. Despite Israel's military gains, it takes little for Hamas fighters to make victories in the court of public opinion. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/ / AFP/Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — Amid mounting casualties and mutual recriminations over the sixth failed ceasefire in their ongoing war, Israel and Hamas continued late last week to battle on parallel fronts: under the sands of Gaza and in the court of public opinion.
It’s a battle of competing narratives — a protracted race for the public support and perceived victory needed to deter the other side from the next round of fighting.
But in this asymmetrical battle where operational gains of the strong tend to benefit the weak, Israel appears to be coming up short.
More than 25 days into Operation Protective Edge, Israel is increasingly hard-pressed to rally strategic success from its considerable tactical achievements on the ground.
What began as a limited operation in well-known terrain against a force barely the size of a single Israeli brigade has become a war of attrition, allowing Hamas to strengthen its narrative standing with each passing day.
As of Friday, Israel had lost 63 soldiers and three civilians in the ongoing campaign, more than four times the number of deaths from its last 22-day incursion into Gaza in late 2008-2009.
And despite ample evidence supporting Israeli claims that Hamas uses civilians as human shields, international support for its right to self-defense is waning. The world is increasingly focusing on the tens of thousands of displaced people and the 1,418 “martyrs” claimed by the Palestinian Ministry of Health as a result of more than 4,215 targets of Israeli attack.
But the potential game-changer in the ongoing war was Israel’s failure to foil an Aug. 1 attack that allowed Hamas to abduct an Israeli officer, a rumored relative of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
The combined underground commando assault and suicide attack on Givati infantrymen killed two soldiers in addition to the abduction and marked a strategic setback for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), sources here say.
“Protective Edge began as an operation, but we in Israel now define it as a war; a war we were dragged into against our will,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli deputy foreign minister, told reporters here.
Hanegbi said Israel is making an “extraordinary effort at enormous risk to our soldiers” in attempts to reduce harm to the uninvolved civilians of Gaza. “But we have a problem. When we show any restraint, moderation or any sign of sanity, the other side perceives it as weakness.”
As of Aug. 1, Israel was bombing in south Gaza where the attack took place and readying elite commando forces for a rescue mission.
While events here were in flux, one thing is clear from the combined underground ambush and suicide commando attack: In their battle of competing narratives, a single spectacular success by Hamas can equalize the effects of Israeli superiority.
Despite Israel’s extraordinary defenses over 25 days against nearly 3,000 rockets and dozens of mortars and anti-tank missiles, perceived victory can be claimed from the picture of a single soldier in the hands of Hamas.
“Hamas can claim victory from the mere fact that they could stand up to the IDF for a protracted period of time,” said Shaul Shay, a retired colonel with IDF military intelligence and a former deputy of Israel’s National Security Council.
In an Aug. 1 interview prior to Israel’s confirmation of the abducted soldier, Shay said Hamas’ ability to maintain command and control of its forces and to hold hundreds of rockets in reserve to launch against Israel supports the narrative they seek to instill. An eventual ceasefire that allows Israel to evacuate the Gaza Strip further fortifies the Hamas narrative, he said.
“Once they have pictures of the last IDF tank crossing the border, they’ll claim to have won the war, regardless of their losses and the ultimate outcome,” Shay said. “That’s the reality of this asymmetric war.”
In interviews here, military officers and experts acknowledge that Israel underestimated the labyrinth of tunnels used to support subterranean attacks by Hamas.
Maj. Gen. Sami Turgemann, head of the IDF’s southern territorial sector commanding the war, insists the Hamas network of tunnels was known in advance and therefore not a surprise. He acknowledged, however, that dozens of tunnels and access points were discovered during the fighting.
Speaking to Israeli reporters on Wednesday, he said the IDF is operating meticulously under threat of anti-tank missiles, mortar and improvised explosive attack to destroy what remained of the 30-plus tunnels and nearly 70 different access points leading into Israel from Gaza.
“It’s a significant operational and engineering challenge … I can promise we will destroy all the tunnels we are finding during the operation,” he said.
Turgemann estimated the anti-tunnel mission would take another two or three days to complete.
Shay, now head of studies at the Herzliya-based Institute for Policy and Strategy, said Turgemann and numerous other Israeli officials are correct in insisting that the tunnel threat came as no surprise. But like Egypt’s Sager anti-tank missiles used against Israel to devastating effect in the 1973 war, what was unexpected was the quantity and manner in which Hamas managed to use those often explosive-rigged tunnels to strategic effect.
“In 1973, we new about Egypt’s Sagers. We knew the range, their capabilities of penetration. But the intensity of how they were used against us was beyond expectations and created a sort of strategic surprise.
“The same holds true for the tunnels in Gaza. This tactical asset was known to us for 10 years, but their strategic effect surprised us,” Shay said.
In a background briefing Thursday, a colonel with IDF military intelligence said Hamas has depleted its strategic bag of tricks. He noted that Israel had foiled Hamas attempts to attack with frogmen, UAVs and even exploding donkeys.
The colonel insisted that less than one-third of the roughly 9,000 rockets held by Gaza-based groups at the start of the war remain in militant hands, most of them shorter-range rockets. Similarly, he said Israel has proven adept at countering the tunnel threat and was nearing the end of its anti-tunnel mission.
“I’d say they are now just trying to survive… They’re not fighting face-to-face with our forces. We’re not finding much friction on the ground,” he said. ■