It makes little sense from a military perspective for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and other radical Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip to continue the rocket attacks against Israeli towns, even when the current fragile ceasefire eventually comes to an end. Indeed, rockets cannot help these groups achieve a military victory against the Jewish state. Given their current distance and payload, while the rockets can cause property damage and loss of life, they do not come close to posing a strategic threat to Israel’s survival.
Moreover, the rockets do not have a strong psychological impact in the Palestinian war against Israel. Unquestionably, rockets lack the same demoralizing effect that suicide bombings had on the Israeli population during their peak in the 1990s and in the first years of the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada, launched in October 2000. Indeed, during the height of the suicide campaigns, virtually all of Israel felt as if it was under siege.
Thus, while Sderot and other Israeli neighborhoods within rocket range of Gaza have been damaged and have sustained terrible casualties, the damage has not demoralized the nation. This, of course, is not an attempt to minimize the anguish, anxiety, and pain that these rockets cause. It is simply a fact that the economy and culture have bloomed throughout the rest of Israel.
Finally, the Palestinian rockets have yielded little to no political benefit to those who fire them. This is because Hamas and company have no demands. Three decades ago, Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) demanded the release of prisoners, for example, in exchange for abatement in the campaign of violence. The terrorist groups of today seek nothing from Israel.
This begs the question: If rocket attacks do not yield any tangible military or political benefit, why launch them?
The answer may be found in one of the main sources of inspiration for totalitarianism in the 20th century. George Sorel, whose work “Reflections on Violence” was avidly read by Mussolini and Lenin, had tremendous influence on Fascism and Communist and consequently also on Nazism. Sorel saw violence not as a goal but as a tool to generate a “social myth.” Myth, according to Sorel, is different than a utopia or an idea. Indeed, he believed that ideas can always be challenged, thereby undermining the ability of revolutionary forces to move forward.
Sorel spoke about the importance of a “general strike” conducted by the workers. A strike, as he saw it, would not achieve any final concrete goal (higher wages, etc.) Rather such a strike would “evoke instinctively all the sentiments that reflect the war of socialism against modern capitalistic society.” It would be an act of class war, designed to inspire collective action and mass mobilization, which he saw as crucial to giving life and practical meaning to the revolution. In other words, violence gives a general sense that the movement is there and can achieve victory. In Sorel’s words, “The goal is nothing; the movement is everything.”
Hamas’ Ideology and Fascism
Fascism, like Nazism and Communism, relied on violence to stay in power, mostly because their leaders were keenly aware that their ideas alone would not be easily accepted. Terror activities, such as “Kristalnacht” or Stalin’s killings in rural areas, were aimed not just at intimidating the population. They had the dual purpose of propaganda, and elevating revolutionary enthusiasm among the masses through violence.
Hamas today follows a similar logic. When the Islamist organization launches rockets towards Israeli towns from Gaza, it is viewed as a military strike, but it is also an important message to the Palestinian masses that the revolution is still alive and that, as long as the violence continues, the hope for the destruction of Israel remains alive. The notion of destroying Israel and replacing it is not a goal to be fulfilled in the short run. As such, there is fear that the general Palestinian population may turn cynical and consequently contemptuous of the Hamas leadership. Continued violence, even violence with no observable purpose, serves as a symbolic message to the restive Palestinian people.
Hamas violence over the years has taken many forms. Knifings, shootings, suicide bombings, car bombings, and now rockets have been an attempt by Hamas to convey a message that terrorism works, and that continuing such operations can bring the Palestinians into a final victory. By stridently claiming responsibility for rocket attacks and other forms of violence, Hamas also sends the message that it sees itself as the only group capable of bringing about victory against Israel, thus fulfilling Sorel’s vision
The Palestinian Sorelian Past
Palestinian terrorist groups have a long history of employing the Sorelian myth. With little in the way of funding and infrastructure, Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization had since the 1950s worked to mobilize the Palestinians by creating small guerrilla networks that carried out pinprick attacks against Israel. Yet, through continued violence, after the stunning Israeli defeat of the Arab states in the 1967 Six-Day War, it emerged as the revolutionary champion of the Palestinian people.
To further mobilize masses of Palestinians, Fatah’s leadership exploited a military battle that took place in the Jordanian village of Karameh in March of 1968. In that battle, Israeli Defense Forces attacked Palestinian guerrilla positions in the West Bank and at one point they chase the guerrillas in Jordan. Fatah fought in Karameh with Israeli forces for an entire day. In the end 28 Israelis, some 170 Palestinians, and 100 Jordanians were killed. Despite this lopsided Palestinians defeat. Karameh somehow became a symbol of Palestinian superiority and generated the “social myth” that only the Palestinians could bring the Israelis to their knees. Indeed, the battle at Karameh became a Palestinian legend. Using that relatively obscure military episode as a battle cry, Fatah succeeded in recruiting thousands of new supporters, and even helped to spawn several other violent Palestinian organizations.
The collective euphoria surrounding the battle of Karameh inspired other dangerous trends among the Palestinians. It can be argued that it was this false sense of invincibility that led the Palestinians to believe that they could successfully challenge the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Beginning in the late 1960s, Yasir Arafat sought to create a Palestinian state within a state, sending the Jordanians into high alert. King Hussein had little choice but to crush the PLO and other Palestinian organizations that challenged his sovereignty in the fall of 1970, in an episode now known as “Black September.”
Similarly, 38 years after Karameh, Hezbollah successfully turned its military defeat in the 2006 war against Israel into a victory. Even as Beirut lay in rubble, and while Hezbollah’s leadership hid in underground bunkers and undisclosed locations, the Lebanese guerrilla group claimed that their ability to shoot katyusha rockets into Israel was proof of their victory.
Even the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah has been trumpeted as a military victory over Israel. By simply demonstrating that they were in possession the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers – killed by Hezbollah fighters – the Iran-sponsored terrorist group electrified its followers, and provided them with optimism that the war against Israel can be won.
Defeating the Sorelian Mindset
Violence – strategic or not – is a powerful instrument that can be used to recruit the masses. It worked to bring new supporters to totalitarianism in Sorel’s time. It should then come as no surprise that violence continues to inspire radical movements in the age of radical Islam.
What led to the defeat of totalitarianism and subsequent revolutionary ideologies was superior firepower and force. Thus, in the event of renewed rocket attacks against Israel by Hamas and other Islamist groups in Gaza, the best strategy Israel can pursue is to systematically target the infrastructure and leadership. For Israel to defeat the Sorelian myth, the Palestinian masses need to feel that they are losing their war, and that continued violence will bring them only misery and defeat.
Despite the heavy losses inflicted upon the Hezbollah in the 2006 war, Israel missed an opportunity to impose a complete victory. This scenario cannot be repeated in the Gaza Strip when Hamas elects to end the ceasefire and renews its missile barrages into Israel. Tolerating Hamas’ “limited war of attrition” only emboldens the Palestinian Sorelian spirit. Israel must accordingly react forcefully and decisively in the next round of fighting.
Dr. Luis Fleischman is political sociologist. He teaches at the Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University.