The ‘March of Return’: Hamas’ dirty war against Israel

Hamas members in Gaza  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hamas members in Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the so-called “March of Return,” Hamas is utilizing a new kind of power in international relations called “sharp power.” This term originally referred to the subversion, manipulation, distraction and lies authoritarian governments employ to undermine liberal democracies. This article extends and applies the concept to the behavior of organizations like Hamas. This terrorist organization conducts an extremely dirty battle against Israel and cynically exploits Western democracies to achieve its extreme goals.
Power is the ability to influence others to get what you want. In the past, there was only “hard power”: getting what you want by using or threatening to use force or sanctions, or inducing compliance with rewards. When the Cold War ended, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, Jr. coined the term “soft power,” defined as getting what you want by attracting and persuading people through values, policies, institutions and culture. The next step was “smart power”: a combination of hard and soft power. The Russian intervention in the US 2016 presidential elections yielded the “sharp power” concept. Through lies and manipulation, non-state entities exploit and abuse freedom of expression, freedom of the press and sensitivities to human rights abuses.
Hamas employed sharp power against Israel throughout all the military confrontations it initiated against Israel in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. It systematically disseminated outright fabrications and distortions and terrorized innocent citizens. It did this to increase tensions and disagreements in Israel, cultivate support in Western democracies and obtain one-sided, extreme condemnation of Israel in international bodies such as the ridiculous UN Council on Human Rights. This strategy yielded much criticism of Israel, and two highly flawed UN reports that inflicted much damage on Israel’s standing in the world.
Now, Hamas is repeating the same sharp power strategy and presenting the “March of Return” as an innocent and peaceful demonstration initiated by suffering citizens to protest their miserable economic and social conditions. Hamas also accused Israel of committing war crimes by intentionally shooting and killing demonstrators, and blamed the blockade for the suffering. The truth is exactly the opposite.
Hamas initiated and organized the march, invested millions of dollars in building infrastructure for the demonstrators near the border, and called for the breaching of the border fence and infiltration into Israeli territory. Hamas deployed operatives among the demonstrators and ordered them to use violence against Israeli soldiers. It sent women and children close to the fence to provoke Israeli soldiers. Hamas knew these violent actions might trigger Israeli fire, but that was the point. As in all the previous military operations, it wanted as many Palestinians as possible to be killed, including women and children, in order to obtain favorable media coverage, world sympathy, denunciation from world leaders and condemnatory resolutions from UN bodies.
Hamas is lying about the reasons for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It annually spends hundreds of millions of dollars on operatives, rockets, attack tunnels and violence. The more recent deterioration in the Gaza economy resulted from a bitter feud between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, not from any Israeli action. The head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, cut funding for the power station and salaries of officials. These measures caused, respectively, electrical blackouts and severe reductions in income. Israel but also Egypt imposed a legal blockade on Gaza because of Hamas’ smuggling of rockets and materials for the tunnels.
The Western media, international organizations and human rights organizations collaborated with Hamas, and thereby undermined Israel’s right to self-defense. The Western media largely accepted the manipulations, lies and fabrications of Hamas without much questioning. They published and broadcast partial and biased reports, incorrect data and information, exaggerations and extreme commentary. They also omitted significant context, which in itself caused distortion. For example, on several occasions, The New York Times published false statements like this: “The protests are aimed at Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which began after Hamas seized control in 2007.”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and others have called for an independent investigation of Israel’s conduct. Pope Francis lamented the killing of “defenseless Palestinians.” In Israel, the radical Left party Meretz and the controversial “human rights” organization B’Tselem, accepted the false Hamas narrative and demanded investigation only of Israel’s defensive actions. All removed any reference to Hamas’s motivation, aggression, war crimes and manipulations. For them, it was only the Israeli army versus innocent civilian demonstrators. This played right into the hands of Hamas and strengthened its use of sharp power.
To defeat Hamas’ sharp power Israel must use smart power – minimal and careful use of force coupled with an intensive public diplomacy campaign. The campaign should present the facts about Hamas, often ignored by Israel’s critics. Most of them missed, or willfully ignored, the march’s slogan: “the March of Return.” In practice, “return” means the elimination of Israel as an independent Jewish state. In addition, Hamas has never supported either a peace process with Israel or a “two states for two peoples” solution.
Shooting at Israeli soldiers, throwing firebombs, putting explosives on the border fence, setting fire to fields across the border and using women and children as human shields don’t constitute innocent, peaceful demonstrations. The demand for the right of return isn’t a protest against the blockade. Hamas is primarily responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but the blame is placed exclusively on Israel. There is something deeply wrong with the approach of the UN, the Western media and human rights organizations to the march of return. It is counterproductive and only helps to strengthen Hamas’s utilization of sharp power.
Given the natural sympathy for the underdog and the too easy acceptance of Hamas’s false narrative, defeating Hamas’s sharp power will be difficult. It requires reorganization of the government ministries and agencies responsible for public diplomacy, and effective coordination and supervision among them. The smart power remedy requires a synergy among all the military, diplomatic and communication systems as well as between the government and extra-governmental non-profits and NGOs.
The author is director of the Center for International Communication and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.