Winning a Lose/Lose War
How to lose battles and gain sympathizers.

Marching against Israel in London (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)


Victor Davis Hanson

Once again neighboring enemies are warring in diametrically opposite ways.

Hamas sees the death of its civilians as an advantage; Israel sees the death of its civilians as a disaster. Defensive missiles explode to save civilians in Israel; in Gaza, civilians are placed at risk of death to protect offensive missiles.

Hamas wins by losing lots of its people; Israel loses by losing a few of its own. Hamas digs tunnels in premodern fashion; Israel uses postmodern high technology to detect them. Hamas’s missiles usually prove ineffective; Israel’s bombs and missiles almost always hit their targets. Quiet Israeli officers lead from the front; loud Hamas leaders flee to the rear. Incompetency wins sympathy; expertise, disdain.

Westerners romanticize the Hamas cause; fellow Arabs of the Gulf do not. Westerners critical of Israel are still willing to visit Israel; sympathizers of Hamas do not wish to visit Gaza.

Democracy and free markets bring Westerners liberty, human rights, and prosperity — but many Westerners scorn these things in Israel, siding with those who deny human rights, ruin their economy, and practice a brutal prejudice against women, gays, and non-Muslims. In Gaza, a gay reporter, a female reporter with bare arms, a reporter with a small crucifix around his neck, the rare journalist who, surrounded by screaming Hamas supporters, dares to broadcast the truth from Gaza — all these in private would admit to being in fear while they are in Gaza in a way they are not when in Israel.

If 1,000 Arabs a week are killed by other Arabs in Syria and Iraq — whether bombed, shot, gassed, or beheaded — the Western world snoozes. If 400 Arabs are killed in a three-week war with Israel, that world suddenly awakes to damn Israelis as killers. Apparently the West, in racist fashion, assumes that killing one another is what Arabs do best. But when Israelis kill those who wish to kill them, outrage follows.

When Israel wins militarily, it seems to lose politically. When Hamas loses, it seems to win. A European may like the idea of Westerners’ losing to non-Westerners, as long as it is not himself who loses.

Europeans do not protest much when Vladimir Putin carves up Georgia or swallows Crimea. When Russian surrogates shoot down a passenger plane carrying many Europeans, Europe nonetheless stays mostly quiet. There are no protests in Paris over the divided city of Nicosia and the harsh Turkish occupation of Cyprus, which has lasted four decades now. No one in Berlin objects that Russia occupies the Sakhalin Islands or China has absorbed Tibet. Europeans assume that the strong who could hurt them can dictate as they wish.

Seventy years ago 13 million German-speakers lost their eastern lands and walked back into Germany; their descendants are not considered refugees. At the same time hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled into the West Bank; their offspring are considered perpetual refugees. If Jews, rather than Poles, were now living on formerly Prussian land in Poland, then, given the prevalence of anti-Semitism, a German “refugee” movement to take back sacred soil would be in full force.

Israel does not lecture the Obama administration about the morality of killing 2,500 suspected terrorists through judge/jury/executioner preemptive drone strikes — at least not in the manner in which the Obama administration sermonizes to Israel about its less lethal defense against Hamas’s rain of missiles into Israel. America can blow up suspected terrorists thousands of miles away who one day might have threatened Americans; Israel cannot blow up known terrorists who are right now killing Israelis.

What explains the inexplicable?

Western illness.

Hamas is deserving of sympathy while al-Qaeda mostly is not, largely because of the feeling that the former cannot do much to Americans, and the latter might do a lot. Westerners, particularly Europeans, sympathize with the underdog in the Middle East as a sort of self-flagellation, a catharsis to deal with their own empty privilege. Postmodern Westerners are guilty about their affluence and leisure, but not to the point of surrendering them. They square the circle of criticizing what they are by projecting their self-animus onto Israel, a small, successful Western outpost surrounded by the less successful Other.