Jerusalem — In the wake of votes on the U.N.-brokered ceasefire in the Middle East, the mad scramble for postwar bragging rights has intensified. Remarkably, as with America’s War on Terror, Western commentators unrealistically tend to view anything other than a total victory over terrorists as a major loss. It is folly to accept Hezbollah’s claim that simply surviving an Israeli onslaught is victory for them, despite all the men, material, and maneuverability they lost. By any objective standard, Hezbollah suffered a stinging defeat these last four weeks. Moreover, once again, a Western country demonstrated much more grit and unity in responding to terrorism than the Islamicists or Western defeatists expected. Talking about “blowback,” defined in this case as how Israel’s actions have emboldened terrorists, is irresistible for many analysts. But Israel has once again proven that there is a different blowback pattern at work: Terrorism is an unwelcome but extremely effective morale builder for modern democracies.
Although psychological warfare is not a modern media phenomenon, the spinning since Hezbollah ambushed a routine IDF patrol within Israeli territory in mid-July has been dizzying. Israel’s air force demonstrated surprising knowledge and deftness in leveling Hezbollah’s strongholds and was far more surgical than NATO bombers in Kosovo, let alone Russian forces in Chechneya. Nevertheless, Israel has been chastised for a “disproportionate reaction” while simultaneously being mocked as ineffectual. Somehow, when Americans bomb targets for weeks they are “softening the enemy,” yet when Israelis deploy airpower before their infantry enters, even Israeli journalists bemoan Israel’s failure. On the ground, Israel has defeated Hezbollah repeatedly, yet any time Israeli soldiers fall or victory is not achieved instantly, reportorial naysayers declare Israel a paper tiger. Four decades of guerilla warfare from Algeria and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq teach that terrorists using civilians as flak jackets cannot be defeated on the fly. Nevertheless, the media’s immature and premature compulsion to give instant analysis leads to a perpetual scorekeeping that ignores the chaotic, zigzag nature of even the most successful of wars–let alone the fact that many wars are won and lost in the months of diplomacy and repositioning which come after the last shot has been fired.
In the war’s sickest twist, the tragic deaths of Lebanese civilians at Qana became Hezbollah’s greatest victory. Israel’s spokespeople appeared grimfaced and apologetic; Hezbollah’s spokesmen seemed gleefully eager to press their new propaganda advantage rather than actually mourning their own people’s deaths. They even doubled their claims of the number of civilians that had actually been killed. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora picked up some acting tips from his Hezbollah colleagues, tearfully reporting to the Arab League that 40 Lebanese had been killed in another strike, only to adjust the figure down to one shortly thereafter.
At first glance, Hezbollah’s spinmeisters seemed masterful. Too many reporters echoed the jihadists’ line of the day–pictures of bombed areas and unfortunate civilians caught in the crossfire were too tempting to broadcast, even though they offered no perspective on the dimensions of the damage or the causes of the conflict. Television footage suggests Beirut is ruined although most Israeli bombing targeted only Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold. Moreover, Israelis themselves sweat every flicker in the world-opinion meter. Israeli newspapers are filled with constant second-guessing of IDF tactics and obsessive woe-is-me laments about harsh world criticism and Israel’s PR failures.
Yet, like Yasser Arafat six years ago when he turned from negotiations back to terror, and like his fellow Islamofascists in Hamas-controlled Gaza, Hassan Nasrallah miscalculated. His strategy backfired. Hezbollah’s unprovoked assault, the missile barrage targeting civilians, and the fear that Israel’s Lebanon withdrawal and Gaza withdrawal had emboldened extremists and invited violence all united Israel’s famously fractious society. Israeli morale remained incredibly high despite the national sense of loss each time a citizen died in the conflict. This unity endured even in the face of the inevitable carping about decision-making, and Israel’s frustrating inability to prevent rocket launches from Lebanon and Gaza.
In visiting air bases, the front lines, and the home front, all I heard was “ein breira”: we have no alternative. There were expressions of patience, determination, and a renewed idealism. Air-force commanders insisted they would continue trying to limit civilian suffering, not to score unwinnable PR points with the world but because “we have to respect ourselves.” A pregnant woman in the Northern town of Safed, who endured two weeks of stultifying heat before she and the other 20 men, women, and children–who crowded into her local shelter received an air conditioner–vowed, “We’ll stay down here as long as it takes, as long as Tsahal [the IDF] makes sure to win.”
More broadly, all of Israeli society mobilized to encourage the soldiers and embrace the one million northerners whose lives and livelihoods were targeted by the missiles Hezbollah delivered for its masters in Teheran and Damascus. Reflecting the realities of Israel’s Western-style, consumer-oriented liberal democracy, 57 varieties of volunteer initiatives bubbled up from the grassroots. What they lacked in coordination they compensated for in creativity. A Russian-Israeli tycoon, Arkady Gaydamark, established a tent-city and amusement park for 6000 displaced northerners in southern Israel. The Supersol supermarket chain sold consumers food baskets to donate to the needy in the north. Hundreds of families placed ads for free in newspapers offering to host refugees from the missiles. Moms started summer camps for children of mobilized soldiers or mounted food drives. And thousands of individuals participated in dozens of other initiatives to assist.
In Safed, a poverty-stricken city in the best of times, one of the most impressive corps of young volunteers swooping down on the city came from an organization called “Lev Echad,” One Heart. The organization formed last year to comfort the families from Gaza displaced by the unilateral withdrawal–and consisted mostly of the “orange,” national religious anti-disengagement youth. Now, the organization mobilized more than one thousand young people of all political and religious stripes to deliver food, entertain children in bomb shelters, and care for the elderly, whose caretakers had fled the rockets. Watching two busloads of volunteers arrive in Safed with the high spirits of the cavalry coming to rescue their comrades, it was clear that Hamas and Hezbollah had stumbled into giving Israel a gift no Israeli politician was otherwise capable of delivering.
Just as Osama Bin Laden imposed a sense of camaraderie on Americans after 9/11, Israelis are now determined, united, and focused. They healed the searing wounds of last August’s Gaza disengagement and resolutely faced the threat posed not just by their nihilistic neighbors, but by the dastardly manipulators in Syria and Iran.
Such national purpose will outlast any fluctuating headlines from a spin-centered, media-wired universe, suffering from collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Such morale proves that terrorists may be the most effective patriotism-generators in the West today. Terrorism terrifies but it also galvanizes. That overlooked and unintended side effect may in the long run help explain the decline of the Islamofascists throughout the world.
– Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author of the recently released, updated edition of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He is spending the summer in Jerusalem.