The battle to control the narrative is an essential element of modern warfare, especially given the prevalence of social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the rapid speed at which events on the battlefield are shared to a global audience. The Israel-Gaza conflict, being just the latest round of intergenerational fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, is certainly no exception to this rule. Indeed, the emotive impact of the conflict extends far beyond the borders to which it is confined and has galvanised strong reactions across the world. As such, the belligerents of the conflict have an interest in presenting their side in the best light possible to attract international sympathy and support.
The Strategic Advantage of ‘Victimhood Status’
Although the conflict between Israel and Hamas will be decided at the tactical level by either side’s ability to impose its will militarily, at the strategic level it is a war of perceptions. As noted by a recent RAND report, each side is ‘telling a story about who is the victim and who is the aggressor.’ This has led to a form of status competition, whereby both sides compete to be recognised as the victim and paint their foe as the perpetrator.
Victimhood is a central element of both the Israeli and Palestinian national identities. For Israelis, this self-perception is rooted in the Holocaust and successive attacks by neighbouring Arab states, as well as the broader historical Jewish experience of expulsion, exile, and genocide. A parallel sense of victimhood exists for Palestinians caused by the Nakba, the establishment of Israel, displacement, and the Palestinian defeat in 1948.
Most research has focused on how the victim-perpetrator dichotomy has contributed to the intractability of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with both sides unable to break free from grievance politics and establish a conclusive peace. However, victimhood may also serve as a desirable status, sought after by actors in search of support on the world stage.
As explained by an academic paper which appeared in the Review of International Studies last year, ‘those who are labelled victims can anticipate greater resources, sympathy, and support of all kinds.’ Due to various sociocultural norms and values broadly shared internationally, a duty to assist perceived victims is commonly held as a moral obligation. For this reason, state actors want to be seen supporting victims. At the least, this may result in rhetorical statements in favour of the perceived victims, but it may also result in tangible diplomatic, economic, and military support if external actors also have national interests that align with the victim’s.
Israel and Hamas: Competitive Victimhood
Israel and Hamas are both engaged in fierce narrative warfare. To seize the narrative, both sides highlight the plight of their own people whilst painting the opposition as perpetrators. Any humanitarian transgressions that they may commit are downplayed or denied. Successful control of the narrative can be used to bolster international support and justify policies that may otherwise be hard to swallow.
The terrorist attacks conducted by Hamas militants against Israeli civilians on 7 October have served as the casus belli for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to conduct military operations in Gaza. Approximately 1,400 Israelis were killed and 240 taken hostage by Hamas.
The ghastliness of the terrorist attack has not failed to attract international sympathies, with many world leaders denouncing Hamas and expressing their support for Israel. Key allies, like US President Joe Biden called the attack ‘pure unadulterated evil’ and insisted that Israel would not stand alone.
On the battlefield of perceptions, it is crucial that Israel maintains the sympathies and diplomatic goodwill afforded to it in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack. The moral justification for the IDF’s response is that of a victim defending itself against a perpetrator.
However, time is not on Israel’s side. The nature of fighting in Gaza – a densely populated urban area – means that the civilian death toll will inevitably rise the longer the fighting persists. Every Palestinian death grants Hamas the narrative advantage, making it easier for them to portray Israel as the perpetrators.
Palestinian health authorities have claimed that the death toll in Gaza already exceeds 10,000. These figures, combined with harrowing images of civilian casualties are highly circulated in both the mainstream and social media, and have tremendous emotive power. As such, opposition to Israel’s military operations is already mounting, with United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres having called for a ceasefire on 14 November.
Hamas enjoys another advantage on the battlefield of perceptions: it need not make moral excuses for itself. Hamas is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU, and several countries around the world, but these actors rightly disassociate it from the Palestinian population it claims to represent. This dissociation works in Hamas’ favour because it can effectively act with impunity without dampening international recognition of Palestinian civilians as victims.
Beyond outliers like Iran that provide support for Hamas, the group will not win much goodwill from the international community, nor will it be conferred with victimhood status. But it does not need to. It does not matter much if Hamas is seen as a perpetrator if Israel is also seen as such and the Palestinian population are viewed as the latter’s victims.
Most of Israel’s allies are democracies which share an aversion to the suffering of civilians in war. The higher the civilian death toll rises, the greater the opposition to Israel’s military operation in Gaza will be. Pro-Palestine demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of protestors have already occurred across Western capitals. This poses a problem for Israel because the court of public opinion matters in the countries it is allied to. Consequently, there is a potentially limited window of time until allied governments are compelled to publicly express reservations about Israel’s military operations in Gaza, leading to further diplomatic isolation.
The longer the conflict in Gaza persists, the more space Israel will likely concede to Hamas on the narrative front. During previous Israeli campaigns in Gaza, such as those in 2012 and 2014, initial support for Israel quickly waned as international sympathies turned in favour of Palestinian civilians. A repeat of this trend is highly probable.
This places pressure on the IDF to conclude operations in Gaza as quickly as possible with minimum civilian casualties before international support erodes completely. Even key allies like the US cannot unreservedly maintain their support if the court of domestic public and global opinion turns against Israel.
Hamas stands to benefit the most from highly publicised civilian casualties in the conflict, since this will bolster global opposition to Israel. The group can effectively leverage social media to pin the blame on IDF personnel for civilian deaths. Mainstream media coverage and the work of NGOs to highlight the plight of civilians may also be leveraged in this regard.
As Israel and Hamas contend to seize narrative control, much of the battle will be fought indirectly by third parties not officially affiliated with either side. Take for example the pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protestors who have taken to the streets in recent weeks or the colossal bombardment of posts on social media arguing that one side or another are the ‘real victims’.
Ultimately, both sides aspire to shape perceptions of the conflict held by third parties and will wield information as a weapon to achieve that objective. In contemporary international relations victimhood can be an advantageous status during a war, thus, Israel and Hamas will lock horns to convince the international community that they are the legitimately aggrieved party.