Gaza War: Tet Offensive Redux?

Gaza War: Tet Offensive Redux?

Hamas is losing. However, as in 1968, media coverage and political pressure are hindering an Israeli victory.


In January 1968, during the Lunar New Year (or “Tet”) holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault.

The North Vietnamese had hoped that the offensive would trigger a popular uprising, leading to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government and forcing the United States to negotiate a peace agreement or perhaps even withdraw.

The strikes on the major cities of Saigon and Hue had a strong psychological impact as far as the game of expectations was concerned. They demonstrated that the North Vietnamese were not as weak as the administration of then-President Lyndon Johnson had claimed; after all, they managed to breach the outer walls of the U.S. Embassy.

While the initial attacks stunned Washington and Saigon, temporarily causing them to lose control of several cities, they quickly recovered, countered the attacks, and inflicted significant casualties on the North Vietnamese. They regained all of the lost territory and prevented them from achieving their goal of stirring a popular insurrection. The bottom line was that the offensive proved a military defeat for North Vietnam.

However, that was not how things were seen in the United States. Television images of the Viet Cong forces penetrating the American Embassy in Saigon shocked the American public, who believed the North Vietnamese were on the cusp of defeat and incapable of launching such an ambitious military operation.

The Tet Offensive played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam after Americans concluded that victory in Vietnam was nowhere close to imminent. 

Those public sentiments had a major impact on the decisions made by President Johnson. In contrast, military leaders insisted that the U.S. was in a position to defeat the North and called for launching a U.S.-South Vietnam offensive. Johnson and his aides ended up pursuing a strategy of “de-escalation,” ending the bombing of North Vietnam, setting limits on U.S. troops in South Vietnam, and agreeing to open peace talks with North Vietnam before announcing that he would not seek a second term as president. An American military victory was transformed into a diplomatic and political defeat.

In the same way, the Tet Offensive in 1968 impacted the American public and elites. The Hamas attack on Israel in October last year, during which 1,200 Israelis were killed and another 250 taken hostage, stunned the Israeli people and their leaders. In both cases, the political and military leaders had pledged that that kind of assault was inconceivable. The expectations of invulnerability that the elites had created were not fulfilled.

But after the initial shock, not unlike the American and South Vietnamese forces in 1968, the Israelis and their military went on the offensive and launched an intense campaign of air strikes, followed by a mass ground invasion.

Israeli soldiers have had to maneuver in a dense, urban area with great tactical success. More than 10,000 Hamas fighters, including commanders and leaders, have been killed, and thousands more wounded or captured. The organization’s strategic assets in Gaza, including Khan Younis, the capital of the organization, have been decimated, and five Israeli hostages have been freed.

Indeed, according to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), twenty of Hamas’ twenty-four battalions have been destroyed. The remaining forces are weak and not in a position to control Gaza and its population.

According to press reports, the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has lost communication with some of his units. Unlike the Viet Cong leaders in 1968, who were able to flee to North Vietnam, Sinwar and his lieutenants are being hunted by the Israelis, who are demanding that they surrender or be killed.

The bottom line is that while, like the Viet Cong in 1968, Hamas has not been defeated, it has been knocked off balance and is now in retreat. 

Israel has inflicted a major military blow to Hamas as well as to the Palestinians in Gaza who had elected and supported the terrorist movement and its October 7 attack. Hamas is clearly not in a position to inflict another attack.

Against this backdrop and the failure to negotiate a ceasefire or a deal to release the hostages with Hamas, Israel is now ready to squeeze Hamas further in a move that could allow it to declare a political victory in the war. 

The Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to launch a massive invasion of Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city and the last holdout of Hama. This move enjoyed wide support among the majority of Israelis. 

But pressure from the administration of President Joe Biden, under pressure from the progressive wing of his Democratic Party, has slowed down the Israeli military operation there, resulting in more Israeli casualties.

Imagine the United States and South Vietnam following the Tet Offensive by pursuing a military strategy of defeating North Vietnam in 1968. 

But like in 1968, the television images, this time of civilian casualties in Gaza, have helped energize those on the Western political left who seem to be intent on helping—the Viet Cong then, Hamas now—and in the process, eroding the support for a pro-Western government, in this case, Israel, and turn a military victory into a political defeat. 

Dr. Leon Hadar is a contributing editor with The National Interest, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and a former research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has taught at American University in Washington, DC, and the University of Maryland, College Park. A columnist and blogger with Haaretz (Israel) and Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore, he is a former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post.

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