Israeli Uniforms, Hamas Tracksuits and a War of Symbols

As protesters and settlers don the IDF’s olive green and apparent civilians wield RPGs in Gaza, making sense of what combatants wear matters

Israeli Uniforms, Hamas Tracksuits and a War of Symbols
Israeli soldiers in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel near the border with Lebanon. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty)

As news spread of the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel and images of the carnage emerged, keen-eyed observers of the videos paid special attention to what members of Hamas were wearing. Their uniforms (or lack thereof) tell us something about conflict, as well as how they wish to be seen by supporters and enemies alike.

Articles published by Israel’s i24 News and The Sun in the U.K. claimed that “the terrorists wore our uniforms” and “sick Hamas terrorists used IDF uniform disguise.” A video from the attacks does appear to show a group of Hamas fighters dressed in olive-green uniforms that look similar to those worn by the Israel Defense Forces. The implication of these stories is clear: They show Hamas as not only committing a U.N.-designated war crime by wearing the uniforms of their adversaries, but also contribute to a picture of Hamas as a terrorist group rather than an organized army.

When Israel began to pound the Gaza strip in retribution, those commenting on social media were quick to point out that many of the videos being released by the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, show their fighters wearing civilian clothing. To those supporting the Israeli response to the attacks, this demonstrates that Hamas is not just using civilians as human shields, but is mixing among them, making it harder for Israelis to properly target militants and, in an even more cynical reading, that bodies purported to be Palestinian civilians are in fact militants stripped of their weapons — implying that the incredibly high civilian casualties from the Israeli bombings of Gaza are being deliberately inflated. A post on X (formerly Twitter), by Jonathan Conricus, a spokesperson for the IDF, read, “How many of the combatants are in uniform while fighting the IDF? None. When they’ll meet their maker, how do you think the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry will describe them? You’re right: ‘civilians.’ Another reason to question everything they say.” Conricus provides no evidence for the claim that the Gaza Health Ministry would misidentify killed militants as civilians. The post was accompanied by GoPro footage of civilian-clad combatants engaging IDF armor with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

Under stills from the other videos, supporters of both a liberated Palestine and Hamas respond to the fighters’ lack of uniforms in a very different manner. “Hamas fighters continue to burn Israeli equipment. The tactics are still the same, Adidas T-shirt + RPG,” read a post on X by a now-deleted account that garnered some 16,000 “likes” and over 4,000 “reposts.” In another post on X, a still from a video showing a Hamas fighter crawling out of a hole wearing Adidas track pants was used to create a meme of sorts: Users took the still from the video with the Adidas logo placed at the bottom of the image and the company’s marketing slogan, “Impossible is nothing.” The meme was shared via X and Instagram, where an Iraqi meme page with over 3 million followers posted it. One caption for the meme on X stated, “History shows: if your enemy is wearing adidas sweatpants in battle, you can’t win the war.”

To these commentators, the fighters in civilian clothes, some even in sandals, underscore the “David vs. Goliath” nature of the conflict, and that although Hamas is outmatched by the IDF, it will succeed. Comparisons can easily be drawn to similarly poorly clothed yet victorious armies like the Viet Cong and the Taliban.

In a compilation video posted on the al-Qassam Brigades’ Telegram channel, fighters dressed in T-shirts drop rounds down mortar tubes in rapid succession. In the same Telegram channel, a very different video of the al-Qassam Brigades’ mortars in operation was posted within days of the first. Unlike the first video, this highly stylized and heavily edited video shows a battery of 10 mortars, with teams of two firing barrages for the camera. Instead of wearing a hodgepodge of civilian clothes, all the fighters in this video wear uniforms, helmets, body armor, kneepads and gloves. The uniforms are made of a predominantly green, pixelated camouflage and the shoulders of the shirt have velcro patches to which a Palestinian flag patch is affixed. This is the professional military image that Hamas wishes to project in this and other similarly highly produced propaganda videos. In these, Hamas fighters seem to consciously adopt the international look of the modern soldier, an aesthetic with roots in the U.S. military, popularized in video games and social media, and now nearly universal around the world. Even with this modernized American tactical aesthetic, many fighters still wear the traditional green headbands identifying them as members of the al-Qassam Brigades.

Fighters from the al-Qassam Brigades during an anti-Israel military show in Gaza City in July 2022. (Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

One of its spokespeople, “Abu Ubaida,” who has been releasing video statements every few days since the beginning of the war, is always wearing his pixelated camouflage uniform and red keffiyeh over his face. The camouflage many Hamas fighters wear in videos and photos from before the start of the war is clearly inspired by the UCP and MARPAT pixelated camouflage patterns worn by U.S. troops for much of the global war on terror. It may seem strange that a group that counts the U.S. among its foes would look to directly copy its military’s uniform. This speaks to how this look has become not only global, but also the shorthand for how a soldier is supposed to appear in our time.

The IDF’s uniform — and the fact it has remained remarkably unchanged since the early 1950s — is a key part of Israel’s identity. The solid olive-green fatigues are made of mostly cotton and project a singular vision. It was only earlier this year that the IDF announced they would introduce more subdued, although still solid green, uniforms in flame-retardant and moisture-wicking fabrics, something relatively standard in other advanced militaries. In 2018, the IDF started to test different camouflage-patterned uniforms with the intention of adopting one, before abandoning the project altogether. It is worth noting how rare it is for a 21st-century military not to have a camouflage uniform; Israel is one of a handful of countries around the world not to have such a uniform as standard. Various reasons have been cited for this, mostly that the olive green makes it easy to identify friendly units in the field — while groups like Hamas wear multiple camouflage patterns. It is hard not to see the IDF’s choice of uniform as part of its curated public image. The solid olive-green uniforms reach back to Israel’s founding and tap into the mythologizing of the citizen-soldier.

All parties locked in this conflict are hyperaware of their image. They wish to shape the narrative around the conflict, and images and videos that can be passed around social media, TV news and print are part and parcel of that. The uniform is a visible symbol of the power of a state or political group and a reminder of the monopoly on violence they have or wish to have. The uniforms tell us something about how a group sees itself and how it wishes to be perceived; how these forces decide to dress is their most visible form of communication with the world.

Clothing is a language. It communicates to the viewer, consciously or subconsciously, things about the wearer, including and particularly in warfare. This is partly because we all have an understanding of clothing — after all, we all get dressed. It allows us to identify or distance the wearer, places the wearer in a world of familiar symbols, or removes them. In this postmodern world, it can be hard to decipher the many mixed-up symbols that can appear to be at odds with each other. This is all the more reason to attempt to make sense of what combatants wear and understand what exactly they are trying to communicate.

The uniform is foundational to transforming a civilian into a soldier. The garments signal membership of a group with a shared objective — a project larger than the individual. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote in “Discipline and Punish,” “The soldier has become something that can be made … one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of a soldier.’” The uniform is one of the main ways the individual becomes a disciplined body.

The uniform also serves as a legitimizing credential, transforming the ragtag group into an organized force. In the era of nonstate actors, the uniform attempts to legitimize the wearer as a “soldier,” part of an “army” that has the authority to wield violence in the name of the group.

With the IDF still made up of conscripted Israeli citizens, the olive-green uniform has become an enduring symbol of the military and the state as a whole. In a recent article in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, historian and fashion researcher Dr. Dalia Bar-Or wrote, “The public still believes that the IDF is the people’s army, and therefore uniforms are still a symbol of the mainstream Israeliness that many people want to belong to.” She compared the olive-green uniform adopted within and beyond the IDF to other sartorial political movements of the mid-20th century, like Mao Zedong’s famous “Mao suit,” the simple military-inspired suit with a closed collar and four pockets. In this way, the contemporary IDF uniform is tied to the idea of Israel itself. Elsewhere in the same article, the writer described these simple solid uniforms and work clothes as “a sign of acceptance into the Zionist ethos, a sign of active participation in the building of the state.”

In the months before the war, olive green was also taking on a new meaning. With military aesthetics often seen in Israeli political media, the color emerged as a symbol in the protests against the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms. An IDF reservist organization called “Brothers and Sisters in Arms” prominently adopted olive-green T-shirts as a de facto uniform at protests to evoke their military service. Soon after the Oct. 7 attacks, the olive-green uniform quickly reverted to its role as a symbol of state power and violence. Jonatan Urich, a media adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was seen wearing an IDF uniform on the job in the weeks after the attack, despite not being called into service. And even more bizarrely, a U.S. congressman from Florida, Republican Brian Mast, wore his old IDF uniform to Capitol Hill, saying, “As the only member to serve with both the United States Army and the Israel Defense Forces, I will always stand with Israel.”

Yet the olive-green IDF uniform is not just being worn by nonsoldiers for political stunts. As the war in Gaza has intensified, so too has violence against Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli settlers, including by men wearing IDF uniforms. In a piece published on Oct. 30 in +972 Magazine, Abu Hassan, a Palestinian Authority employee, recounted that two Toyota pickups full of settlers wearing military uniforms stopped him and two other Palestinians, detaining and assaulting them. In one account, the number of settlers wearing full or partial IDF uniforms was between 20 and 25, and this seems to be far from an isolated incident. A spokesperson for the Jerusalem-based nonprofit B’Tselem that operates in the West Bank was quoted in an article published in The Nation on Nov 7. saying, “The line between settlers and soldiers is even more unclear than before.”

In a video posted on X, what appear to be three settlers in IDF-like uniforms aim down a rocky hillside shooting at Palestinians around a cluster of buildings. According to other posts, no one was killed, but that is not always the case. Before the war in Gaza, 2023 was already the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005. As of publication, at least 190 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Authority. In an interview on its website, Mairav Zonszein, Senior Analyst for Israel-Palestine at The International Crisis Group, said most of those killed “were the victims of Israeli soldiers’ fire, but eight of them, including one child, were gunned down by settler militias, sometimes in army uniform.”

Settlers are using the IDF uniform to threaten Palestinians, employing a symbol of the force that oppresses them. It also serves to confuse and muddy the true nature of the violence, and to provide a veneer, no matter how thin, of legitimacy. These settlers understand the fear of violence the shade of olive green can inspire. By putting on the uniform, they represent the state, and their actions become a reflection of it.

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