Israel’s incursion into Gaza has the air of Kabuki Theater. We’ve all been here before. We’ve seen the Israeli armored vehicles sprouting menacing antennae and deadly antipersonnel weapons, the peacocking Hamas fighters and their impotent Qassam rockets, the dead Palestinian children and, in this case, the occasional dead Israeli civilian. The usual arguments have reared their heads about the need for diplomacy, restraint, proportionality, American “engagement”, European condemnation, the pressing need for a final settlement, and the like. None of these factors appear likely to change soon. The timing likely does have something to do with changes in the American political scene. The Bush administration has followed their habit of doing nothing diplomatically or publicly to embarrass their Israeli client. Why ask for permission when you know it’s forthcoming no matter what? But even this factor likely will not change much under Obama.
The more interesting issue from my vantage point are Israeli tactics and strategy.
The Hezbollah War of two years ago had a superficially similar cause, effect, and strategy. There, in response to the capture of Israeli soldiers and continued rocket attacks–in other words, relatively serious nuisance-type threats that are far from “existential”–Israel launched a full scale war against southern Lebanon and various Hezbollah sanctuaries. Israeli followed the strategy of what may be called a deliberately disproportionate response–a strategy advocated by William Lind in response to the 9/11 attacks. However, when it was over, the final outcome was indeterminate. Israel got bogged down in the well-defended traps set by Hezbollah. Casualties quickly became an Israeli domestic concern. The vaunted IDF proved less capable and aggressive than expected.
The operation had all the features of a hammer and anvil assault without the anvil, and the Hezbollah terrorists mostly disappeared north, disguised as civilians or otherwise. Hezbollah lived to fight another day, and when it was all over, their domestic power had increased. Surviving the Israeli onslaught became translated as a victory in the Arab world. Normally this is a bit comic, as in the Egyptian reading of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But, frankly, since Israel aimed to cut the Gordian Knot of Hezbollah terrorism in 2006, their survival rightly was also seen as a victory in Israel’s own eyes.
So what is different about the current attack on Hamas? Here too an ongoing problem exists from the standpoint of Israeli security: the continuing annoyance of rocket attacks from a neighboring state that enjoys diplomatic support on account of the tragic case of the Palestinian people, but that is governed (when it is governed) by the most extreme of extremist groups dedicated to perpetual war against Israel. Israel’s construction of the security fence, withdrawal of settlements from Gaza, and policy of embargo suggests that Israel’s strategy to date has been to weaken Hamas’ appeal among Palestinians, while also giving Israel space within which to defend itself and also to prepare a withering assault.
At the level of grand strategy, it appears the Israeli goal is limited, merely to weaken Hamas further, reduce their prestige in the eyes of Palestinians, and tidy up the situation as best as possible before the incoming Obama administration. To the extent this is about hearts and minds, the Israelis are focusing on the minds of the Gaza Palestinians by showing the futility of the current campaign of resistance. Israel rightly recognizes that big picture political goods like creating the Palestinian Authority and supporting democratic elections and more mundane ones like humanitarian assistance won’t change the fundamental nationalist feeling of the Palestinians, but enough blown up houses, bridges, police stations, roadways, powerplants, and people might. There has been much analysis about the “Fourth Generation” aspects of this conflict, but it appears far more like the older 19th Century “punitive raid”: a functioning state has engaged a disorderly, ungoverned province on its border, in effect collectively punishing it to create conditions for pacification.
Are the tactics up to the job? Will the usual restraints on democratic nations’ military campaigns assert themselves? This remains to be seen. It’s not clear why this ground attack will work out better than the Lebanese adventure two years ago. That said, there are some important differences that are worth mentioning, not least the small size of Gaza and the anvil in the form of the Mediterranean Sea. The value of these factors remains to be seen. It is possible, as in South Lebanon, that Hamas leaders will effectively hide underground where they are the de facto government and enjoy strong popular support, especially now as the “solidarity of the trenches” asserts itself. Other than further enraging Palestinians and other enemies of Israel and killing a few Hamas leaders, it’s not so clear that the outcome will matter in any long-term sense, particularly as the size, scope, and timeline of this invasion will almost certainly not be enough to crush Hamas in Gaza.
The use of ground forces suggests superficially that a more surgical approach is being embraced that cannot be obtained through bombing alone. After all, Israel could undoubtedly flatten Gaza based on every guess, hunch, and tip of a terrorist apparatus in Gaza if it so chose. But, like America, Israel’s commitment to “purity of arms” is often counterbalanced by its strong domestic concern for avoiding Israel casualties, and the latter goal usually asserts itself when a choice must be made between the two. There are probably more prosaic reasons for the ground invasion. The use of ground forces suggests that the Israeli military leadership has concluded some intelligence can only be gathered locally and that the costs of addressing targets solely from the air is not worth the diplomatic (and sometimes domestic) backlash. There is likely also a strategic advantage to the ground invasion: the use of tanks, APCs, and infantry (especially in the wake of their apparent misuse in Lebanon) tells Hamas and the Gaza Palestinians that Israel means business in unmistakable terms.
The grand strategy of patient attrition by the Palestinian resistance depends upon a view of the Israelis as typical westerners: decadent, impatient, likely to weary of the “colonial” struggle in Palestine, cowardly, etc. Israeli actions that contrast their own physical courage and competence with the nowhere-to-be-seen Hamas leadership may have some impact on the Palestinians, reminding them that these ineffectual rocket attacks on southern Israeli settlements are boomerang assaults that do far more harm to Palestinians. It’s noteworthy that for all the criticism of the Lebanon Campaign of 2006, things have basically quieted down there after the ceasefire.
If Hamas’ hands are tied by its own military weakness, Israel’s are tied too by its small size, the diplomatic criticism of European nations upon whom it depends for trade, and the voice of the Israeli left that will not countenance the ethnic cleansing tactics employed in 1948 and 1967. From the standpoint of Israeli security, a punitive raid is probably the wrong tool for the job, if that job is defined as ending Palestinian national aspirations and their resort to terrorist and rocket assaults. So, as in Lebanon in 2006, it remains to be seen which of the dual effects of this operation–killing some members of Hamas and reducing their prestige but also enraging numerous Palestinians and their supporters–is the more dominant outcome. In any case, this is one battle in a long war that will likely last much longer. The dominant strategic factors have not changed and will not change from this operation, unless Israel is willing to re-occupy Gaza for an extended period of time with the sole goal of rooting our the entire Hamas infrastructure. There is little reason to think that the Olmeri government and the Israeli people are willing to do so over a more-or-less containable threat of rocket attacks from Gaza. So, even though this hammer has an anvil (unlike in Lebanon), it will not be wielded forcefully enough or for long enough to do the trick.
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