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Israel's Tragic Gaza Dilemma

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 4, 2009
Wall Street Journal

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There is little doubt that Israel is morally justified in its offensive against Hamas. No nation can sit by and allow its territory to be rocketed with impunity. Not if it wants to remain a nation for long. But to say that Israel has the right, indeed the obligation, to act is not the same thing as saying that it is acting wisely.

It is too early to know whether its actions are well-advised. All will depend on how the offensive turns out. But even as Israeli troops push into Gaza following a week of air strikes, it seems highly unlikely that they will be able to decisively defeat the terrorist organization on their southern border.

Achieving total victory would require waging war in the way that America fought Germany and Japan--all out and on many fronts until the enemy has no more capacity to resist. Then it would have to occupy the ruined land, imposing a peace at gunpoint to ensure that Gaza could never again be a launching point for attacks on Israel.

None of this is beyond the Israelis' military capacity (and Israel could do it without using nuclear weapons). They could also impose a peace at gunpoint. That is, essentially, what they did between 1967, when the Gaza Strip was won from Egypt, and 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was created. They could do it again if necessary.

Yet the odds are they won't. To understand the improbability of the total war scenario sketched above, all you have to do is recall how many people perished in Israel's last major military operation, the war against Hezbollah in 2006. The generally accepted estimate is that no more than 1,200 Lebanese died, half of them Hezbollah fighters. Even that relatively minuscule toll of 0.03% of Lebanon's population of 3.9 million--probably comparable to the damage now being inflicted on Gaza--evoked world-wide condemnation and accusations that Israel was committing war crimes.

Such denunciations by themselves do not have the capacity to stop a determined military machine. The Russians have inflicted World War II-level carnage in Chechnya since the mid-1990s, and they don't care what anybody else says.

But Israel is not Russia--or Algeria or Burma or Syria or any other state that has taken a scorched-earth approach to counterinsurgency in recent decades. Israel is a liberal democracy in the modern age whose military operations are conducted under the intense scrutiny of lawyers, judges, opposition politicians, reporters and human-rights activists. And those are just its own internal watchdogs. To these must be added the "international community," which monitors Israeli actions with a degree of interest and antipathy reserved for no other state in the world.

For all the accusations of brutality that are routinely flung at Israel's armed forces, their conduct has been exemplary by historical standards. They have shown far less propensity for indiscriminate killing or torture than did European states in the 1950s when confronting insurgencies in such places as Kenya, Cyprus, Vietnam and Algeria, where the stakes for them were considerably less. The only comparable example of restraint is the conduct of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States, too, earns world-wide opprobrium for alleged brutality rather than approbation for its humanity.

Whether it gets credit or not, however, the U.S. has been right to use very limited firepower because in the kind of war it is fighting--a classic counterinsurgency--brutality can be counterproductive. Killing too many people, especially if they are the wrong people, risks jeopardizing popular support for elected governments that are likely to be important American allies in the future.

The tragedy for Israel is that a strategy of bolstering indigenous allies is not an option in Gaza. Hamas is, for all of the flaws of the electoral process, the choice of the people. No matter how much of a beating it suffers, there is little reason to think that Fatah could or would come in and effectively administer the territory in a way that would safeguard Israel's security. In the current, feverish atmosphere of Palestinian politics, those who would act with restraint toward the "Zionist entity" are branded as "collaborators" and liable to be killed.

That leaves only one option if Israel wants a friendly, or at least nonhostile, administration in Gaza: It would have to provide that governance itself. Before the first intifada broke out in 1987, Israel was able to administer both the Gaza Strip and West Bank at astonishingly low cost. But the intifada effectively made Israelis feel ashamed of themselves and ended their willingness to bear the costs of "occupation." In 2005, Israel evacuated its settlers from the Gaza Strip in no small part to wipe clean its moral slate.

We now know the settlers' departure did not mollify the extremists. It only emboldened them. So the Israeli armed forces are forced to re-enter the Gaza Strip on a mission without a clear exit strategy or even an obvious definition of victory. That is far from ideal, but it may also be unavoidable.

The essential dilemma Israel faces is this: It can't ignore Hamas's attacks, not only because of the damage they inflict, but also because of the terrible precedent they set. Israel has always been a state that is one battle away from destruction, and it cannot allow its enemies to think that it can be attacked with impunity. But at the same time Israel cannot do what it takes to wipe out the enemy, because of the constraints imposed by its own public, which is far less willing than in the past to suffer or inflict bloodletting.

So the Jewish state is forced to fight an unsatisfying war of attrition with Hamas, Hezbollah and other entities bent on its destruction. The current incursions are only one stage of this lengthy struggle. The odds are that once Israeli troops leave, Hamas will rebuild its infrastructure, forcing the Israelis to go back in the future.

This is the definition of a quagmire, yet Israel has no choice but to keep doing what it's doing. Unlike the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam, it cannot simply pack its bags and go home. If Israel is to continue to exist, it will have to continue to wage low-intensity war for a long time to come--definitely years, probably decades, possibly centuries.

Israelis have to discard Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous maxim: "War's objective is victory--not prolonged indecision. In war there is no substitute for victory." They will have to settle for a substitute because from their standpoint "prolonged indecision" is better than the alternatives--the annihilation of themselves, which would be unthinkable, or of their enemies, which would be unconscionable.

 

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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