In a situation similar to Operation Cast Lead conducted in the closing days of 2008 and early 2009, the Israeli Defence Force launched a series of attacks into Gaza (Mivtza Amud Anan, or Operation Pillar of Defence), the assassination of Ahmed Said Khalil al-Jabari on November 14 signifying the opening salvo. While the scale of operations seems nothing compared to four years ago, Israel has massed around 30,000 troops along the Gaza border for a potential ground offensive.
So far, the conflict has followed the well-trodden path – Israeli jets struck at scores of sites across Gaza suspected of housing Hamas weapons caches, operatives, or other command & control infrastructure. As was to be expected in a conflict between such asymmetrical sides, Palestinian casualties number more at the timing of this writing – 18 Palestinians and three Israelis.
There is a fine balance between ignoring the pinpricks that may lead to cannon shots and credible deterrence. The renewed conflict in fact reiterates what deterrence scholars have long stressed, particularly in asymmetric situations – inaction at minor offences leads to bolder offences. In 2012 alone, over 800 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel from Gaza. Yet there will be some interesting metrics that will be reported of this latest conflagration, something that needs a decryption key.
Proportionality: Someone will no doubt point to Israel’s disproportionate use of force against the Palestinians. I have never understood this criticism – didn’t Sun Tzu advise in his famous treatise, The Art of War, that one must engage the enemy in an overwhelmingly superior position? The old Chinese master gave the example of numerical superiority but I am sure he would just as easily have accepted strategic superiority. In an asymmetric conflict, is it also not natural to expect vast differences in size and strength? Aren’t the Palestinian resisters deliberately choosing to fight asymmetrically because they cannot – could not – do so in more traditional methods? More importantly, would Hamas have withheld from firing more and deadlier rockets into Israel if they had access to them?
Casualties: There is outrage over the number of Palestinian casualties, which exceed Israeli casualties by far. Civilian deaths, understandably, cause even more resentment. However, the fact is that modern urban combat necessarily causes civilian casualties. The change of venue for gunfights from open fields to cities has put old notions of “civilian” and “combatant” under tremendous stress. Since the battle is fought in Gaza, it is natural that there are more Arab casualties, just as it is natural that there are more Israeli civilian casualties when Palestinian rockets or terrorist attacks hit Ashdod, Ashkelon, or a number of other places. The number of Israelis killed are, admittedly, still low in comparison to the Palestinian body count, but that is certainly not by design – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups have perseveringly sought rockets with greater range and explosive power, moving from domestic Qassam rockets to Grads, Chinese WS-1Es, and Iranian Fajr-5s.
Suffering: All war causes suffering. Chances are high, however, that the picture of a child slain during an Israeli airstrike will be plastered all over the media. This is a very good and effective public relations strategy, equating personal tragedy with state policy. Even better, the reader is helped to make this wrong connection without it ever being explicitly stated. One thing to consider here is that Israeli missiles try to target militant camps and warehouses, something the launchers of the Qassams and Grads never bother to do.
Conventions: Another issue that will be raised is the violation of international law in the conflict. No doubt, Israel’s settlement of its citizens in disputed territories is a clear violation of international law, but in relation to this conflict, certain factors ought to be borne in mind. The deliberate targeting of civilians is an act of terror; Hamas attacks from within civilian areas and civilian structures is a flagrant violation of international law; Amnesty International has on multiple occasions accused Palestinian gunmen of using civilians as human shields. Israel argues that Hamas blurs the line between civilians and combatants, and is therefore responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “Hamas’ use of human shields” and “operational use of heavily built-up and densely populated civilian areas” violates Article 8(2)(b)(xxiii) of the Rome Statute. This statute defines as a war crime the act of “Utilizing the presence of a civilian […] to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations.” Hamas’ behaviour also violates the Geneva Convention’s Laws of Armed Conflict. The former Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, has also stated that Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israel violate international laws. In 2007, exiled Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal called recent rockets attacks on Israel “self-defense.” Hamas leaders argue that rocket attacks on Israel are the only way to counter Israel’s policies and operations, including artillery strikes. But Human Rights Watch has said that such justifications do not overcome the illegality of the attacks under international humanitarian law.
Cassus belli: Israel’s justification for this latest round of violence is the 800+ projectiles fired into Israel this year, including one on Israel’s nuclear reactor at Dimona. Palestinians point to the decades-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel, and the poor treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Both sides have valid points; neither Hamas or anyone else for that matter can expect a state government to allow its citizens to live in the perpetual shadow of enemy rockets. In counterpoint, Israel cannot expect an idyllic occupation and must move towards a firm settlement of issues. Both sides need to be reminded, however, that turning the other cheek is not in fashion any more nor was it ever popular – in two thousand years, there have been only Jesus and Mohandas Gandhi who have advocated and lived by that principle.
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Beyond media metrics, what can we make of Israel’s latest foray into the Gaza Strip? For one, this is perhaps the first large conflict that has been fought on social media as well as on the battlefield. Jabari’s assassination was claimed by Shin Bet and put on YouTube and announced on twitter shortly after they received confirmation of success. Similarly, Palestinians have been tweeting every missile launch into Israel. This is as much a war for the hearts and minds of people around the world as it is against Hamas. As Israel learned in 2009, when the ground war resulted in high Palestinian casualties, sympathy for the victims overcame support for Israel’s cause. As a result, this engagement would ideally be planned as brief yet overwhelming, destroying material assets more than easily replaceable manpower.
Politically, what do Israel’s leaders expect from their incursion? Amud Anan is certainly timed fortuitously in terms of the upcoming elections, and given the general mood against Binyamin Netanyahu, a show of muscle would shore up support with his base. It is yet early into the conflict, but military action seems to have massive support among Israelis fed up of rocket attacks. While support from the general public could have been counted upon even earlier, a November war certainly keeps a fresh image in the minds of voters. Furthermore, Netanyahu might have paused for the US elections – had Romney won, as Netanyahu had hoped, US support might have been more vocal, putting pressure on Hamas to deal.
The fighting in Gaza is likely to put pressure on Egypt’s new regime too. The Muslim Brotherhood has come out vocally in support of revising the peace treaty with Israel, and has expressed sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, there is little concrete support flowing from Egypt to the Palestinians. One suspects that the new Egyptian president, Mohammad Morsi, has been caught at an inconvenient time by the fighting. The constitutional dispute and stability of his country on one hand and the opportunity to play a bigger role in the Middle East through Hamas on the other has divided attention in Cairo.
Israel’s move might have also been in response to an opportunity sensed by its military planners. Hamas’ stance against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war has ended its welcome in Syria, and Hamas is looking for a new home in the region. Despite support pledged by Turkey and Qatar, the group cannot survive in Gaza alone if it intends to keep attacking Israel. With Egypt waffling and support from Iran slowing to a trickle due to Tehran’s own nuclear problems, someone in HaKirya must have thought the time ripe for one hard blow to bring Hamas to its knees. If nothing, Hamas’ stockpile of weapons would be depleted and there might be some temporary respite from attacks as was evidenced soon after Operation Cast Lead.
Of course, no one is naïve to think that Israel’s problems with its neighbours can be solved through war and bloodshed. Ultimately, both sides will have to come to an equitable peace arrangement, most likely a two-state solution. These occasional flare ups are caused by opportunities one side or the other sees to gain a better bargaining position. In the long run, Israel will be forced to come to terms – no nation can stand the pressure of war for so long. Israel’s enemies have learned from their mistakes, adapted to new situations and technologies, and become smarter over the years. Hamas’ rockets have become more powerful and capable of hitting deeper into Israel. It is fairly clear that there is little the IDF can do to stop the supply of these weapons into Gaza; at best, they can periodically destroy Palestinian stocks as they did in 2008 and are doing now. Until a solution is found to the Palestinian problem, we are likely to see tragedies like Cast Lead and Amud Anan every three to four years.
This post was published at Niti Central on November 18, 2012.