Time‘s Tim McGirk asks, “Can Israel Survive its Assault on Gaza?” While rather hyperbolically phrased, it’s a good question.
As Israeli troops encircle Gaza City, their commanders are faced with a painful dilemma: How far must they advance into the deadly labyrinth of slums and refugee camps where Hamas militants await with booby-trapped houses and snipers? With each passing day, Israel’s war against Hamas grows riskier and more punishing, with the gains appearing to diminish compared to the spiraling costs — to Israel’s moral stature, to the lives of Palestinian civilians and to the world’s hopes that an ancient conflict can ever be resolved. Ideally, in a war shaped by television images, Israelis would like a tableau of surrender: grimy Hamas commanders crawling from underground bunkers with their hands up. Instead, the deaths of at least 40 civilians taking shelter at a United Nations–run school north of Gaza City are more likely to become the dominant image of the war. Israeli politicians and generals know that the total elimination of Hamas’ entrenched military command could take weeks; it might be altogether impossible. The more realistic outcome is an unsatisfactory, brokered truce that leaves Hamas wounded but alive and able to regenerate — and Israel only temporarily safe from attack.
The anti-Israeli anger swelling in the region has made it more difficult for Arab governments to join Israel in its efforts to deal with Iran, the patron of both Hamas and Hizballah and a state whose leaders have sworn to eliminate Israel and appear determined to acquire nuclear weapons.
Just as ominous for many Israelis is a ticking demographic time bomb: the likelihood that Arabs will vastly outnumber Jews in the land stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean is a catastrophic prospect for a nation that defines itself by its faith. At some point, Israelis will have to choose between living with an independent Palestinian state or watching Jews become a minority in their own land.
Point out that Israel is killing a lot of civilians and you are told that they had to do something in response to the Hamas rockets. Point out that practically, the response they chose has absolutely no strategic or tactical benefit, and a huge potential downside, and you are castigated for your lack of moral outrage about Hamas’s attacks on civilians. . . . On the other side, there’s a tendency to forget, or forget to mention, that whatever the provocation, a plurality-to-majority of Palestinians constantly and actively wish to kill large numbers of Israelis purely for revenge. Gaza wants to be at war with Israel, and then hide behind the protections of not-quite-war, because they haven’t the foggiest hope of winning anything like a real war.
. . . I’ve heard all the arguments about who’s really to blame about a zillion times. And all I get out of it in the end is that the whole thing makes me sick and sad. I don’t see any untainted victims. I see a bunch of people who have been stomped on by history beating up each other in revenge for past wrongs that can’t be righted, lashing out whenever they think they can get away with it without losing the foreign funding that allows them to continue the fun. And I don’t ever blog about it because one is not allowed to have an opinion on the matter–no matter what I say, I’ll be excusing terrorism or, irrelevantly, the holocaust, or shilling for western imperialism.
While I’ve generally been critical of Israel’s conduct, in both this operation and their incursion into Lebanon two years ago to fight Hezbollah, I’m on their side. They’re surrounded by enemies who think nothing of strapping bombs to their own children to murder Israeli children. To me, that trumps Israel’s callous excesses in fighting back.
The problem, however, is that Israel is fighting a losing battle. Despite massive technological and military superiority, they’re not achieving their political objectives. Indeed, in this particular episode, it’s not even clear that they have political objectives. As I wrote for Reason in 2006, explaining Why Israel failed in Lebanon,
Wars, Clausewitz tells us, are fought to achieve political objectives. Intermediate military objectives—targets destroyed, enemy personnel killed, and so forth—are merely a means to an end. Reasonable people can debate whether the offensive created more terrorists than it killed, but it is beyond dispute that Israel ended up accepting a truce that falls far short of its original war aims.
Olmert and his planners appeared oblivious to the asymmetric strategic environment. Ralph Peters, a retired intelligence officer deeply sympathetic to Israel’s cause, noted early in the conflict that, “All Hezbollah has to do to achieve victory is not to lose completely. But for Israel to emerge the acknowledged winner, it has to shatter Hezbollah.” Unfortunately, as the editors of New Republic pointed out, “Israel can cripple Hezbollah, but it cannot destroy it, since Hezbollah is a movement with a social and philosophical foundation in its country; and Hezbollah will certainly never renounce its power or its philosophy, since it regards both as holy.”
Politicians faced with the pressure to “do something” about terrorist strikes but unwilling to commit ground forces early or risk a prolonged fight ignored the realities of panoptic war and appeared genuinely dumbfounded when they got hammered in the press for their tactics. By bombing civilian infrastructure, being indiscriminate in their targeting, and just being generally ham-handed, they played into the jihadists’ hands.
The Qana fiasco likely ended permanently any chance Israel had of winning the propaganda war, which, as conservative pundit Tony Blankley rightly noted, was crucial to winning the larger war: “[T]o the extent that defeating radical Islamism is enhanced by winning the hearts and minds of so far non-radical Muslims, corrosive world opinion against us only deepens the deep hole in which we currently find ourselves.”
Sadly, the Israelis have not learned from their own mistakes. They’ve already announced that they’re not going to re-occupy Gaza and that they don’t aim to topple Hamas. So, whenever this iteration of the conflict ends, they’re going to leave behind an even more embittered enemy. One that, as McGirk points out, will soon outnumber Israeli Jews in their own land.
As the pseudonymous Fester observes, “The shun, ignore and bomb policy has not worked. . . . Trying something different may or may not produce different and improved results, but the current course is definately sub-optimal.”
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.