Israel’s big stick

The Gaza war has been a return to the bedrock policy of hitting enemies hard

Israel’s big stick

An Israeli soldier’s graffiti, scrawled on the wall of a ransacked home in Gaza during the recent war, best explains the shift that has occurred regarding Israel’s strategy toward its Palestinian neighbours: “Next time it will hurt more.”

Israel began its campaign in Gaza with measurable tactical goals: ensuring that Hamas, which controls the territory, can no longer use tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt to smuggle in weapons, and stopping Hamas’s incessant rocket fire on Israeli civilians living nearby. Short of reoccupying the Gaza Strip, which Israel is unwilling to contemplate at this time, neither of these goals is completely achievable without implicit co-operation from Hamas. Now, as Israel awaits a new government, a report released this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies confirms that the war did not change the political or military situation in Gaza. “The post-conflict situation looks strikingly like the situation before the fighting began,” it concludes.

But the war, which received widespread support across Israel’s political spectrum, wasn’t really about closing every tunnel to Egypt or finding and destroying each rocket that might be launched toward Israeli towns. It was about the Israeli soldier’s crude message, and a principle that was once the bedrock of Israel’s defence strategy—deterrence, or convincing its enemies that any attack will be met with a punishing response. “What’s lost on many is that the military operations in Gaza were in keeping with traditional military doctrine—something the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] felt it had got away from in the last couple of years—and that was to respond to any and all threats with overwhelming, brutal force,” says Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s about establishing a deterrent. It’s about making people think twice before they attack Israel.”

Many Israelis felt that this deterrence had been lost following the inconclusive war against Hezbollah three years ago. “Israel had to do something after the debacle of July and August 2006 to demonstrate that it is still the strongest, that it still has a lot of deterrence, that it can act militarily successfully,” says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This was an attempt to do that.”

Prior to the Gaza war, pressure had been building steadily on the Israeli government to forcefully respond to the rockets that Hamas was launching against Israeli towns with increasing frequency since the militant group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. These rockets killed more than a dozen people and caused widespread distress, especially in Sderot, the closest Israeli town to Gaza, where there are bomb shelters on almost every street corner so civilians caught in the open during an attack have a safe place to run to. A fragile six-month truce between Israel and Hamas expired on Dec. 19 last year. Hamas fired more than 100 rockets and mortars at Israel during the next week. On Dec. 27, Israel launched its attack on Gaza that began the war.

Today, with Israel and Hamas once again edging toward some sort of truce or prolonged ceasefire, both sides are claiming victory. Hamas can gloat because it remains in power and is still capable of attacking Israel. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not dispute this when he took stock of the conflict in late January at a gathering of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem. He didn’t claim that Hamas had been disarmed and its tunnels shut down. Instead, he said that Israel had shown that attacking it was costly, that it would hurt too much. “We have re-established in the perception of the whole world the power and deterrence that Israel has always enjoyed,” he said. “It is not worthwhile starting a war with Israel.”

It is still too early to tell if Hamas—as well as Hezbollah and other militant groups opposed to Israel—agree with this assessment. As Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, it is much more difficult to deter a non-state actor such as Hamas than a country. But if Israel enjoys a long period of calm, Olmert’s statements will gain credibility. If, on the other hand, six months from now southern Israeli towns are once again under steady rocket fire, the perceived value of deterrence as a viable strategy will diminish.

What’s clear, though, is that Israelis, and many Israeli politicians, are willing to gamble that Olmert is right. The recent Israeli elections resulted in no single party winning a majority of seats in the Israeli parliament, necessitating a coalition government. The shape this coalition will take was uncertain at the time Maclean’s went to press. But it is clear there has been an overall shift to the right. The right-wing Likud party soared in popularity, finishing second behind Kadima, a centrist party, by only one seat. Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultra-nationalist party, took 15 seats to finish third in voting. The once powerful centre-left Labour party took only 13 seats and dropped to fourth place.

Kadima, which headed the last government and is now led by Tzipi Livni, who served as foreign affairs minister, has been negotiating with the Palestinian Authority for more than a year, during which time illegal Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank has continued and little discernible progress has been made toward establishing a Palestinian state. Likud, led by one-time prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has a party platform that flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian state “west of the Jordon River” (i.e., in the West Bank or Gaza) and advocates Jewish settlement of Palestinian territories. Yisrael Beiteinu Leader Avigdor Lieberman is not opposed to a Palestinian state, but he envisions one that would include Israeli Arab towns—something Israeli Arabs vehemently reject. He says that Israeli Arab MPs who have met with Hamas should be executed.

“Clearly, Israelis are looking for strong-arm solutions rather than negotiations at this point,” says Ottaway. She says that in the absence of frequent suicide bombings, many Israelis feel more secure than they did during the second intifada, which ended in 2006 with a truce between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “There is this kind of illusion in my opinion that if they act decisively concerning the remaining threats, the rockets that are coming in, they can solve the problem militarily.”

Palestinians in the West Bank, which is governed by Fatah, are reacting with cynicism to the Israeli election results. “For the public, any Israeli government is the same,” says Walid Batrawi, a Palestinian journalist in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “They have seen Labour. They have experienced Likud. And they have experienced Kadima. And the recent war in Gaza has proved—at least from their point of view—that any Israeli government is a government of war, right-wing, and there is no hope for any peace process.” Batrawi adds that some Palestinians still hope new American President Barack Obama will pressure Israel to make concessions, but even these optimists think this won’t happen until a second Obama term, given America’s economic problems at home.

Palestinian cynicism has been heightened by both the war in Gaza and the unmet predictions of George W. Bush. The former American president said a Palestinian state was possible by the end of his time in office, and promised to work toward this goal. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, repeated this prediction when he met with a Maclean’s reporter last April. “People were skeptical of that even at the time, and now that skepticism has been born out and then some,” says Robert Belcher, a senior Jerusalem-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “You got the date and it didn’t happen, and on top of that the Israeli people moved further to the right.”

The Gaza war, and the re-emergence of the Israeli policy of deterrence, was especially damaging to those Palestinians who favour a negotiated two-state solution, Belcher says. They point out that the same Israeli politicians with whom they are negotiating launched a war in Gaza that killed 1,300 Palestinians. “People are tremendously disillusioned,” he says.

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