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Israel’s politics of war

About the author
Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. His books include War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here

Israel's intense three-week assault on Gaza halted with the calling of successive (if yet far from comprehensive or stable) ceasefires by Israel and Hamas on 17-18 January 2009. What happened is routinely referred to as a "war", though the label (if sometimes in practice unavoidable) is questionable insofar as a war requires two sides and this conflict - as can be seen from the imbalance of destruction - was overwhelmingly one-sided. 

True, Hamas's rocket-fire from within Gaza both kills and terrorises civilians in those parts of Israel within its range; but its purpose is political rather than military; it serves principally to demonstrate symbolic "resistance" and Israeli vulnerability. Hamas's resistance on the streets of Gaza was by available evidence scarcely more effective.

Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin" (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)
It is often said that such methods are weapons of the (militarily) weak; but it might also be said that they are weapons of the morally impoverished, politically unimaginative, and, in this case at least, hugely irresponsible.

The latter is unquestionably true in the sense that in this conflict Hamas has exposed those who are really weak - Gaza's civilian population of 1.5 million - to sustained Israeli attack that inflicted a terrible toll: over 1,100 killed and 5,100 wounded, huge damage to the civilian infrastructure and society, and a state of terror in which civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children, have been trapped without even the possibility of flight. Moreover, all this has been for and for minimal political advantage: any gains from Hamas's rocket-campaign are far outweighed by the opportunity that it handed to Israel to crush Hamas and degrade further a Gazan population already severely pressed by an economic blockade.

The real target

The harm to civilians is the most striking feature of this conflict, but it also says something about the overall nature of Israel's campaign against Hamas. Its stated aims and in part its practice concerned legitimate military goals: attacking the sites of Hamas rocket-launchers, destroying tunnels through which weapons were smuggled. But the campaign went far wider.

Israel claims to have killed more than 500 Hamas militants: but unless it regards every adult male in Gaza as a militant (which is emphatically not true), then this figure is almost certainly inflated, since it appears that little more than 600 men have been killed altogether (with around 410 children and 104 women, according to Palestinian medical figures).

What is more revealing about the claim, however, is that it is invoked by Israel as the major index of its "success" against Hamas: as though killing Hamas men was what its attack was about. This itself is troubling, in that it raises the question: is Israel taking care to distinguish between Hamas fighters (who can indeed be regarded as enemy combatants) and political activists, supporters and their family members (who cannot)?

Some of Israel's targeting, for example the massacre of policemen, suggests that Israel is defining "Hamas" very broadly indeed (police are not combatants). Moreover, Israel's assassinations and its persistent bombing of houses in which Hamas men are believed to be based - knowing that their extended families (as well as other civilians) are almost certain to be killed alongside them - suggests that militants' families, including children, are regarded too as "Hamas".

The anecdotal evidence of some Palestinian males who have been arrested by the Israelis suggests that anyone identified as Hamas is at risk of his life. This evidence suggests an ominous element of targeted mass killing of those associated with Hamas as a political organisation.

The underlying logic can be regarded as a kind of "politicide" - that is,  genocide of a political group. True, the United Nations genocide convention does not recognise such a category or protect "political" groups; but many scholars and experts would consider that the simultaneous targeting of any civilian group - such as the members and supporters and families of Hamas's political organisation - would come within the general scope of genocide.

The opposition Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu has given voice to this logic in his euphemistic reference to "removing" Hamas. This is followed through would entail a more extended, direct reoccupation of Gaza - one that Israel's government, with an eye to both domestic and American political timetables, will be reluctant soon to pursue. But it may have made a start.

The civilian issue

Among openDemocracy's articles on the Gaza conflict of 2008-09:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Mary Robinson, "A crisis of dignity in Gaza" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)
The questions raised by the relationship between Israel's military campaign and the civilian population raise disturbing echoes. Israel claims to be doing its utmost to avoid civilian harm; but by its air, sea and ground assault on Gaza - one of the most densely populated places on earth - it knew that (as in its assault on Lebanon in July-August 2006) it would cause substantial civilian casualties.

The fact that Hamas militants live within packed urban populations means that it was not possible to attack Hamas without also causing massive civilian harm: and so it has proved. Yet several incidents of civilian deaths suggest that in these circumstances, care for civilians has been minimal: both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and United Nations agencies have called for investigation with a view to charges of war crimes.

The question such incidents raise is how to evaluate the huge civilian harm in Gaza. Is this just (another nasty euphemism) "collateral damage"? Does it involve the kind of hypocritical concern for civilians practiced by the United States, Britain and other western countries, which exposes civilians to harm so as to enable the military to "fight" without serious risk to itself (what I have called "risk-transfer" war)? Or is it something worse?

Jonathan Freedland has made the case for assimilating Israeli policies to the general western model: "Britons and Americans have no cause for self-righteousness. The scale of the Israeli offensive is shocking, and yet the killing is not of a greater order than that of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which our very own British troops are taking part. I spoke yesterday with one foreign diplomat based in Jerusalem who recalled how, during an earlier posting in Afghanistan, he had seen the remains of an entire village razed to the ground by American fighter jets in pursuit of a couple of Taliban commanders. ‘All that was left was rubble and body parts,' he says now. Seen in the context of the last seven years, the grim truth is that Israelis are not guilty of a unique crime in Gaza" (see "Gaza after a Hamas rout will be an even greater threat to Israel", Guardian, 7 January 2009).

There is much in this. But Israel's violence goes beyond the "risk-transfers" of the new western way of war practiced in particular by the United States and Britain. These western powers certainly attack their armed enemies in such a way as to cause "accidental" civilian harm, exposing civilians to greater risk than soldiers; but Israel now has a substantial record of targeting civilian populations as such, both by economic and military means. In 2006, it was clear that Israel's campaign in Lebanon was directed at more than Hizbollah: the extensive damage caused to Lebanon's infrastructure and the massive displacement of civilians were directed at the Lebanese population, punishing them for "hosting" Hizbollah and aimed at pressurising them to marginalise the armed group.

In Gaza too, Israel imposed a harsh blockade as punishment in response to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections of January 2006. This restricted the entry and exit of Gaza residents as well as of food, medical supplies and other goods essential to the territory's economic and social life. Richard Falk, the United Nations rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, says: "There is a consensus among independent legal experts that Israel is an occupying power and is therefore bound by the duties set out in the fourth Geneva convention. The arguments that Israel's blockade is a form of prohibited collective punishment, and that it is in breach of its duty to ensure the population has sufficient food and healthcare as the occupying power, are very strong."

A global answer

In this context, Israel's extensive harm to civilians in Gaza looks less the accidental fallout from its attack on Hamas and more the extension of a consistent policy of collective punishment. Israel appears to have decided that since economic punishment did not stop many Gazans from supporting Hamas, military punishment is necessary to complete the job. The dead children, the fearful populations, the overflowing hospitals: all are part of Israel's strategy to subdue the Palestinians of Gaza and compel them to withdraw their consent from Hamas.

This kind of "war", taken as a whole, is worse even than the air-war conducted by Britain and the United States in Afghanistan. In military terms it more resembles the pulverising of the cities of Germany and Japan in the second world war that was intended to shatter the morale of the civilian population and destroy the political basis of the regime. But the lesson of the period is that such violence - utterly immoral and outside the laws of war - "works" in political terms only when it is used without limit and with a view to unconditional surrender. These circumstances cannot be made to apply in Gaza.

This is in part because Israel today is subject to extensive global surveillance - by other large powers, international organisations and global media - in a way impossible in earlier eras. Israel cannot turn Gaza into a smoking ruin away from the eyes of the world. Israel is expert in conducting short, brutal campaigns: its government cannot afford a long-drawn-out war, which would strain further the already weakening tolerance of its allies and dampen the enthusiasm of the electorate. So this "war" carries at most only the most limited, short-term benefit for its architects. It has not destroyed Hamas, and it has not increased Israel's security.


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