The Israeli operation in Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 is uncannily similar to the military offensives conducted in the West Bank in the first months of 2002 in response to suicide-bombings in Israel. An earlier column in this series provided an analysis pointing to the “… systematic process of dismantling [of] the apparatus of the Palestine National Authority (PNA)” (see "Israel's strategy: the impotence of arms", 10 April 2002).
The article continued:
“Much of the military action has been directed against the police and security forces of the PNA, with substantial numbers having been killed and many more hundreds taken into custody. Police stations and barracks have been destroyed, as have intelligence and security centres. Moreover, and in some ways much more significant, there has been the destruction of the PNA’s administrative infrastructure.
“Information on this remains incomplete but is sufficient to show that there has been widespread destruction of offices and facilities of PNA ministries and Palestinian non-government organisations. The ministry of local government and the ministry of education in Ramallah have been ransacked by Israeli troops as has the Palestinian bureau of statistics.”
At that time, some analysts anticipated that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) would extend their actions into Gaza, but international opposition to the casualties and destruction in the West Bank, and internal concern over the consequences of such an escalation, prevented that. Instead, the emphasis remained on the West Bank, with the construction of the massive security “wall” and forceful control over the Palestinian population movements within its confines. Both of these policies fuelled a burning resentment.
The first five days of the military assault in Gaza have been focused almost entirely on air attacks and naval bombardment. The stated aim is to bring to an end the firing by the Islamist movement Hamas of crude unguided rockets, often home-made, onto those areas of Israel close to Gaza. In practice, however, the attacks have - as in the West Bank in 2002 - been directed mainly at the official buildings administred by Hamas since its election victory in Palestine in January 2006. Many government offices as well as buildings of the Islamic University have been demolished, and the Gaza police have been a particular target; one of the earliest attacks killing around sixty cadets attending a graduation ceremony at the police academy.
Yet by 31 December, Israel's campaign appears to have had a minimal impact on the rockets being fired from Gaza. At least sixty were launched that day; three reached as far as the Negev city of Beersheba (forty-six kilometres from Gaza), others landed on Ashkelon (which has an oil terminal) and Ashdod (Israel's fifth-largest city, and a major port). Informed Israeli sources indicate that Hamas still has 2,000 available for use, some of them able to reach deep into Israel. Most are rudimentary, but some of those smuggled in through tunnels under the border with Egypt may include missiles with a far longer range.
Most international opinion has been critical of the sheer scale of the Israeli military action, especially in terms of the number of civilian casualties. There is little sign though of this having any impact on Israel’s conduct of the war. The factors which motivate Israel to press on may include political consideratiions related to the forthcoming Israeli election, and the opportunity provided by the fact that the departing George W Bush administration - with its record of support for Israeli actions - remains in office. But there are broader issues that also help explain Israel's motivations.
The conventional view is that Israel is a singularly powerful state possessed of some of the world’s most advanced military forces. This gives it clear superiority over the armies of its Arab neighbours, and an overwhelming advantage over Hamas militias. In a superficial sense this is unquestionably true, but the characterisation also masks a reality that has come to have an increasing impact over the last generation: that Israel is more and more vulnerable to forms of irregular and asymmetrical warfare, and does not know how to handle them except by responding with massive force.
The problem of force
The first indications of this trend were visible as early as Operation Peace for Galilee - the official title of Israel's invasion of Lebanon launched in 1982. The ostensible purpose of the attack was to counter unguided rockets being fired by Palestinian militias into northern Israel, but its real motive was to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as a functioning paramilitary organisation.
In a matter of days, the powerful IDF ground-forces advanced to the fringes of west Beirut. A lengthy bombardment and siege followed, which culminated in massacres in mid-September by rightwing Phalangist militias of Palestinian civilians Sabra and Shatila refugee-camps. In the horrified aftermath, Israeli forces withdrew from the immediately vicinity, but they but remained entrenched in occupation of much of southern Lebanon. The occupation gradually became untenable in the face of guerrilla actions by Hizbollah paramilitaries, which by 1985 had killed 300 soldiers of the IDF. Israel withdrew from all but a twenty-five-kilometre security-zone on Lebanese territory north of its border, which it in turn evacuated in May 2000.
From the mid-1980s onwards, Israel's defence strategy focused on the homeland itself, underpinned by a commitment to use considerable force against any direct threat. This approach in turn received a rude awakening on the second night of the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq over Kuwait in January 1991, when Iraq's Scud missiles landed on Israel's territory. The winter nights that followed were far more traumatic than most outside observers appreciated.
The memories of that period were significant in motivating Israel's assault on Hizbollah in the war July-August 2006; in part because the rockets then being launched from Lebanon - far more numerous and deadly than the Scuds - were stark reminders of the vulnerabilities exposed fifteen years earlier.
Israel's great military superiority was not enough to defeat Hizbollah in 2006; indeed, by many estimates the Lebanese movement itself emerged as the victor (see Zaid Al-Ali, "'Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won'", 9 August 2006). The uneasy peace established in the aftermath, which still persists, reflects the new balance of power: for Hizbollah is now even more heavily armed than before, with longer-range missiles that could threaten Israel right down to Tel Aviv and beyond. Now, in Gaza, Israel also faces increasingly sophisticated irregular warfare - especially rocket-attacks - from Hamas, and believes that it is essential to bring this to an end. The problem is that the use of overwhelming force which is its preferred option simply "has" to work. This is a reason for thinking that after five days the conflict may still be in its early stages.
The Israeli imperative
Israel's strategy in Gaza has to work for three reasons:
* Hamas itself must be so weakened that the rocket-attacks will cease or be reduced to an absolute minimum
* there must be no risk whatsoever of any paramilitary group developing similar tactics in the West Bank. A nightmare for the more thoughtful Israeli military planners is that any perception of success for Hamas stemming from the use of the rockets could well lead to groups on the West Bank developing the same tactics. The proximity of the occupied territories means that that would put all the heavily populated areas of Israel at risk
* the massive use of force in Gaza must send a message to Hizbollah that Israel has learned from its failure in 2006 and will never tolerate a further shower of rockets from southern Lebanon (see "Lebanon: the war after the war", 11 October 2006).
The problem is that although Operation Cast Lead "has" to work, the chances of it doing so are remote. For unless Israel reoccupies the whole of the Gaza strip and maintains rigid control over a deeply antagonistic population of nearly 1.5 million Palestinians, the rocket-attacks will almost certainly continue. What must be appreciated is that there is now widespread knowledge of how to construct crude but deadly devices from quite basic materials using equally rudimentary machinery. Moreover, the very intensity of the Israeli military action demonstrates how effective in their political impact these rockets can be.
Indeed, the way these rockets have developed in Gaza since 2007 is far more significant than most people realise. It is at least as important as the rapid evolution of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the effects that they have had and continue to have. The consequence of not countering these crude Gaza rockets is that Israel's security will deteriorate still further. Many Israelis understand the predicament, while making the fundamental mistake of believing that this is a problem with a military answer.
The early indications are that public opinion in Israel is supportive of the operation in Gaza. It may take time, but at some point time in the coming years there more and more Israelis will come to realise that there is no alternative to a negotiated and fair settlement with the Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Gaza. It is just possible that the disaster that is now unfolding, for Israelis as well as Palestinians, will actually hasten that process.