North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Why does Israel confuse peace with surrender?

Offensive military strategies and deliberate use of disproportionate violence against civilians are a core part of the state’s policies

tewfik hamel
tewfik hamel
5 July 2021, 7.53am
Israel has used disproportionate force against civilians for decades
UPI / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Israel confuses peace with surrender. Its operational military doctrine, concerned with the army's methods of combat, emphasises the imperative to bring hostilities as early as possible into enemy territory and, if necessary, to strike preemptively.

Israel's strategic doctrine, which comprises the broad policies used to secure national objectives, seeks to preserve the state, within increasingly expansive borders, which also means the continued colonisation of Palestinian land. Both are about staying on the offensive.

Disproportionate violence

Israel has used disproportionate force against civilians for decades. This is explained by the fact that it has been relatively successful in minimising the human and financial cost of war for itself. Yet history is full of tragedies caused by overestimating the power of offensive doctrines.

In its recent military campaign in Gaza, Israel’s ground and air forces reportedly conducted a total 1,500 strikes in 11 days, injuring 1,900 Palestinians and killing at least 254.

This must be understood in the context of Israel's strategy, which from the outset has included deliberate attacks on civilians, their economies, institutions, and infrastructure.

In May 2009, Amnesty International released its country report for Israel and the occupied territories, which found that during a previous campaign, that year’s Operation Cast Lead, “Israeli forces repeatedly breached the laws of war, including by carrying out direct attacks on civilians and civilian buildings and attacks targeting Palestinian militants that caused a disproportionate toll among civilians.”

Statements by Israeli officials reveal that the disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians was a deliberate policy. In October 2008, Gabi Siboni, Director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), published a policy paper entitled "Disproportionate Force: Israel's Concept of Response in Light of the Second Lebanon War." It stated:

“With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy's actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes. 'Israel's test will be the intensity and quality of its response to incidents on the Lebanese border or terrorist attacks involving Hezbollah in the north or Hamas in the south. In such cases, Israel again will not be able to limit its response to actions whose severity is seemingly proportionate to an isolated incident. Rather, it will have to respond disproportionately in order to make it abundantly clear that the State of Israel will accept no attempt to disrupt the calm currently prevailing along its borders.”

For Israeli leaders, the periodic use of force is essential to communicate Israel’s capacity and resolve. As part of the Israeli security paradigm, when the state feels that deterrence against a particular actor is evaporating, it launches "deterrence operations" where concern for collateral damage to civilians tends to disappear. This was the case with operations "Summer Rains" (2006), “Cast Lead” (2008-2009), “Pillar of Defence” (2012) and “Protective Edge” (2014).

Deterrence by punishment

The building of military power and the use of force have served a key communication function between Israel and its neighbours. Military power and the threat and use of force are seen as fundamental to convincing enemies that Israel can't be destroyed.

For Israel, overwhelming power equals security and whoever shoots first is almost certain to shoot last and win

National security depends more on the ability to unilaterally secure Israel on the battlefield than on the willingness to engage in dialogue with neighbours and seek a mutually satisfactory balance.

Since its foundation, Israel has been driven by the idea that overwhelming power equals security and whoever shoots first is almost certain to shoot last and win.

This leads Israel to develop a preference for deterrence by punishment rather than deterrence by denial. While the latter seeks to countervail aggression by making it more difficult for an aggressor to achieve their objective and convincing them that they will not attain their goals on the battlefield, deterrence by punishment raises costs on the aggressor by damaging civilian targets. Deterrence by punishment often involves threatening to destroy large portions of an opponent’s civilian population and industry.

In other words, for Israel, the threat of disproportionate retaliation will convince the enemy to refrain from aggression. This offensive doctrine has been practiced through successive conflicts, institutionalised through organisational reforms and professional military training, and codified in official publications, including the official Strategy of the Israel Defense Forces of 2015 (updated in 2018).

Mowing the grass

The novelty of the recent attacks on Gaza is their conception. After the 2006 war with Lebanon, Israel developed the strategy of the “campaign between wars” (also called “mowing the grass”), which constitutes its long-term strategy and the context in which it operates towards its non-state adversaries.

For Israel, it is unlikely to be able to purge Hamas from Palestinian society, nor is a political solution likely to be achieved. Against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like Hamas or Hezbollah, Israel simply needs to “mow the grass” once in a while to degrade the enemy’s capabilities.

A war of attrition against Hamas and Hezbollah is probably Israel’s fate for the long term. Keeping the enemy off balance and reducing its capabilities requires Israeli military readiness and a willingness to use force intermittently, while maintaining a healthy and resilient Israeli home front, despite the protracted conflict.

A review of Israeli military strategy reveals that the current situation reflects a natural progression in Israel's approach to war. The legitimacy of excessive force grows the more Israel wants to reduce the risk to its own soldiers. The strategic adjustment that followed the 2006 war was visible in Gaza, as soldiers avoided entering the enclave to avoid being trapped as happened in southern Lebanon.

For Israel, enemy civilians are at the bottom of the hierarchy of death and as the recent Gaza offensive demonstrates, this has opened it up to global criticism.Failure to respect the notions of proportionality and discrimination in military engagement constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law.

The Dahya doctrine

Governments target civilian populations for two main reasons: to reduce their own military losses and avoid defeat, or to seize and annex enemy territory.

Israel is content with a status quo in which the Palestinian national movement is physically and politically divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. For Israel, Hamas cannot be eradicated militarily, because it is not just a resistance organisation. "Hamas is an idea [...] no idea has ever been defeated by force," as Amos Oz wrote.

Statements by Israeli officials reveal that the disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians was a deliberate policy

Israel's goals are therefore limited by necessity rather than by choice. The demise of Hamas’s rule in Gaza is not an attainable military objective. Hamas is well-rooted in Palestinian society, particularly in Gaza. Eradicating Hamas and the subsequent political engineering of Palestinian society is not something outsiders can do. Even if Hamas’s rule can be terminated, the alternatives are Israeli rule, the rule of more radical groups, or chaos. None are good options.

The “Dahya Doctrine”, Israel’s expression of this reasoning, includes the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure and endorses the use of “disproportionate force”.

The first public declaration of these principles dates back to a 2008 statement by General Gadi Eizenkot, commander of the Israeli army’s northern front. What happened, he said, in the Dahya district of Beirut in 2006, "would occur in all villages from which shots were fired at Israel”:

“We will exert disproportionate power against them and cause immense damage and destruction. From our point of view, these are military bases[...] This is not a suggestion. It is a plan that has already been authorised [...]To harm the population is the only way to contain Nasrallah [the leader of Hezbollah]."

This behaviour must be understood in the context of Israel's strategy, which from the outset included deliberate attacks on civilians, their economies, institutions, and infrastructure. The damage and destruction are not caused by a few ‘bad apples’. The retired General Giora Eiland noted in 2008 that Israel would have to fight Hezbollah differently next time if it wanted to win:

“Such a war will lead to the elimination of the Lebanese army, the destruction of the national infrastructure, and intense suffering among the populations. There will be no recurrence of the situation where the people of Beirut (not counting the Dahya neighborhood) go to the beach and cafes while the people of Haifa sit in bomb shelters. The severe damage to the Lebanese Republic, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people are consequences that can influence Hezbollah’s behavior more than anything else."

Collective punishment

The so-called "Dahya doctrine" is a form of collective punishment that follows neither the laws of war, nor international conventions. . It reflects Israel's confidence in its power as well as a sense of insecurity. According to the regularly recycled Israeli narrative, the Israeli army does not intend to strike civilian targets; rather, Hamas is to blame, because it exploits civilians as human shields and deliberately stores weapons in public facilities, mosques, hospitals, and homes.

Hamas is a radical Islamist organization, goes this narrative, and a confrontation is entirely the result of its actions. Hamas ends a truce with Israel, then Israel reacts to increasingly intolerable rockets and other provocations. This account only considers recent or immediate events, even though Israel has been the source of repressive actions for decades.

This increasingly contested line of argument does not hold up under the "Dahya doctrine", according to which Israel consciously intends to strike civilian targets. This long conflict has yet to see a clear winner on the battlefields, but so far Israel has won the battle of public opinion, at least where it counts.

Empirical studies offer little evidence that targeting civilians helps perpetrators achieve a strategic objective. Analysis of the results of more than 30 air campaigns since World War I shows that the key to success is to attack the enemy's military strategy, not its economy or its people. Military leaders and politicians are wrong in thinking that civilian punishment pays.

Politicians often overestimate the effectiveness of coercion, while they underestimate the costs. Coercive attempts often fail, even when the attackers have superior capabilities and inflict heavy punishments on the target state. Given the above, Israel is at a strategic impasse. It seeks to dissuade without being dissuaded and to resolve militarily a conflict whose solution is essentially political.

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