by Ben Reiff
Gaza’s Great March of Return has lasted for over six weeks.
Israel’s military response – resulting in around 40 Palestinian deaths and some 5,000 injuries – has drawn international censure, though Israel claims to be responding to imminent threats to its security orchestrated by Hamas.
Far from an aberration, the only thing novel about the current clashes is their design. Examining Israeli military strategy, in particular what Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir have termed ‘Mowing the Grass‘ , and what Yagil Levy has called the force/casualty tradeoff, reveals that the current situation represents a natural progression in Israel’s approach – to Hamas and also to Hizbullah.
Inbar & Shamir recognise that Israel today is in a state of protracted intractable conflict with two non-state actors: Hamas in Gaza, and Hizbullah in Lebanon. In fact, Israel has not fought a war against another state since clashing with Syria after invading Lebanon in 1982; both intifadas were popular uprisings by a population under (varying degrees of) Israeli control, while its conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza in the last 12 years have been fought against Hizbullah and Hamas respectively.
To combat these two adversaries, Israel has adopted a policy of ‘Mowing the Grass’, a patient military strategy of attrition with limited goals: to diminish their opponents’ capacity to harm Israel, and to accomplish temporary deterrence – both of which are achieved through occasional large-scale operations, as seen with the three Gaza Wars and the Second Lebanon War (and epitomised by the ‘Dahiya Doctrine‘). Over time, it is hoped that the repeated achievement of these limited goals will drain the motivation of enemy fighters to harm Israel, and eventually cause the movement to fizzle out into obscurity.
Israel does not seek Hamas’s overthrow. It is content with a status quo in which the Palestinian national movement is divided physically and politically between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank. It also does not believe Hamas can be totally eradicated militarily, nor accommodated politically. As Amos Oz has written, ‘Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea… [and] no idea has ever been defeated by force’. Israel’s goals are thus limited by necessity as much as choice.
Also involved in the agenda of ‘Mowing the Grass’ are various preventive actions which can take place either during or in between periods of ‘hot’ war. These have included a number of air strikes on weapons convoys before they reach Hizbullah or other groups, in addition to targeted assassinations of prominent leaders or weapons experts, such as the recent killing of a Hamas engineer in Malaysia for which Mossad has been blamed.
What is ironic is how closely Israel’s strategy mirrors that of its prime adversary, Hamas. Like Hizbullah, Hamas adheres to the doctrine of continuous resistance (muqawama), through which it aims to inflict pain on Israel, and steadfastness (sumud), which promotes the idea that the enemy has failed until Hamas has been totally defeated – in other words, existence is resistance.
Mutual reliance on patient, attrition warfare has produced a situation in which this unwinnable conflict is certain to endure indefinitely unless either side dramatically changes its strategy. What we’re seeing in Gaza right now is merely the next episode in a drama with no endpoint in sight.
While ‘Mowing the Grass’ represents Israel’s long-term strategy and the context in which it acts towards its non-state adversaries, to understand the present situation requires an appreciation of what Levy calls the force/casualty tradeoff.
Levy describes a process by which increasing ‘legitimacy to use force’ and decreasing ‘legitimacy of sacrifice’ cause democracies to use excessive force in order to reduce the risk to their own soldiers.
Israel’s legitimacy of sacrifice has never been high; it has always been a country averse to casualties, but the public was more willing to accept them as a national necessity in the existential wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 than in more recent decades. The First Lebanon War in 1982 was widely seen as Israel’s first ‘war of choice’, and the movement of the Four Mothers (bereaved from the Lebanon War) was influential in damaging the legitimacy of the war in the eyes of the Israeli public and eventually forcing full Israeli withdrawal. The failure of Israel’s next war in Lebanon (2006) is often attributed to an over-reliance on air power resulting from the leadership’s accommodation of the public’s sensitivity to losses.
At the same time, Israel’s legitimacy to use force was increasing. The Oslo process transformed Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian people, with the newly formed PA and its various security forces taking over duties of internal security in areas under their control in the West Bank and Gaza. With Israel no longer directly responsible for those Palestinians, it enjoyed wider legitimacy to exercise less restraint against them as a hostile ‘foreign’ population rather than an internal civilian population.
The transformation of Israel’s military response to the Second Intifada compared to the First Intifada reflects not only the increased level of Palestinian violence it had to deal with but also a much greater legitimacy to use force. The general belief at the time was that Barak at Camp David had made an unprecedented peace offer, which Arafat had once again chosen to reject. The brutalisation of Palestinian violence also resulted in the almost total disintegration of the Israeli peace camp, removing a major constraint on government action and building a consensus behind heavy-handed repression of the uprising.
As a result of this dual process, Israel’s wars with Hamas in Gaza since 2006 have been characterised by a desire to avoid casualties and a high legitimacy for the use of force, leading to high numbers of Palestinian civilian deaths each time. Levy notes that the ratio of casualties between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza increased from 1:6 during the First Intifada to 1:86 during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and the situation in Gaza today demonstrates this exact phenomenon.
The force/casualty tradeoff indicates not only why Israel acts the way it does, but also what might cause it to act otherwise: decreasing legitimacy to use force.
The existence of violent elements within the largely non-violent protests has given Israel near impunity to respond with disproportionate force. Were the protests completely non-violent, Israel would have a much greater challenge attempting to legitimise the level of force being used to its own public and to the international community. Because they’re not, it can point to every incident of violence as justification for its actions.
The most productive way to decrease legitimacy to use force will not be by denying Israel the right to defend its borders from what it deems a threat – any such attempt to do so will be rejected unequivocally by Israeli political and military leaders and a majority of the Israeli public. Instead, efforts should focus on Israel’s legitimacy to use certain kinds of force, i.e. using live ammunition where rubber bullets would suffice, or using rubber bullets where tear gas would be enough. This would drastically reduce the number of casualties while still upholding Israel’s right to defend its borders.
Israel has long proved its obstinacy in the face of international pressure, particularly under the current government. Change will only come through a campaign that a significant proportion of the Israeli public and the Knesset can get behind. Anger and frustration with the present situation must be channelled into a movement that can enforce this change.
Ben Reiff is an International Relations & History student at the LSE. He is also the founder and president of the LSESU Voices of Israel-Palestine society, which brings Israeli and Palestinian academics, journalists, activists and political figures to speak on campus. Follow the society’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/LSESUVIP/
Israel has backed itself into a longterm situation where it cannot win, but can easily lose. I only have a few years left and I hope their loss is beyond my lifetime.
Human(e) beings like Ben Reiff are what is needed to change the situation in Israel and Gaza for the better.