Israel needs to resist irrational retaliation

“WE WILL OBLITERATE Hamas. We will triumph. It might take time, but we will end this war stronger than ever.” The words of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, are intended not only to convey resolve, but also to signal that his war in Gaza is different. No longer is Israel aiming to punish and deter Hamas. Now it wants to destroy it altogether.

That is a tall order. Hamas is at the same time a religious idea, a social movement, a political party, a government and a hybrid militia wedded to terrorism. Whatever happens in Gaza, Hamas remains a powerful political force in the West Bank. In private conversations, Israeli military officials are defining the objective more narrowly: to seize the main urban centre, Gaza City; wipe out Hamas’s top political and military leadership in the territory; and destroy as much of its military capacity as possible.

That might take weeks or even months of house-to-house fighting, given the extensive tunnel network beneath Gaza. In Iraq and Syria local forces backed by Western air power and thousands of Western troops spent 277 days in the streets of Mosul, and 90 in Raqqa, fighting the jihadists of Islamic State in 2017.

Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister, argues that Israel faces four constraints. Three are about the war: how to fight despite the presence of hostages, how to avoid a two-front war that draws in Lebanon’s Hizbullah militia, and how to manage time given the inevitable erosion of international support as Palestinian suffering grows. A fourth concern is about the day after the fighting: “To whom can we pass the torch?” asks Mr Barak.

The last question is a fiendish problem to which Mr Netanyahu offers no answer. Hamas’s onslaught on October 7th shows that Israel’s policy of controlling the territory from the outside, by sealing its perimeter on land and at sea, is perilous. Yet in the past the occupation of Gaza, which is home to more than 2m people, proved too costly to maintain. Under pressure of violence from Hamas and other militias, Israel withdrew the last of its military forces and Jewish settlers from the territory in 2005.

Without a workable security and political strategy for the “day after”, any military victory may unravel. “Remember Afghanistan. Remember Iraq. Remember Lebanon,” warned Mr Barak on a recent webinar by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an American think-tank. He was referring to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and America’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. All three were provoked by acts of terrorism. All three were marked by great initial military successes. And all three turned into grave political debacles.

“The Israelis are in the same state that we Americans were in right after 9/11,” argues Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC. “We were so angry and so frightened. All we really focused on was destroying anyone who threatened us, and there wasn’t nearly enough attention paid to what comes next.”

What wars on terror wrought

America’s “global war on terror” started triumphantly. Just two months after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America in September 2001, American-led forces were in control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. The Taliban government was gone. Al-Qaeda was hounded. Its leader, Osama bin Laden, was tracked to Pakistan and killed in 2011. But the Taliban fought a growing insurgency. Having lost more than 2,400 military personnel, America left in 2021. The Afghan government collapsed almost immediately and the Taliban returned to power.

image: The Economist

The war in Iraq was inglorious, too, and far bloodier. Once again, American forces quickly took the capital, Baghdad, in April 2003. President George W. Bush strutted on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft-carrier, under the sign: “Mission Accomplished”. In fact, the country was about to slip into civil war. American forces captured Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, but soon faced bloody insurgencies by both Sunni and Shia militias. American forces withdrew in 2011 but returned in smaller numbers in 2014 to help beat back Islamic State after it captured swathes of Iraq and Syria (see chart). All told, America lost some 4,500 service members, not to mention some 300,000 Iraqis who died, most of them civilians.

For Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, an American think-tank, the lessons are clear. Terrorist and insurgent groups, he argues, resort to spectacular violence to provoke an irrational response: “They know that the harm that they can do to the dominant power is limited. They understand that the harm that the dominant power can do to itself is infinitely greater.”

Israel’s own history offers similar warnings. In June 1982, during a tense ceasefire in artillery exchanges across Israel’s northern border and amid a series of other attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (plo), the Palestinian umbrella group, gunmen shot and wounded Israel’s ambassador in London. The Israeli government took the attack as a casus belli to invade Lebanon and dismantle the PLO, even though the hit was attributed to its rival, the Abu Nidal group. Israeli forces besieged the PLO in west Beirut, forcing its leader, Yasser Arafat, and thousands of fighters, to sail away into exile. Israel’s Christian ally, Bachir Gemayel, was elected Lebanon’s president.

Then it all fell apart. Gemayel was blown up. In sight of Israeli forces, his Phalangist fighters exacted revenge by killing Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. An Israeli commission of inquiry found that Ariel Sharon, Israel’s defence minister, was indirectly responsible, and he was demoted. Within a year, under pressure from anti-war protests, Menachem Begin, the prime minister, announced his resignation.

One effect of the Lebanese imbroglio was that the PLO was replaced by Hizbullah, a more formidable Shia militia, which succeeded in pushing Israel out of Lebanon in 2000. Another impact was on Palestinians within the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their first intifada, or “shaking off”, a stone-throwing uprising that started in 1987, set the stage for the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO of 1993. Arafat made a triumphant return to Gaza the following year.

Hamas emerged as the main force of violent rejectionism. Copying Hizbullah’s suicide tactics, it did much to destroy the Oslo accords. It forced Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. The following year it pushed out the Palestinian Authority (PA), the administration created by the PLO. Bereft of Arafat, who died in 2004; stuck in parcels of autonomous territory in the West Bank; and unable to make progress towards statehood by negotiation, the PA was rapidly discredited as it sank into autocracy and corruption.

Deterrence theory

Since 2006 Israel’s wars have been based on punishment and deterrence, seeking not to destroy its enemies but to inflict such a heavy price as to dissuade the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah from attacking Israel.

Deterrence, though, is hard to measure. In the case of Hizbullah, it has generally held since the last big war in Lebanon in 2006, sparked by a cross-border Hizbullah raid that captured two Israeli soldiers. The fighting led to widespread destruction, notably in Dahieh, a Shia neighbourhood of Beirut. Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, later admitted he would not have ordered the raid had he known Israel’s reaction would be so severe.

In Gaza, though, periods of calm have been shorter. Israel has engaged in what some call “mowing the grass”, ie, periodically beating down Hamas to weaken it. In response to Hamas rocket fire, Israeli forces have relied mostly on retaliatory bombardment, and the protection of its Iron Dome air-defence system. Ground units have entered Gaza only reluctantly.

Deterrence holds until suddenly it doesn’t. Hamas’s bloodlust on October 7th was “perhaps the most cruel action in 100 years of conflict between Israel and Palestinians”, notes Mr Ibish. Yet Israel is falling into Hamas’s “trap” in the ferocity of its retribution. The fighting will turn international sympathy from Israel to the Palestinians, allow Hamas to claim leadership of the Palestinian cause and wreck prospects for rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, contends Mr Ibish.

Israel is in no mood for restraint. Forget mowing the grass; it wants extirpation. But such uprooting creates a new problem. “If you are going to eliminate Hamas it’s a political issue, not a military one,” says Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London. “You have to establish something, or else Hamas is going to come back.”

The Israelis in Lebanon in 1982, and the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001, had allies on the ground and day-after plans of sorts, flawed as they turned out to be. In Gaza today, Israel is acting alone. The PA is weak and cannot be seen to return to Gaza on Israeli tanks. Most Arab governments have little love for Hamas, but little courage to be seen conspiring with Israel against it.

“I don’t care what happens next,” says Eitan Shamir, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an Israeli think-tank. “Whatever it is, it starts with destroying Hamas.” The Allies went to war against the Nazis and only later developed a plan to run post-war Germany, he notes. In his view, America’s and Israel’s misadventures began when they started to meddle in local politics instead of leaving promptly. Moreover, America’s experience has little relevance to Israel, says Mr Shamir. It was involved in expeditionary wars, and could bring troops home: “Israel is completely different. We are fighting for our homes. We have no other choice.”

For the many Israelis who, like Mr Shamir, think peace is out of reach for the foreseeable future, the only option is to keep hitting foes hard, until they disappear or change. If the current war brings Israel some years of quiet, they say, that is good enough.

Israel, though, does not have a free hand. International law and sometimes domestic opinion limit how harsh its response can be. It relies on the West, especially America, to fend off international pressure, but its support is not unlimited. The promise that America “has Israel’s back” risks making it complicit in Israel’s actions, to the detriment of its interests in the region and elsewhere. To take one example: Arab commentators are already drawing comparisons between America’s denunciations of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine and its forbearance of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

Such concerns explain why Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, has been shuttling across the Middle East seeking to open a humanitarian corridor, allowing vital supplies into Gaza and at least some people out to Egypt. For now, though, Mr Blinken’s thinking about a post-Hamas world is mostly one of platitudes: “a region that comes together, integrated, normalised relations among its countries, people working in common purpose to common benefit.”

A solution will not be easy. That is all the more reason to think about it now. Jay Garner, the American general charged with setting the new administration in Iraq in 2003, complained that George Marshall, the American army chief during the second world war, had enjoyed more than two years to plan for post-Hitler Germany, whereas he was being given just a few months to prepare for post-Saddam Iraq. Israel and the world may have even less time to prepare for what comes after Hamas in Gaza. 

Correction (October 17th): This article was amended to correct the order in which events occurred leading up to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

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