Gaza and the Utility of Force

The recent winding down of the latest round of fighting over Gaza, the week of stand-off strikes which the Israelis have termed Operation Pillar of Defense, ought to raise questions for all Western militaries about what exactly force is for these days.

In technological terms this was an exceptionally one-sided fight, and despite the fact that Israel Defense Force (IDF) leadership claims to have hit “everything that moves” in the miserable, isolated, and impoverished Gaza Strip, this was actually a rather restrained performance by the IDF, at least compared to the last, 2008-09 go-round with HAMAS. Casualties on the Palestinian side were relatively low, and on the Israeli side almost non-existent. HAMAS was stronger on rhetoric than logistics, and quickly ran out of the Fajr-5 missiles it had been given by Iran – the actual casus belli here – and was left with large stockpiles of short-ranged, quite inaccurate Grads, and sensibly agreed to a halt.

No one who knows the belligerents thinks this is anything more than a temporary lull, yet some in the IDF, as well as their fans who cheer for beating up the arabush from the safety of New Jersey, have lambasted Israel’s leadership with taunts of BIBI LOSER for not finishing the job. One wonders if they understand what they are asking Netanyahu and his cabinet to do here.

Israel finds itself in a paradoxical situation today. Despite the astonishing deterioration of its political position in the Middle East over the last two years, due to partisan forces far beyond the control of anyone in Tel Aviv or Washington, DC, its military advantage has never been greater than at present. Israel faces no sort of peer competitor in its region, the IDF could lay waste to any neighboring militaries without too much effort, and even if Iran were to announce tomorrow it has a nuclear weapon, the Jewish state’s nuclear advantage would still be hundreds-fold.

HAMAS, however, presents a problem. If nothing else, the mid-November mini-war has made indelibly clear that it is the genuine leader of the Palestinian people; Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and Mahmoud Abbas have been shown publicly to be irrelevant. In a manner that cannot be plausibly construed as helpful to Israeli interests, HAMAS today is the public face of the Palestinian cause. Although some of its leaders have been more flexible about doing a deal than Israeli hasbara would portray, hardliners in Tel Aviv are correct to assume that HAMAS now has no reason to show moderation, when Israel has been willing to call off the dogs of war well short of victory.

But what might victory look like? Despite the fantasies of Israeli hardliners and their fanboys abroad, there is simply no military solution to the Palestinian problem short of genocide. Unless the IDF is willing to kill off enough Palestinians to permanently change the vaunted “facts on the ground” – there are about 5.5 million Jews and about 5.5 million Arabs between the Jordan River and the Med: no matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of killing – this scholar wonders what utility military force actually has here.

Israel is hardly alone in this situation. All Western militaries now live in a world where anything less than rigid adherence to lawyer-driven rules of engagement is liable to result in war crimes trials. The Balkan wars of the 1990s, which have become the de facto standard for NATO and its friends, were denounced by all right-thinking people as a humanitarian catastrophe without par, when in fact they were dramatically less awful than World War Two had been in the very same place. All of European history is said to have been changed by what happened around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995, despite the fact that the death toll there – which caused U.S. and NATO intervention in the Balkan wars – represented approximately what Einsatzgruppen accomplished during shift changes and coffee breaks at, say, Babi Yar.

Since 1945 we live under different rules. What was until relatively recently considered standard operating procedure for armies in battle – with allowances for “occasional excesses” – is now off limits under any circumstances. This is the new normal; whether what the lawyers and human rights activists have demanded represents an accurate depiction of men at war is an entirely different question. Even the Russians, the least bien-pensant of any Europeans, have cleaned up their act.  While it is impossible to say that Russia’s Chechen war, nearly two decades in progress now, has been waged cleanly – in fact Moscow’s playbook has included mass killings and terror against civilians – it has been positively Schweitzerian compared to the campaign waged against Chechnya in the 1940s, when Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation to Siberia, a half-million down to the last woman and child.

The problem of “war among the people” poses distinct challenges to all Western militaries; the questions asked cogently by British General Rupert Smith in his thoughtful book The Utility of Force hang over all of us. While Western ministries of defense have at their disposal wonderfully precise weapons, the option of cowing resisting populations into submission through mass killings and generous use of firepower has been take off the table by fiat. This despite the fact that honest military historians know that such methods have often been the sole guarantor of success in hard-fought campaigns.

Therefore Israel today finds itself in the unenviable position of possessing a surfeit of firepower which it is unable to use. HAMAS knows this and will plan accordingly. The IDF will surely engage in many more rounds of whack-a-mole against HAMAS and related insurgents who fear not death. All the while, as the eminent Israeli historian Martin van Creveld has stated many times, their morale will suffer from beating up on the weak. HAMAS will bide its time, as Israel does not have the option of inflicting truly mass violence on the Palestinians; which is perhaps fitting as the Jewish state owes it existence to centuries of kill-them-all logic among Europeans reaching its terrible endpoint.

So the IDF can look forward to years, perhaps decades, more of what has just happened in Gaza. Back in the mid-1980s the American journalist P.J. O’Rourke, in his travelogue Holidays in Hell, wrote about a visit to South Africa, then a besieged apartheid state possessing vast military superiority over its neighbors. “Thirty days to Cairo” was the mantra among white South Africans, who indeed could have reached the other end of Africa in a few short weeks – which, O’Rourke noted, would put them far from where the country’s problems actually were. Less than a decade after that observation the apartheid regime surrendered, seeing no military or political solution to its intractable problems at home.

If Israel wants to find a happier fate it needs to think hard, and fast, about solutions to the Palestinian problem which do not center on the IDF.