“It is quite possible for such a state of feeling to exist between two States that a very trifling political motive for War may produce an effect quite disproportionate — in fact, a perfect explosion.”
-Clausewitz (On War)
“It’s unfortunate, but every once in a while you have to mow the lawn.”
– Unknown (Attributed to an Israeli policy expert at a 2010 conference)
It’s indicative of how poisonous Israel-Gaza relations have become that the IDF’s repeated invasions into the Strip can be compared to lawn maintenance, and yet the euphemism is darkly accurate. Every few years Hamas’s military capability and infrastructure increase to the point that they become a significant nuisance to Israeli security, and so every few years the weed-whackers, mowers, and pesticides come out of the shed as Israel chops back all that growth to the roots.
Those who are appalled by the replacement of human lives with blades of grass have their hearts in the right place, but don’t often understand the military theory involved, or the general shape of asymmetrical warfare. Those who unilaterally affirm Israel’s right to launch operations into Gaza are often students of the microcosm rather than the larger history of the conflict. Either way, the current media narrative, built on pictures of dead children, concrete tunnels, and the aftermath of air strikes, is too vast and disjointed to provide a cohesive picture of the current operation or its place in the narrative.
That people are dying is indeed a tragedy. That, after four decades of conflict since ’67, the Israelis still believe in a military solution is devastating. The stupidity of Hamas as a political force is bewildering. Yet I am not interested in justifying or damning Israeli politics, or making strange comparisons to South Africa and other dictatorships. There is a history of atrocity and banality that spans generations on both sides of the conflict, and I have not the education nor the “Weltanschauung” to understand it.
Still, here is a list of questions I see being asked, and the best answers I can give.
Planning a military operation or military strategy requires implicit acceptance that one’s actions will result in death — of enemies, friends, and also perhaps civilians. These deaths will be mourned when they occur, but they must be accepted as the cost of waging war. In a conflict such as that between Israel and Hamas, where a decisive blow (the destruction of Palestinian extremism or the destruction of Israel) is practically impossible, the goal of an operation or general strategy might be as simple as removing an opponent’s ability to change the status quo. For Israel, which enjoys significant military advantages over Hamas as well as control of the Gaza blockade, a significant operation every couple years is used to destroy Hamas’s fighting capability, weapons caches, and logistical infrastructure. While the IDF hasn’t been able to destroy Hamas entirely, these invasions have helped keep the blockade reasonably effective and limited the growth of Hamas as an effective military force. “Mowing the lawn” is consequently the maintaining of a balance that is currently in Israel’s favour, at a human cost that is (mostly) non-Israeli, and still arguably lower than the potential cost if Hamas were allowed to operate unimpeded. It’s bloody, ugly, and yet apparently inevitable.
Tactically ‘mowing’ isn’t an ideal solution, but lawn maintenance is supposed to buy time for political negotiation and settlement. Unfortunately, what it has instead become is a stale form of institutional reciprocation, a trap that both Israel and Hamas seem unable to extricate themselves from as they slowly bleed each other.
Over the last few weeks, it has been heart-wrenching to see the number of conflict fatalities constantly climb in the counts displayed by various media and watchdog organizations. The obvious inequality in fatalities, coupled with the high number of civilian casualties in Gaza, raise concerns over the aim and ethics of the Israeli offensive. Yet (for the most part) the numbers are indicative of the type of warfare being waged rather than any outrageous violation of “international rules.”*
The Gaza Strip is approximately 360 square kilometres of territory containing 1.8 million people. It is profoundly crowded, economically stagnant, under Israeli blockade, and saturated with refugees from previous conflicts. Unfortunately, the Strip is not only an overcrowded refugee camp, but also the military and political headquarters of Hamas (essentially also a base of operations). Any attempt by the Israelis to retaliate against Hamas must necessarily take place in Gaza, while any Hamas initiative against Israel must necessarily begin in Gaza. Consequently, any escalation of violence in the region places 1.8 million Palestinians in the line of fire.
People who demonize Israel because of the deaths of children and civilians are similar to those who demonize Hamas for putting children and civilians in harm’s way, in that neither understand the nature of the conflict. Urban warfare is always messy, destructive, and costly for both combatants, but it becomes especially dangerous when the civilian population has nowhere to run. On such a battlefield, it is impossible for either side to avoid collateral damage in the form of human lives lost and infrastructure destroyed. Of course, because the battleground is in Palestinian territory rather than Israeli, it is disproportionately Palestinians who suffer as they are caught in the crossfire. This does not absolve Israel of the responsibility of willingly choosing such a battlefield, but it does put to rest the fallacy that the IDF are arbitrarily slaughtering everybody in their path.
Of course Hamas could choose to engage the IDF on equal terms in a (relatively) unpopulated portion of the Strip and fight ‘fair’ as the Israel apologists constantly remind us. This would be incredibly noble and also suicidal. In an asymmetrical conflict the guerilla force remains effective and protected only so long as its members are spread out and indistinguishable from civilian targets. To engage in conventional warfare with the IDF by creating obvious military bases and formations would invite the annihilation of Hamas, and is not a reasonable request to make of any self-respecting guerilla organization. Their advantage is in blurring the lines between civilian and militant, between UN-designated conflict shelter and arms depot. Hiding their assets in sensitive locations is the only way they can remain an effective military threat.
The basic tenets of asymmetrical warfare are simple, and have been replicated in films and books from Star Wars to The Hunger Games. Generally we’re blinded to the ‘unfair’ advantage enjoyed by the rebels because we’ve been assured that the governing authority is inherently evil, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that we’re cheering for glorified assassins who abuse religious institutions (think Zorro) or engage in acts of murderous sabotage (Battlestar Galactica). Guerilla insurgencies don’t follow “international rules”, they decide their own codes of conflict, and survive by turning their fellow civilians into human shields.
We excuse this behavior in the movies by arguing that their cause is just in a classic adaptation of the argument that the ends justify the means. Why we have decided that Hamas, who obviously operate from a similar ends-oriented perspective, should hold themselves to a higher standard, is beyond me.
It’s important to understand that even organizations which exist primarily to carry out acts of terrorism (think Al Qaeda), have political goals. Hamas is not Al Qaeda, and comparisons between the two should be analyzed critically. Hamas, just like the old PLO, is trying to meet several functions including both limited political administration and religious war. On one hand it is an organization that engages in acts of terrorism against Israel with the stated purpose of destroying the state. On the other hand, it is still attempting to govern the Gaza Strip (despite handing over official political control to Abbas earlier this year), and has therefore (somewhat) adopted the practical concerns of Gaza’s civilians to maintain public support. While negotiating with terrorists is generally a waste of time, negotiating with the de facto government of the needy and isolated Gaza Strip is not. Extreme need often creates support for extreme solutions, and one has to wonder if Hamas, as part of the PLO, will be pulled into line if the Gaza situation improves.
The rhetoric employed by Hamas is ugly and brutal and assumes the ongoing conflict is a zero-sum game. This is disturbing to western observers who are new to the conflict and ignorant of its intricacies, but the truth is that similar rhetoric has been employed by most of the major Arab players, often in direct contradiction to many of their actions. For much of the 20th century an Islamist-oriented hardline policy on Israel was necessary to the survival of political organizations in the region, even as many of the same parties indirectly negotiated with the Jews. Palestinian organizations have more-or-less understood since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty that Israel is here to stay, and the rhetoric since seems to be more about appeasing party extremists than stating viable goals. Similar bluster is found in both Hamas and Israeli communications, and is largely ignored in the practical maneuvering that occurs beneath the surface. This is not to deny that large contingents of Hamas hate Israel and would love to witness its destruction, but simply suggesting that Hamas is only one segment of a larger governing body, and one that can be influenced by that larger body.
Because there has been no official peace in the region since 1948, the current conflict is simply one of the occasional flare ups amidst decades of low-intensity warfare. Trying to pin blame on Hamas for this conflict is to ignore provocation given by the Israelis last year, or the year before, or a decade ago. The situation in the Gaza Strip is one that has been largely engineered by Israel, and it’s hard to blame a cornered animal (Hamas) for fighting back.
In a war that has lasted decades, one cannot simply allocate blame based upon the events of a single month. To do so shows a blatant ideological bias.
*I put “international rules” in quotations because the term itself is rather ambiguous. Most of the “rules” were created in anticipation of a conflict between two sovereign nations, not asymmetrical low-intensity warfare between one nation and a glorified terrorist organization. One of the difficulties in holding to ‘rules’ in such a conflict is that only one side, the established national government, can actually be penalized for violations. Hamas and Israel are both constantly in violation of the ‘rules’, both constantly provoking the other into further acts of extremity. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to bring sanctions and international scorn against Israel than a terrorist organization.
“War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds; as one side dictates the law to the other, there arises a sort of reciprocal action, which logically must lead to an extreme.”
-Clausewitz (On War)