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...
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.
John R. Schindler is professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he’s been since 2005, and where he teaches courses on security, strategy, intelligence, terrorism, and occasionally military history. Before joining the NWC faculty, he spent nearly a decade with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer.