By James S. Robbins, senior fellow in national security affairs at the American
Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and
the Goats of West Point.
December 30, 2008.
It’s clear what caused the renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
On June 19 of this year, a six-month ceasefire agreement went into effect after
several months of escalating conflict. On December 19, Hamas announced it
would not renew the agreement and resumed rocket attacks on southern Israel.
In response, and after repeated warnings, Israel launched a long-planned
operation to remove the source of the problem: the entire Hamas infrastructure.
One would think that Hamas’s decision to resume large-scale armed conflict
would place the burden of responsibility for what has followed on them.
Instead, two alternative story lines have developed: One is that Hamas and
Israel are equally to blame for the situation, and both must stand down
immediately; the other that the crisis is Israel’s fault for responding to the
Hamas’s provocations with “excessive force”.
The first story goes like this. Both sides use force. Both sides kill civilians. Both
sides must cease this unacceptable behavior and sit down and negotiate.
The first problem with this formulation is that Hamas will not ever truly
talk to Israel, a state it does not recognize and seeks to destroy. With respect
to civilians, when civilians die from Israeli bombs, it is an unintended and
unwanted circumstance, whereas Hamas kills civilians by design. The only way
for Hamas to “take all necessary measures to avoid civilian casualties,” as U.N.
Gen. Sec. Ban Ki-Moon has directed both sides to do, is to stop, well, targeting
civilians. (There’s a thought.)
Hamas supporters counter that the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza in 2007 is
the equivalent of violence against civilians, since it is they who suffer. But the
blockade is in fact an alternative to violence, the very kind of thing that those
who object to the use of force suggest.
It is also worth noting that the blockade could not work without Egypt’s
cooperation. Egypt has been critical of Hamas for renouncing the ceasefire and
resuming offensive operations, and sees Gaza as a refugee crisis in the making.
(In January 2008, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded into Egypt,
and not all returned.)
Egypt also openly fears the spread of Iranian influence in the region, and
Hamas is increasingly a creature of Tehran. Thus it makes strategic sense for
Egypt to try to keep Hamas in a box. It will be interesting to see what the
Egyptian representatives have to say at a prospective Arab summit on the
crisis, if one even happens.
Regarding Israel’s excessive use of force (which Gen. Sec. Ban Ki-moon, and
others, have alleged), one might ask for a definition of “excessive.” If the
definition is “more than necessary to be effective,” then Israel has actually used
insufficient force, since Hamas is still launching rockets (though nowhere near
the ‘thousands’ they threatened).
One gathers that these critics are relying on the principle of proportionality.
While this is an established principle in just-war circles, it is a bit suspect. If all
uses of force were proportional, how could one side gain a decisive advantage?
Would not such conflicts drag on indefinitely, compounding the needless death
and destruction? If a country is able to prevail in a conflict quickly, doesn’t that
country owe it to its own people to do so?
Besides, what is a proportional response to Hamas’s policy of firing
rockets and mortars into populated areas? Should Israel respond in kind, killing
civilians purposefully and gaining no military benefit? Those who object to
Israel’s target list should be required to suggest which Hamas installations
should be left standing – and why.
Also, even if proportionality is the standard, there is proportionality in
objectives: Hamas seeks to destroy Israel, and Israel’s current offensive (as
explained by several of the country’s leading officials) is designed to destroy
If the war is back on, it makes sense for Israel to fight to win. The
Hamas leadership should have considered that possibility before deciding not to
renew the ceasefire.
And regardless of how Israel goes about fighting Hamas, the results could bring
real change to the region. The Fatah faction is watching the destruction of the
Hamas infrastructure in Gaza with some interest. Palestinian Authority officials
have indicated they are ready to take over in Gaza should Israel “finish the job”
and oust the Hamas regime.
The top Hamas leaders in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar, and
Said Siam, who said they would be “honored” to become martyrs for the cause
when the offensive commenced, have seemingly had a change of heart and
gone into hiding. Some reports say that there is a sense that the Hamas
infrastructure is starting to crumble.
It is unclear whether Israel will mount a major ground offensive. It is hard to see
how the gains from the air campaign can be solidified without some type of
ground action. This will entail some casualties, but if anything was learned from
the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is that Israel must move swiftly
The country should not enter into a ground war lightly, especially one that will
involve much fighting in difficult urban areas: Halting half-measures will play
into the hands of Hamas, which will attempt to replicate Hezbollah’s brand of
asymmetric warfare. Moreover, the political ends of such an incursion should be
kept in mind at all times. Go in if needed, hand over power to another group (if
Fatah, so be it), then get out and declare victory. If it can be wrapped up before
the U.S. changes governments on January 20, so much the better. Just get it