An Eye for a Tooth

Israel’s ultimate goal in the Gaza conflict is to convince Hamas’s leadership that future strikes on Israel are too costly to carry out — no matter how much the Islamic militant group might hate the Jewish state. So Israel’s response is harsh. More than 700 Palestinians have died, most of them civilians, including upwards of 100 children. This heavy toll is tragic and tarnishes Israel’s image. Such disproportional military operations strike at the heart of “just-war theory” and the way of warfare embraced by the militaries of the United States and other Western countries. Yet they are also at the core of deterrence, which demands disproportionate “eye for a tooth” operations to succeed.

Deterrent threats can prevent actual warfare, though it is rarely easy. During the Cold War, the United States relied on the threat of a massive nuclear response to deter the Soviet Union from using its conventional military forces to invade Western Europe. America threatened a disproportionate response: A Soviet move along the inter-German border would trigger Armageddon. Nuclear strategists spent much of their time trying to figure out how to credibly promise to do something so seemingly irrational. The famous nuclear strategist Herman Kahn likened deterrence to a game of chicken played by reckless teenagers who drive their cars at each other and wait for the “loser” to swerve. Kahn wrote that perhaps the best way to win is to “get into the car quite drunk” and, when your opponent is watching, to “[take] the steering wheel and [throw] it out the window” — a pretty solid, if irresponsible, way of convincing your enemy that you are willing to act against your own best interest.

The point is: To win at deterrence, you have to risk acting against your own self-interest — or at least convince your enemy that you’re willing to do so.

Deterrence, however, often failed in the Cold War. It did stop an all-out nuclear war and tanks rolling through Germany’s Fulda Gap, but it did not stop the Soviets from invading Afghanistan or rolling back democratic revolutions in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, concerns about the need for the credibility required for successful deterrence contributed to the Cuban missile crisis, which nearly led to nuclear war.

Deterrence against nonstate groups and without the use of nuclear weapons (which Israel still officially denies it possesses) is far more complex. The level of punishment dispensed by conventional weapons is, thankfully, far less apocalyptic than that from nuclear bombs — but that makes it less scary too. Nonstate groups are less responsible to their populations and tend to be less pragmatic.

Despite these problems, Israel has regularly tried to deter Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups. The record has been mixed. Fearing the Israeli response, these groups have at times limited attacks or refrained from them altogether, but they (and Israel) have resumed violence when their internal politics changed or because they believed the other side was behaving too provocatively. In addition to their use of terrorism, these groups also have mini-armies, run political parties, and operate schools and hospitals, making them more like quasi-states than a group like al Qaeda — which isn’t deterrable because it has no territory, is ideologically extreme, and has fewer constituents to lose. (Al Qaeda is always the drunk guy pushing the gas pedal down all the way after having thrown the wheel out the window.) Israel and Hezbollah clashed in Lebanon in 1993 and 1996, and then again more massively in 2006, with Israel hitting infrastructure and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians while attacking Hezbollah’s fighting wing.

Israel’s confrontations with Hezbollah often went poorly, but the last major one in 2006 looks better for Israel in hindsight. A few rockets have hit Israel from southern Lebanon during this current offensive in Gaza, but it seems that Hezbollah itself did not launch them. Indeed, all Hezbollah has really offered Hamas in the latest crisis is a supportive phone call from Hezbollah’s leader to Khaled Mashaal, who leads Hamas in exile from Qatar. In general, Israel’s northern border has been far quieter since 2006 than at any time in recent history. Hezbollah did not suddenly become pro-Israel, but rather it feared the outrage of its supporters and the loss of its own cadre should it step up rocket attacks. Taken as a whole, however, Israel’s historical experiences suggest that deterrence is not impossible, but that when it succeeds it is partial and often short-lived.

In Gaza, Israel has little choice but to rely on deterrence. Israel tried ruling Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it withdrew in the face of Hamas-led attacks. Despite calls from some right-wing parties, the government in Jerusalem has no desire to take over this basket case again. Ruling Gaza would require Israel to take formal responsibility for caring for Gazans while waging a low-level counterinsurgency against an entrenched and motivated Hamas. Egypt has no desire to play the role either. And with moderate Palestinians like President Mahmoud Abbas weak and further discredited by the crisis, there is currently no alternative in Ramallah to Hamas rule in Gaza. Indeed, the biggest rivals to Hamas are the even more radical groups operating in the Gaza Strip. This is part of the reason Hamas is fighting Israel. Having gained power in part by criticizing Fatah for being passive and negotiating with Israel, Hamas seeks to ensure it is always the standard-bearer of resistance among Gazans in order to diminish the appeal of these die-hards.

Yet in Israel’s efforts to achieve deterrence, the country has suffered from constant criticism for the harshness of its methods. On Wednesday, July 23, the BBC reported that the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, condemned Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza: “There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.” Referring to the Gazan children killed in a July 16 Israeli airstrike while playing on a beach, Pillay reportedly said that Israel’s “disregard for international humanitarian law and for the right to life was shockingly evident.” Pillay also condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks, but that garnered far less attention.

Critics of Israel’s operations that lead to considerable civilian deaths draw on a principle advanced since the time of St. Augustine: proportionality. As part of just-war theory, this doctrine calls for ensuring that the minimum amount of force is used to achieve the objective and avoiding harm to noncombatants. The idea that civilians are inviolate has become commonplace, and with the development of precision munitions that enable more-discriminate targeting, Western militaries, including America’s, have incorporated proportionality into their targeting decisions. In World War II, Allied forces leveled Dresden, and the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japanese cities, killing upwards of 200,000 people in order to impel Tokyo’s surrender. Despite the flash-bang of “shock and awe,” such a thought never occurred to U.S. military planners when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. And it’s clearly not something even the hard-liners in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would countenance either.

Israel is trying to preserve an image of itself as adhering to Western principles of justice and proportionality. So it drops leaflets and sends warnings via SMS to notify Gazans that it will soon bomb a building or area where they live and uses small munitions to “knock on the roof” to scare inhabitants into fleeing before a large bomb levels a target. And yet, even this war is ugly and bloody: The images of dead children and stories of massive displacement and suffering tarnish Israel’s image around the world, including in the United States. Thus we see agreed humanitarian pauses and efforts to allow access to medical supplies. The Israeli military has even opened a field hospital to treat wounded Palestinians, mainly women and children, at the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Despite Israel’s efforts, the difficulties in harmonizing proportionality and deterrence are many, and often it is impossible. Terrorist groups like Hamas do not wear uniforms. They hide their fighters and weapons among the general population, launching rockets from hospitals and hiding munitions in schools — explicitly to make it difficult to target combatants and the supplies they need without hitting civilians. Moreover, the media environment in Israel and Gaza is intense and passionate: Millions can die in Congo with few noticing, but death and destruction in the Promised Land is chronicled in minute detail.

Because Israel is arguably the most casualty-sensitive country in the world, deterrence is even harder. With nuclear weapons and carpet-bombing off the table, Israel needs to go in on the ground to achieve its objectives — but ground operations can lead to Israeli casualties that actually undermine its deterrence. In 2011, it traded over 1,000 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006. Israel has even traded high-level prisoners for the bodies of its dead soldiers. As a result, the body counts for successful deterrence are often staggering and highly disproportionate: In the 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation, Israel killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and suffered only 13 losses of its own — roughly a 100-1 ratio. This, of course, makes Israel look even more callous.

Even minor Hamas victories complicate deterrence. In the first days of the current conflict, before Israel launched its ground offensive, Hamas fired over 1,000 rockets, but the Iron Dome missile-defense system prevented casualties on the Israeli side — a one-sided outcome that made Israel look like the only winner. The ground campaign, however, has so far led to 35 deaths on the Israeli side — a fraction of the estimated 700 in Gaza. That said, it’s still a significant number for Israel, and Hamas can claim it is making Israel pay in blood. Adding to the credibility of Hamas’s claim, it continues its rocket attacks, it may have captured an Israeli soldier (or at least his remains), and it temporarily shut down Israel’s international airport. These are victories — at least political ones — that allow Hamas to claim that “resistance” is worthwhile and that make it less likely to be deterred than the last time. Particularly because Hamas has been weakened from the Egyptian crackdown on its tunnel network, such victories are necessary for the movement to sustain its authority.

Hamas cannot maintain this fight indefinitely, however — despite its rhetoric, it knows that Gazans have no desire for endless war — but for now it is betting that Israel will blink first. If Hamas can emerge still standing, or if there is a deal that lessens restrictions on Gaza, it will claim victory.

But real victories, on either side, are elusive. There is no real end to this dilemma, and it is likely to grow more intense. Even if the latest fighting yields months of peace, Israelis assume that they will have to again strike at Hamas, and perhaps even Hezbollah, at some point in the future. They use the term “mowing the grass”: If Israel does nothing, the problem will grow out of control. Thus Israel feels compelled to act on a regular basis to ensure its deterrence achieves at least the partial results of limiting the wars and making them less frequent. So even if the latest fighting in Gaza ends soon, it won’t be the last round.

This piece originally appeared on
Foreign Policy