An Israeli soldier’s graffiti, scrawled on the wall of a ransacked home in Gaza during the recent war, best explains the shift that has occurred regarding Israel’s strategy toward its Palestinian neighbours: “Next time it will hurt more.”
Israel began its campaign in Gaza with measurable tactical goals: ensuring that Hamas, which controls the territory, can no longer use tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt to smuggle in weapons, and stopping Hamas’s incessant rocket fire on Israeli civilians living nearby. Short of reoccupying the Gaza Strip, which Israel is unwilling to contemplate at this time, neither of these goals is completely achievable without implicit co-operation from Hamas. Now, as Israel awaits a new government, a report released this month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies confirms that the war did not change the political or military situation in Gaza. “The post-conflict situation looks strikingly like the situation before the fighting began,” it concludes.
But the war, which received widespread support across Israel’s political spectrum, wasn’t really about closing every tunnel to Egypt or finding and destroying each rocket that might be launched toward Israeli towns. It was about the Israeli soldier’s crude message, and a principle that was once the bedrock of Israel’s defence strategy—deterrence, or convincing its enemies that any attack will be met with a punishing response. “What’s lost on many is that the military operations in Gaza were in keeping with traditional military doctrine—something the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] felt it had got away from in the last couple of years—and that was to respond to any and all threats with overwhelming, brutal force,” says Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s about establishing a deterrent. It’s about making people think twice before they attack Israel.”
Many Israelis felt that this deterrence had been lost following the inconclusive war against Hezbollah three years ago. “Israel had to do something after the debacle of July and August 2006 to demonstrate that it is still the strongest, that it still has a lot of deterrence, that it can act militarily successfully,” says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This was an attempt to do that.”
Prior to the Gaza war, pressure had been building steadily on the Israeli government to forcefully respond to the rockets that Hamas was launching against Israeli towns with increasing frequency since the militant group’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. These rockets killed more than a dozen people and caused widespread distress, especially in Sderot, the closest Israeli town to Gaza, where there are bomb shelters on almost every street corner so civilians caught in the open during an attack have a safe place to run to. A fragile six-month truce between Israel and Hamas expired on Dec. 19 last year. Hamas fired more than 100 rockets and mortars at Israel during the next week. On Dec. 27, Israel launched its attack on Gaza that began the war.
Today, with Israel and Hamas once again edging toward some sort of truce or prolonged ceasefire, both sides are claiming victory. Hamas can gloat because it remains in power and is still capable of attacking Israel. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not dispute this when he took stock of the conflict in late January at a gathering of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem. He didn’t claim that Hamas had been disarmed and its tunnels shut down. Instead, he said that Israel had shown that attacking it was costly, that it would hurt too much. “We have re-established in the perception of the whole world the power and deterrence that Israel has always enjoyed,” he said. “It is not worthwhile starting a war with Israel.”
It is still too early to tell if Hamas—as well as Hezbollah and other militant groups opposed to Israel—agree with this assessment. As Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations points out, it is much more difficult to deter a non-state actor such as Hamas than a country. But if Israel enjoys a long period of calm, Olmert’s statements will gain credibility. If, on the other hand, six months from now southern Israeli towns are once again under steady rocket fire, the perceived value of deterrence as a viable strategy will diminish.
What’s clear, though, is that Israelis, and many Israeli politicians, are willing to gamble that Olmert is right. The recent Israeli elections resulted in no single party winning a majority of seats in the Israeli parliament, necessitating a coalition government. The shape this coalition will take was uncertain at the time Maclean’s went to press. But it is clear there has been an overall shift to the right. The right-wing Likud party soared in popularity, finishing second behind Kadima, a centrist party, by only one seat. Yisrael Beiteinu, an ultra-nationalist party, took 15 seats to finish third in voting. The once powerful centre-left Labour party took only 13 seats and dropped to fourth place.
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