Inevitably and expectedly the pictures of children with shattered spines, head wounds, and removed limbs are starting to spread, showing the suffering caused by Israel’s incursion into Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel’s defenders play a surreal game of trying to talk about the assignment of responsibility, noting that the incursion would not have happened if not for Hamas tactics, and thus Hamas is to blame. However, abstract arguments about blame and responsibility may make for interesting pundit debate, the reality is that such arguments are meaningless when compared to looking at the consequences of the Israeli action. The consequence appears almost certainly to be a radicalized Hamas, weakened Palestinian moderates, an end to the blockade of Gaza, and an ambiguous conclusion to Israel’s attacks. In fact, it appears that Israel may be playing right into Hamas’ hands.
One thing that leaders of states with a strong military force have been slow to learn is that military action against terrorist gangs and militias is more often than not counter productive. The US learned that the hard way in Iraq, and had to radically adjust its goals just to find a face saving way out (which could still go wrong).
Israeli leaders have a clear goal: disarm Hamas and destroy as much of the leadership as possible. In the short term, they will certainly have a weaker Hamas military wing, and a lot of dead Hamas leaders. In traditional military thinking that’s progress — the more of them that are killed, the less of them that can threaten you. But with organizations like Hamas, the more of them you kill can mean even more will arise to threaten. Most of the population in Gaza is young, and easily radicalized by extremists who survive. Moreover, in the Arab world sympathy for Hamas could rise. Up until now, Hamas has not generated a lot of sympathy and even Gaza Palestinians have grown to resent Hamas’ tactics.
Why is it that politicians like to think that military force can simply eliminate this kind of opposition? No doubt they can put together really persuasive plans that graph out tactics and estimate the amount of damage they can inflict on enemy combattants. They certainly are thinking about how powerful their military is compared to Hamas, and quite likely they’ve got the upcoming Israeli elections in mind. But they clearly are not thinking about the Palestinian innocents who are killed; they are just abstract collateral damage, a cost of war that must be paid. They are not humans, they are statistics.
Past military leaders could think like that. Before WWI, most war deaths were military personnel. But now when 80% of the dead in most wars are civilians, and when asymmetrical war places a militia/political/terror organization like Hamas against a nation state like Israel, the usual war calculus has to be thrown out the window. Israel cannot just occupy Gaza and declare victory. That didn’t work in 1967, and in fact it spawned the violence we see today. Israel can’t just back off and say “OK, now that we’ve proven our strength, deal with us.” Extremists like Hamas don’t surrender, and the emotion caused by seeing family, friends and innocent children die (even if a lot of Hamas fighters die too) leads to anger and hatred. In short, this kind of tactic does not work in this kind of conflict.
The Israelis are not dumb. They know the risks, and I suspect many political and military leaders are extremely nervous about what this incursion may mean. Their attempt to keep images of dead children and civilians out of the media has failed, and even UN schools have been hit. At a certain point any military benefit gained by such an incursion loses to the propaganda benefit gained by the other side. Moreover, Hamas recent goal has been to remove the blockade imposed on Gaza; when this is over, aid will certainly come pouring in.
But, while it’s easy to criticize Israel for a response that seems to create far more death and destruction than it prevents, one has to take seriously their difficult position. They are afraid of rising threats from Iran, Hezbollah, and Islamic extremism. They feel very vulnerable, despite their large military, to these rising non-state military organizations. The only response that seems feasible is a military response — what other options exist?
When you look at it that way, Israel’s tactics are more easily understood, and one can sympathize with their effort to maintain their security. Therefore I am forced to conclude that the problem of Palestine, Israel, and Hamas as no local solution. Israel can’t win, Hamas can’t win, and if they keep it up, they may all lose. The solution has to come from the outside.
The US, the EU, and a coalition of Arab states should develop a proposal for a two state solution, and a multilateral force to defend the borders between the two states. A Marshall plan like proposal to rebuild Palestine should be developed, administered by a joint committee of the “alliance,” Israel and Palestine. Counter terrorism experts from the special operations services of the countries in the “alliance” should converge on the region to, working with a provosional government in Palestine to de-fang extremists. This operation should be backed by the UN Security Council, and the US should use a threat of cutting aid to Israel to force Israel to accept this.
I don’t really like this plan. I am anti-interventionist at heart, and can see a lot of things that could go wrong. But unlike Iraq in 2003, there is a crisis here which is on going and carries a tremendous cost in human life. If the international community comes together and asserts its collective will to settle the one dispute that still could throw the world into a major war, it would be a signal that real multilateral cooperation to solve tough problems is possible in the 21st century.
Is such a course of action likely? No. It may be impossible for a variety of reasons. But in looking at the entrenched positions in the Mideast, and the way Israeli and Palestinian moderates seem to have all chances for peace blocked by extremists of each group, I don’t think anything else will work. The alternative — this conflict lingering and the militias like Hezbollah and Hamas growing stronger — creates an existential threat to Israel as well as to the Palestinian people. And intervention with true multilateral cooperation, burden sharing, and with a goal of ending a deadly and dangerous conflict is one kind of intervention I could support. Because right now the people who are suffering the most are innocents who happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time.