The imperative of winning

The demand for “proportionality” in military conflict seems to be a nonsensical special law cynically applied only to Israel – as if Israel were in a sportsmanlike joust with Hamas.

Published in The Jerusalem Post, May 14, 2021.  Print-friendly copy

Cartoon: Mike Smith, 2012

Winning the current war against Hamas is not only about denying the terrorist army’s ability to target Israel with thousands of missiles at will, every few years. A critical part of Israel’s purpose in this conflict is proving that the Jewish state retains freedom of military action against its enemies.

Israel must demonstrate that despite the changed international environment (with the Biden administration courting Iran, and providing Israel with only subdued backing), Israel is not defenseless.

This conflict comes on the backdrop of perceived Israeli weakness: diplomatic and military weakness because of a change in US administrations, and political weakness because of Israel’s internal electoral deadlock. Israel must show that neither infirmities have stripped the country of its military power and grit.

Israel’s new Abraham Accords peace partners are closely watching the current conflict, too, judging Israel. They ask themselves whether Israel is going to appropriately crush Hamas (a Moslem Brotherhood- and Iran-backed enemy of the Gulf states) the way it normally would, or is Israel hamstrung by the conditions described above. A weak Israel is far less attractive as a friend to the governments in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh.

The problem is that short of a full-scale ground campaign to re-conquer the Gaza Strip – something that would entail enormous casualties on both sides and thus is unlikely – there is no simple solution to the catastrophe that is Hamas.

The most that Israel can do is frequently “mow the grass” to degrade enemy capabilities and deter Hamas for extended periods of time. And in fact, Israel has been forced into four rounds of warfare since Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority and conquered the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Military strategists argue that in a situation of protracted conflict against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like Hamas, the use of force cannot attain impossible political goals. Rather, it is a strategy of attrition designed to temporarily deter the enemy and bring about periods of quiet along Israel’s borders.

Just like mowing your front lawn, this is constant, hard work. If you fail to do so, weeds grow wild, and snakes begin to slither around in the brush. So too, reducing enemy capabilities and ambitions in Gaza requires Israeli military readiness and government willingness to use force intermittently, while maintaining a healthy and resilient Israeli home front despite repeated military offensives.

The question is whether Israel used enough force in “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014 and inflicted enough pain on the enemy to purchase a sizable-enough chunk of time as respite, before the next round of “grass mowing,” which is today. The question is whether this time the cabinet will authorize enough force to hammer and deter Hamas for an even longer period going forward. A draw with Hamas is strategically unsatisfactory.

Consider: In 2014, the IDF destroyed about 3,000 of 9,000 rockets that Hamas was estimated to have in its possession prior to the conflict. The less than 200 Palestinians killed in that air bombing campaign were meaningless to Hamas; tragically, this is not a significant number from a Hamas perspective. Nor did the physical destruction of homes and facilities wrought by Israel’s bombings frighten the Hamas too much, either.

Worst of all, Hamas senior political and military leadership cadres were largely untouched. They survived the war by hiding underground. The “most powerful military in the Middle East” – the IDF – failed to successfully target Hamas’ decision-makers.

And in the process, Hamas showed that it can force nine million Israelis into shelters and target almost every square centimeter of this country. It was only Israeli technological ingenuity (Iron Dome) and a well-disciplined and truly resilient Israeli home front that prevented serious loss of life in Israel. Again, the same applies in 2021.

Since then, Israel’s defenses against Hamas’s terror attack tunnels and missile attacks have greatly improved, as has the readiness of IDF ground forces. The IDF and IAF are better equipped than ever with tactical communications systems, exact targeting systems, accurate field intelligence, outstanding cyber abilities, and robotic weapons, alongside world-leading air and naval platforms.

This means that Israel is ready for an even fiercer campaign, involving pinpoint commando operations and targeted assassinations. The IDF should be able to pounce with crushing blows, without conducting a full-scale ground invasion.

OF COURSE, SUCH TOUGH military action will raise international hackles, with the European Union, American ultra-progressives, and other incessant critics snorting about the unacceptable use of “disproportionate force” by Israel.

Israel will have to rebuff such reproach. The demand for “proportionality” in military conflict seems to be a nonsensical special law cynically applied only to Israel – as if Israel were in a sportsmanlike joust with Hamas.

And EU hectoring about proportionality? Do EU governments demand “proportionate response” from their police SWAT forces when they hunt down homegrown terrorists and airport bombers in Paris, Brussels, and Marseille?

Moreover, these are the same politicians who have not been much moved to outrage about Syrian or Iranian atrocities at any time over the past decade, and who celebrated Obama’s disastrous deal with Iran as a great achievement and want to bring it back. They get truly self-righteous and especially angry only when Israel is involved in a military altercation. The temerity and hypocrisy of such critics is simply astounding.

I really have no patience for diplomatic prattle about the “inexcusable” use of force “on both sides,” and condemnations of the proverbial “cycle of violence.” To do so, is to immorally equate acts of aggression and retaliation. (Alas, this week the Biden administration came close to that.)

There is no comparison between Hamas’ celebratory and indiscriminate use of force, and Israel’s reluctant and judicious use of force. It is profane to equate Hamas’ abuse of (their own and of) Israeli civilians in attacking Israel, with Israel’s care in discriminating between terrorist attackers and civilian protesters.

It is particularly vexing that those in the international community who insist on the importance of the 1967 lines seem to sympathize with attempts to rupture that same line around Gaza. What value is Western support for “Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders” – if those borders cannot be defended?!

And why would Israel even consider West Bank withdrawals if it has no support for a robust defense of those shrunken borders? What if tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians try Hamas-style border rushing assaults, or rocket attacks from eastern to western Jerusalem, or missile attacks from Samaria into Tel Aviv?

In sum, Israel need not apologize for defending itself vigorously against Hamas’ tunnels, rockets, missiles, marches, incendiary balloons, and airborne bombs; nor for the targeting of Hamas leaders; nor for the tragic but unavoidable deaths of Palestinians civilians behind whom Hamas’s terrorists are purposefully hiding.

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker