Israel’s failed strategy

Airstrikes by Israeli jets in Gaza City began last week.
(Hatem Moussa / Associated Press)

JERUSALEM — For years, Israelis have embraced a theory of “deterrence” with respect to the Gaza Strip. The idea is that if Gazans feel enough pain, they will refrain from attacking Israel. But this kind of strategic deterrence simply doesn’t work. Instead, Gazans react to the huge suffering and pain inflicted by Israel with a greater determination to inflict pain on their attackers. Furthermore, deterrence without any possibility of a political settlement ensures that this madness will go on indefinitely.

In explaining the Israeli theory, Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, said last week that “if the terror organizations do not cease their fire, we will be prepared to toughen our response as much as necessary, until they say ‘enough!’” Interior Minister Eli Yishai proclaimed, “We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”


It’s not hard to believe that’s what the Israelis have in mind. Using their strategic military advantage, they have bombarded Gaza during the last week from the air, ground and sea and seem to be planning to launch a ground offensive in the coming days. The majority of the more than 100 Palestinians killed so far have been noncombatants, including children. At least nine Palestinians representing three generations of the Dalu family were wiped out when Israel shelled their Gaza City home.

PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence

Israel has said its goal is to attack those who are launching missile attacks. But its actions seem almost certain to produce a new crop of militants eager to launch a new round of attacks.

Some security strategists and “just war” theorists argue that deterrence can be morally acceptable in cases in which it doesn’t directly affect the lives and welfare of the civilian population. But when deterrence becomes indistinguishable from collective punishment, it is far harder to justify, and far less likely to achieve its intended result.


Palestinians say that their rocket attacks are acts of self-defense against the punishing land and naval blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007. The killing of civilians by either side can’t be condoned, and it’s true that Gazan missile attacks have killed several Israeli civilians. But Israel’s recent military actions have been shockingly disproportionate, aimed at densely populated areas in which besieged Gazan civilians have no place to escape the overwhelming and exaggerated Israeli firepower.

The spiraling violence on the part of Israel and of Gazan militants (whose rockets have reached the outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) indicates that deterrence is failing, or that, at best, its effectiveness is deteriorating. At the same time, the cost in terms of both human lives and deepening hatred continues to escalate.


What makes Israel’s “strategic deterrence” approach most unworkable is that it is being employed without a comprehensive plan that includes a political component. By refusing to politically deal with those in power in Gaza, Israel is seeking a solely military solution to what is mostly a political conflict.

Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, who successfully delivered on a 2011 prisoner exchange with Israel, was assassinated last week along with his son after a 24-hour lull in the conflict that was based on an unwritten understanding. Immediately before his assassination, Jabari was said to have been preparing a reply to an Israeli offer for a long-term cease-fire. Many have seen his killing as a sign that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps with the upcoming Israeli elections in mind, is not interested at the moment in de-escalating the conflict.


The absence of a political horizon removes any incentive for the Palestinians in Gaza to stop their attacks. The Israeli military operation is taking place just before the United Nations General Assembly will be asked to recognize Palestine as a nonmember state that lives alongside Israel. In 1947, the Jews of Palestine and Tel Aviv celebrated a similar resolution recognizing their own statehood, but today’s Israeli leaders seem bent on denying Palestinians the right to have their own independent state.

Perhaps the worst part of this deterrence strategy is that it places no importance on the long-term relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors. After being forced from their land in 1948 and again in 1967, and pushed into a mere 22% of the original boundaries of Palestine as established by the British, Palestinians are intent on not retreating further. This means that Israelis and Palestinians will need to find a formula to live side by side going forward.


A relentless and aggressive policy that harms innocent people doesn’t serve the long-term good and should not be condoned by the international community, including the United States.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and former professor of journalism at Princeton University. Email: