Pointless punishment in Gaza

A Palestinian boy and militants of the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, attend funerals of five Hamas militants in Mugharka village, central Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Five Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli air strike yesterday, Palestinian health officials said. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
A Palestinian boy and militants of the Izzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, attend funerals of five Hamas militants in Mugharka village, central Gaza Strip, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Five Hamas militants were killed in an Israeli air strike yesterday, Palestinian health officials said. (AP Photo/Adel Hana) (AP)
Posted: November 23, 2012

By Daoud Kuttab

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 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. Before Wednesday's cease-fire, they bombarded Gaza from the air, ground, and sea. The majority of the more than 100 Palestinians killed were noncombatants, including children. At least nine Palestinians, representing three generations of a family, were wiped out when Israel shelled one Gaza City home.

Israel said its goal was to attack those launching missiles into the country. But its actions seemed almost certain to produce a new crop of militants eager to launch a new round of attacks.

Some security strategists and theorists argue that deterrence can be morally acceptable if it doesn't directly affect the lives and welfare of a 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 their rocket attacks are acts of self-defense against the punishing 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 were shockingly disproportionate, aimed at densely populated areas where besieged civilians could not escape.

The violence of Israel and of Gazan militants 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 deal politically with those in power in Gaza, Israel is seeking a 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 of a long-term cease-fire.

The absence of a political horizon removes any incentive for the Palestinians in Gaza to stop their attacks. The Israeli military operation took place just before the United Nations General Assembly is to be asked to recognize Palestine as a nonmember state that exists alongside Israel. In 1947, the Jews of Palestine and Tel Aviv celebrated a similar resolution recognizing their statehood, but today's Israeli leaders seem bent on denying Palestinians the right to 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 percent of the original boundaries of Palestine 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. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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