Why Israeli deterrence without a peace plan is futile
It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no military need for the continued Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip. Israel is neither trying to acquire land nor defend its internationally recognized territory. The Israelis make no shame of the fact that the continued attacks on Gaza are aimed at achieving a senseless concept of deterrence.
Strategic deterrence is defined as “a strategy intended to dissuade an adversary from taking an action that has not yet started by means of threat of reprisal.” However, when such acts become indistinguishable from collective punishment, those behind the acts are considered war criminals. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has already warned Israel that it is being watched closely to see if war crimes are being committed.
International humanitarian law, which applies to conflict situations, states that it is unacceptable to use disproportionate or excessive force. The latest blitz on the people of Gaza has included prohibited attacks on innocent women and children, as well as the deliberate destruction of entire high-rise buildings and the bombing of media offices. This is nothing short of collective punishment.
The Israeli army repeats that it warned the people living in some of these high-rise buildings of the intention to blow them up, but giving a warning for destroying a residential building or media offices does not stop it being collective punishment. The Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said the US-based global network was “shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza. They have long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there… The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday said he had not seen any evidence of Hamas operating in the building, directly contradicting a claim made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Law professor Michael Byers, while writing on war crimes, stated that “international law permits ‘anticipatory’ or ‘pre-emptive’ self-defense, but only when the need for it is ‘instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.’” The concept of deterrence has repeatedly failed Israel at every juncture, whether in Southern Lebanon or in occupied Gaza.
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 does not 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 in 2012, then-Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon said 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 also proclaimed at that time: “We must blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”
Some security strategists and theorists argue that deterrence can be morally acceptable if it does not 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.
Palestinian militants say they started carrying out rocket attacks in response to the pleas for support from the Palestinians who were being attacked daily at Al-Aqsa Mosque and who faced eviction from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. International law forbids an occupying power from transferring its population to the territories it occupies.
But Israel’s recent military actions have been shockingly disproportionate, aimed at densely populated areas where besieged civilians have no means of escape.
The violence of Israel and of Gazan militants indicates that deterrence is failing or, 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 so-called strategic deterrence the most unworkable approach is that it is being employed without a comprehensive plan that includes a political component. By refusing to deal politically and seriously with Palestinians, including those in power in Gaza, Israel is seeking a military solution to what is mostly a political conflict.
Israel’s recent military actions have been shockingly disproportionate, aimed at densely populated areas where besieged civilians have no means of escape.
Perhaps the worst part of this deterrence strategy is that it places no importance on the long-term relationship between Israel and the Palestinian people. After being forced from their land in 1948 and again in 1967 — pushed into a mere 22 percent of the original boundaries of Palestine established by the British — the 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.
The international community, including the Biden administration, has repeatedly called for a two-state solution, which means that Israel must end its post-1967 occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. But so far these calls appear to be little more than lip service and the Israelis have shown no serious interest in ending the occupation and allowing for an independent Palestinian state to exist.
- Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Twitter: @daoudkuttab