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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 13:40 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 13:40 | SYDNEY

Israel's deterrence after Gaza

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2 February 2009 14:14

Rodger’s excellent post on Israel’s deterrence after Gaza prompts two linked thoughts, one about deterrence, the other about Hamas and Gaza.

Deterrence first. In explaining what he sees as Israel’s failure against Hamas, Rodger made the interesting point that deterrence against non-state actors is difficult ‘because their calculus of rationality differs markedly from that of state actors’. I’m not sure about that. I think the reason non-state actors are harder to deter has more to do with target sets than psychology.

Physically, states have a lot to loose, whereas non-state actors do not. I’m pretty sure that Iran can be deterred from using any nuclear weapons it acquires, whereas I’m equally sure that al Qaeda cannot, because it’s very easy to imagine the target set for retaliation against Iran, and very hard for al Qaeda.

On the psychological side, the differences are much more elusive: I fear states are no more reliably rational in their calculus of strategic costs and risks than non-state actors. History provides plenty of examples — how rational was allied strategy in World War One for example — but so do contemporary events.

Which brings us to Gaza. Rodger believes that Hamas is a non-state actor. I’m not sure they are, and moreover I think Israel’s strategy in Gaza suggests they do not either, despite what they say.

Israel’s statements during the Gaza operations described their aims as being the destruction of Hamas’ military capacity. But like Rodger, I suspect that Israeli operations have not done much damage to Hamas’ capability to launch rockets, or other forms of minor attack, at Israel. What damage they have done will be temporary and easy to repair, because these capabilities are not very sophisticated. Long-term suppression of this kind of capability requires sustained and intensive occupation, and Israel cannot afford that.

But it is possible, as Mark Katz’s MESH post suggested, that the death and destruction in Gaza has been sufficient to raise the political costs to Hamas of such attacks, and thus win Israel some respite from the rockets. This is not the kind of success that Israel claimed it was after but it may be what its leaders really intended.

In deterrence terms we might call it a counter-value rather than counter-force targeting doctrine. It is sad and sobering, though perhaps not surprising, that Israel should undertake military operations whose purpose is to achieve their objectives through their effects on civilian populations. But the fact is that Hamas’ military forces do not offer a viable target set, while Gaza’s civilian community does. Just like a state.

Of course this does not mean that Israel’s operations in Gaza have been good strategy. First, we do not know whether Katz is right. Second, even if he is, it may not help Israel reach what must be its primary long-term strategic aim — a Palestinian leadership with which it can reach agreement on the two-state solution.   

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