War without ends?

Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appear to be pursuing any clear strategic aims in their clash in Gaza.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

With the Israeli assault on targets in the Gaza Strip in its second week, everybody is finding it easy enough to issue condemnations and calls for ceasefires. But we are finding it far harder to answer some basic questions about the conflict. What are the practical and political aims of the Israeli air-strikes and ground incursions back into Gaza? And for that matter, what does Hamas hope to achieve by the rocket strikes on Israeli targets that provoked, or provided the pretext for, the Israeli assault, and have continued in response to the attacks?

Many seasoned observers are finding these apparently straightforward questions difficult to answer in this conflict. As the BBC News website reports in rather perplexed tones this morning: ‘The BBC’s Jonathan Marcus says… Israel is going to be unwilling to halt operations before achieving its military goals – whatever these goals may be, he notes. And Hamas is just as unlikely to capitulate as its continuing rocket fire demonstrates, our correspondent adds.’

That air of international confusion bordering on bewilderment is perhaps unsurprising, since this conflict does not easily fit into the traditional model of warfare between states. That model assumes a war in which each side is pursuing clear strategic aims – see, for example, Israel’s wars against its Arab neighbours in 1967 and 1973.

By contrast, the Israeli attack on Hamas-controlled Gaza could be seen to have more in common with other more recent wars in the Middle East – the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, or the 2006 Israeli assault on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Like those invasions, this assault appears to be more about making a militarised political statement than pursuing clear strategic aims; more an attempt symbolically to assert power and authority by force of arms than to reach specific achievable ends. And like those earlier incoherent invasions, it is more likely to reinforce problems than resolve them.

At one level of course Israel can insist that its assault has a very clear and simple aim: to stop the rocket attacks on Israeli areas from within Hamas-controlled Gaza. But is that an achievable war aim? What could possibly constitute a clear victory for Israel in such a war? The military spasm of lashing out at Gaza looks more likely to render matters even more messy.

Many observers have pointed to the death toll and protested that the devastating Israeli air-strikes were disproportionate to the attacks by crude home-made rockets from within Gaza that apparently provoked them. The idea that a response to what are seen as terror attacks on Israeli civilians must be ‘proportionate’ reflects a very naïve notion of what warfare is about. The Israelis’ intention is to crush their military opponents, not to make some sort of token protest, as for example Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did by firing a couple of Cruise missiles into Iraq in 1998.

What is striking about the Israeli response is less that it is disproportionate than that it appears dysfunctional. Such extensive air-strikes and ground incursions into Gaza can certainly do severe damage to the Hamas organisation, which anyway is militarily feeble compared to Israel. But there is no indication that they can achieve the aim of stopping simple missile attacks. Nor, more importantly, is there any indication of what they are intended to achieve in a wider strategic sense.

One thing that is clear is that Israel has no wish or intention of trying to re-occupy the Gaza Strip, from which it withdrew its occupying forces and settlers in 2005. So at some stage it will have to withdraw, probably sooner rather than later. And then? Who will be able to claim victory once the rockets start firing again? The efficient Israeli military can certainly hit and destroy its list of targets. But unless Israel really was the genocidal maniac that its shrill critics claim, trying to wipe out every Palestinian who supports Hamas (and no, it is not), it is hard to see how it could win this particular war in the longer term.

Rather than pursuing clear and achievable war aims and ends, Israel appears to be making a military statement about its right to exist, an assertion of its identity in arms. In one sense that should be unsurprising. If it is true that any self-respecting state would have to respond in some way to attacks on its citizens, that must be all the more true for Israel, which has existed in an almost permanent state of war since its foundation 60 years ago. But the consequences of making such an apparently knee-jerk declaration with air-strikes and military incursions do not appear to have been thought through, and could well come back to haunt Israel.

Here the comparison with Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon seems instructive. Israel had previously pulled out of its security zone in southern Lebanon, as it has withdrawn from Gaza, and had no wish to re-occupy such hostile territory. Yet, provoked by cross-border attacks from Hezbollah and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers – something Hamas has also done – Israel cracked and sent its army over the border to achieve… what?

The forceful invasion of Lebanon fizzled out in confusion, the initial response of Israeli national unity degenerated into one of rancour and recrimination. At the time, spiked described the invasion of Lebanon as a new sort of ‘war for recognition’ by Israel (see Israel-Lebanon: the War for Recognition, by Brendan O’Neill). A top Israeli general later admitted that in politico-military terms, the war had served ‘no purpose’. Will the symbolic assault on Gaza end the same way?

And what of the Palestinian side? What does Hamas want to achieve in this conflict? Its critics claim that it has achieved its aim of provoking an Israeli attack. What then? As the conflict has escalated from the Israeli blockade of the border to air-strikes and invasion, there has been little sign of any real strategy from Hamas – unless you consider rhetorical demands for the destruction of the state of Israel to be a realistic aim of those firing rockets made from lamp-posts. Instead, its aims appear largely limited to perpetuating its own martyrdom and oppression to justify its existence – something which the Israelis seem all too willing to assist with.

Here at least it would appear that the two sides have something in common: a shared crisis of leadership that is exacerbating the conflict.

On the Israeli side, the confident Zionism of the state’s founders is a thing of the past. The traditional Zionist politics of both Labour on the left and Likud on the right appear exhausted. Instead Israel today is a far more insecure and defensive society, concerned to bunker down behind its new security barriers and cut itself off from the Palestinians locked into Gaza and the West Bank, lashing out when it feels they won’t leave it alone. The approach of Israel’s general elections in February has added to the crisis, as politicians compete to see who can play the fear-and-security card most strongly. It is a sign of a crisis of leadership when such short-term electoral calculations interfere with wider considerations of what might be in the national interest.

The Palestinians, too, face a severe crisis of leadership. The Palestinian national movement that was led by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation no longer really exists. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Arab nationalism undermined the PLO’s political foundations. Israel’s initial sponsorship of Hamas as a religious alternative to Arafat’s Fatah group helped to split the movement.

Hamas has gained in status and support, less because of its ideological or Islamic stance than because of dissatisfaction with the old discredited Palestinian leadership. This enabled Hamas to win the elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006 – much to the horror of supposed democrats in the West – and drive the rump of Fatah out of Gaza last year. Yet this is less a political divide than a power struggle between competing factions and armed clans. Neither Hamas in Gaza nor Fatah in the West Bank offers the Palestinian people clear leadership. Indeed neither side appears to trust the people or to be keen to test their support in elections.

The factional power struggle has become so bitter that there are reports of the Fatah leadership privately welcoming the Israeli offensive. West Bank protests against the air-strikes in Gaza, which nominally united the Palestinian factions, soon degenerated into a shouting match between Fatah and Hamas supporters, showing the potential for the leadership crisis and lack of strategy to turn into a civil war and make matters worse still.

Faced with a dual crisis of leadership that is exacerbating the conflict between two sides with no clear idea of what they are fighting, many outside observers put their faith in the international ‘peace process’ implementing a two-state solution. What this fails to recognise – apart from the historical evidence of the havoc wrought by international interference in the Middle East – is that the bitter divisions now being strengthened are what that two-state solution has come to mean in reality.

As I reported recently on spiked, the two state ‘solution’ is effectively being implemented via a re-partition on the ground and in hearts and minds: the Palestinians ghettoised in the hell-hole of Gaza and the pseudo-statelet of the West Bank, raging at the Israelis bunkered down behind their big security barriers and periodically lashing out (see A Middle East piece process?, by Mick Hume).

The resulting mess reminds me of a point made by one Israeli expert during my recent trip to the country. Israel today, he said, is ‘very powerful, yet powerless’ in the Middle East. It feels that it has the military muscle to deal with its enemies, yet is unsure what purpose that power can or should serve. The ongoing war without clear ends in Gaza is the latest grim result.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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