Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Are Israel's Goals In Gaza?

Actually, a more pertinent question might be: can Israel hope to achieve its goals - whatever they may be - with the means it is currently employing?

Most people - certainly most political scientists - believe that states and non-state actors alike use violence in the pursuit of certain identifiable and discrete political goals. In other words, war is not fought for its own sake but as a means to an end. Achieve those ends, or alternatively become aware that achieving them is impossible, and the violence should conceivably cease. Thus goes Carl von Clausewitz's famous dictum: war is the continuation of politics by other means.

On most occasions, this view is true, at least in my opinion. And yet, I am hard pressed to see what Israel's goals are in its war on the people of Gaza. Does it think that killing close to 1000 Palestinian civilians in less than three weeks is going to increase its security in the medium and long runs? Does it think that blocking the Red Cross from reaching injured civilians will somehow make Hamas disappear? Does it think, in the unlikely event that Hamas does disappear, that it will be replaced by a more "moderate" or pro-Israeli political dispensation in Gaza? Does it think that it can bomb an entire nation into submission? Surely not. No rational or even semi-rational state can subscribe to these views.

Even Rashid Khalidi's well-circulated piece in the NYT from last week is found wanting when it comes to identifying this war's purported aims. For those who didn't happen to read it, I encourage you to do so. For those that did read it, recall that Khalidi closed the piece on this exact question - that of what Israel's goals are in this war:
This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe. Far more revealing are the words of Moshe Yaalon, then the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, in 2002: “The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.”

I don't buy that at all: the Palestinians already know "in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people." As Jon Stewart says in this must-watch clip, Palestinians are forced by Israel to "go through checkpoints every time they want to take a shit." I promise you, "we are a victorious people" is not a thought that occurs to most Palestinians - especially those in Gaza - on a regular basis.

So, once again, I return to my original question: what exactly is Israel hoping to accomplish with this war? What is the new status quo it is hoping to establish? And why does it think that using widespread and fairly indiscriminate bombing of civilians will get it there?


WAA said...

Do you think this is done to pressure Obama or to gain votes in the upcoming elections?

Ahsan said...


Whatever are they going to pressure Obama to do?

The domestic politics argument is definitely valid though. Mosharraf Zaidi had a piece on this angle in his latest column. You should check it out.

But the argument is still incomplete, because states face internal pressures to be belligerent ALL THE TIME and yet go to full-scale war only a fraction of that time. Usually they go to war to fulfill external as well as internal objectives. And for the life of me, I can't see the external objectives here.

sana said...

Noam Chomsky answering loosely the same question tonight pointed out that Israel has for a long time now chosen expansion over security. (http://web.mit.edu/cis/)

WAA: Who do you think is trying to use this to win the elections? Olmert, who went as far as saying Israel should and would have to end up agreeing to a one-to-one land exchange, back in September after he was forced to resign and feared no political consequences? (Of course, he's not saying much of this right now: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/30/world/middleeast/30olmert.html?ei=5070&emc=eta1) Or Livni and Barak, who have gained on the polls over Netanyahu since Dec 27th?

Rabia said...

I think after 2006 Israel figured that it wanted to take on Hamas at some point and that right before the end of Bush's presidency would be a good time.

I can't figure out why Iran, after having helped Hamas to stockpile weapons all through the ceasefire is staying so uninvolved. I read somewhere that is probably because of the drop in oil prices and Iran is hurting economically. In any case, Israel is doing a LOT better against Hamas than it did against Hezbollah, and even if it can't wipe out Hamas 100% it has a pretty strong chance of crippling it significantly. Do you really not think that that's not a good reason to start a war? In any case (and I don't mean this as a flamebait), no more irrational than Hamas' urge to chuck rockets across the border.

it's good to see you blogging again.

Anonymous said...

Israel is acting on the belief that the more successful they are in damaging and destroying the Hamas, there will be better chances for their control and supremacy in that area. However, it is impossible for them to attain the goals of diminishing and decimating Hamas and bring Gaza under their control. It is an entirely miscalculated decision as it will only result in severe casualties, heavy death toll, destruction, pain, suffering and chaos.We will have another Somalia.

Amidst all the familiar international denunciations of Israel’s assault on Gaza, I couldn’t stop myself remembering the popular remarks of President Elect Barrack Obama defending Israel’s right to self defense when he visited Israel in July 2008 that, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing.” Right now, he is maintaining a perfect silence.

Ray Lightning said...

Here are my 5 rupees :

1) Israel wants to continue as a jewish aparthied state

2) For that, it needs natural defensible borders and fresh water security.

3) 1967 borders offer neither

4) Hamas will not agree to a 2-state solution without the right of return for refugees, thereby overruling (1)

5) Barrack Obama is bound to show some activism on obtaining quickly a 2-state solution, meaning Israel will have to gulp down some bitter pills.

6) Hamas leadership should be urgently eliminated from the negotiation table, so that "talks" can be arranged at a "leisurely" pace with Fateh, and Israel's critical interests be safeguarded.

Anonymous said...

I think the sensible answer is provided by Ray Lightning, but I think what's closer to reality is that Israel simply does not know what else to do.

Its existence is built on the proposition that it can provide security to Jews - Hamas rocket attacks obliterated that principle. The longer Hamas governed Gaza, the more of an arsenal they would build up. That was simply not acceptable to Israel - not only does it want to run the worlds biggest prison, it wants the prisoners to be docile.

Hence the wanton violence. The backdrop to this is obviously change of administration and now being the opportune moment for Israel to set Hamas back a few years. You can not remove Hamas - it has over 10,000 fighters and operational commanders outside Gaza. Its political bureau is in Syria. Its ideology is engrained in most Palestinians - they are not going anywhere (except heaven, if i may).

The greater backdrop is Israel's demographic bombshell. Israel has 5.4million Jews and 1.7million Arab Muslims. No genius needed to figure out who is multiplying faster. Add that to the 3.4 million Arabs in the Occupied Territories and you're already on par. This is ofcourse ignoring the Palestinian refugees with right of return in other ME countries. In the not too distant future, Israel will either have democracy with Arab leaders (lol) or it will need a serious bout of ethnic cleansing. Israel's only strategic option is peace.

Hamas knows this and knows time is on its side, Israel on the other hand is time-bound. The atrocities being committed are an act of desperation. A short-term tactic that buys Israel a bit of time.

But that is where Hamas' victory lies (and Hezbollah's in 2006). They have successfully limited Israel to tactics. There is no strategy and it scares the shit out of Israel.

What it doesnt realize is that these criminal short-term tactics make it far more likely that it will be 'wiped off the map' in the long-term.

adeel said...

@ Anonymous above...thanks for highlighting the demographic aspect, never considered it!

The other element that goes hand in hand with the likely Palestinian numerical advantage in due time is employment. If one side has people with jobs and lives to build but the other has no jobs and no future it's obvious who has less to lose and more reason to fight hard.

It's an issue that deeply unsettles middle east monarchs...with between 30-50% of their populations under 21 and no where near large enough economies to provide them all with jobs when they need to be in worklife, you can anticipate mass discontent and calls for regime change.

nk........ said...

Thanks adeel :-) - the time issue is also why Iran has not intervened. They know that they have time on their side and are simply gauging Israel's responses for the time being. Iran can bleed Israel slowly - every two years getting one of its proxies to provocate Israel into a massively futile operation that further erodes international sympathy and indeed sucks the domestic will for such action out of Israelis too ('damnit, we did this 2 years ago and now we're at it again).

Also, if Hamas was truly militarily threatened, Iran would intervene as it has put a lot of funds and effort into Hamas. If you see the northern Israeli border light up in the next few days with increasing attacks/posturing courtesy Hezbollah, know that its because Iran feels the pressure on Hamas is high.

Thus far Hamas has engaged Israel on a limited basis, where necessary only - there was a great article in the Times with a Hamas military commander about how they fight 'one day on, one day off'. Hence Israel's frustrated bomb-it-all approach, but if the heat is put on in a final push before Jan 20th into actual urban areas, I would expect Hamas to hold their own and if not, I'd expect 'help' in the form of increased agitation on the northern border and possibly the west bank.

koipahailee said...

Just watch this


and please do watch this

Raza said...

As a footnote to all this, I'll be interested to see how Mearshimer's "lobby" (which includes everything from nerdy West Wing staffers to AIPAC) goes to work once Obama's in office. It's clout on Capitol Hill was demonstrated by the recent bills unequivocally supporting Israel, but they've been remarkably ineffectual in pushing and prodding media, think tanks and academia this time around (at least in comparison to 2006). But does that matter?

People being considered for Middle East advisers in the state department include Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Kurtzer, who, admittedly, are collectively less venomous than one Eliot Abrams, but who are all still skinny white Jewish dudes who's sympathies lie clearly with the Kenneset. Obama's rhetoric has revealed little more than Clintonian sympathies for Palestinians. And with Congress's deep rooted and unwavering dedication to the Jewish state, I'm guessing not much will change on the legislative front (i.e. free money will continue to flow, no substantive pressure will be exerted to back Hilary's potential PR stunts). So basically we're back to about the mid-nineties when it comes to Middle East policy, which, though occasionally hopeful,produced nothing more than a second intefada.

But public sympathies are definitely changing. The lobby, which is still doing ok in Washington, will have to start kicking some serious editorial and talking-head ass to convince Americans that the Israeli government doesn't suck. But again, does what the people think on this issue matter?

Ahsan said...


As a weaker actor, Hamas is being entirely rational by lobbing rockets into Israel. By trying to destroy Hamas and all Gazans' sense of (very limited) security, Israel is creating more problems for itself than it is solving - i.e. it is being irrational.

The Iran question I think turns on Obama's ascension a lot more than the Israel question. Iran, I think, honestly believes it has a shot at their Grand Bargain with Obama. Whether or not they are right, we will have to wait and see.


Some smart points for sure, but your last point assumes that if Hamas is wiped out, that Fatah will be a reliable and trustworthy representative of the Palestinians. But their image and standing is taking a hammering right now.


Some pretty smart and sensible comments.


I'm planning a post on the US role/reaction with some of the nuggets mentioned in your comments.

Our commenters as a whole:

You guys clearly benefited from me taking a hiatus because clearly this blog's commenters have gotten smarter in the last month. I really enjoyed all the comments to this post, even if I didn't always agree with the assertions contained in them.

WAA said...

When commenter’s on this blog can foresee things such as:

- Time is not on Israel’s side,
- Iran will only get stronger,
- Hamas and Hezbollah will now have thousands of more recruits,
- This war does not secure Israel

Then I don’t understand how come Israeli's, media, political parties, generals and lobbyists fail to recognize that such actions are not in their interests. Do they genuinely believe that this is helping Israel in some strategic manner that others have failed to see? Or is it that they are simply ignorant or fundamentalists that believe that by killing Palestinians they will achieve their “goals”.

I guess to summarize, I can understand if an authoritarian leader would be acting like this but how do various political parties, almost all citizens, military and academics think or support actions that are not in Israel’s interests?

Apologize for rambling on.

Jadev,India said...

If Hamas or Hezbollah think that they could wipe out Israel (which is armed to the teeth) or drive them off to jump in sea..
why is it hard to imagine that a country that defeated 3-4 attacking states from multiple fronts..
can "dream" to stop silly rockets and mortars fired at their schools and streets..
or in their words change reality on the ground

Ahsan said...


I don't think Hamas or Hezbollah act particularly rationally either.

Israel actually has been very good at creating new realities on the ground, especially with regard to the settlements in the West Bank.

But what it cannot do in my opinion is find a military solution to these militant groups, short of actually wiping the Palestinians off the map (i.e. like the Turks and Armenians for instance before WWI).