28 December, 2008

What exactly is war good for?

If you've seen the news, you will be aware that Israel has launched an air offensive agains the Gaza Strip of unprecedented ferocity. There are reports of about 280 people killed and over 700 wounded. While many of these are members of the Hamas-controlled security services in Gaza, the BBC quotes reports that a third of the casualties are civilians. The Israeli leadership is talking about continuing and widening their air strikes, and seem to be suggesting that a ground offensive is on the cards. Meanwhile, one Israeli has been killed by rockets fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip.

So, what is this all about? There had been a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The ceasefire had always been a bit shaky, and it came to an end before Christmas. Hamas cited Israel's failure to lift the siege of Gaza and its unwillingness to extend the truce to the West Bank, while Israel cited Hamas' failure to prevent the rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli border towns and lack of progress on freeing Gilad Shalit (an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006).

Israeli forces have a tendency to lash out blindly, and this time is no exception. It is very difficult to see what exactly they are trying to achieve with this latest offensive. They would, obviously, like to stop Hamas and other Palestinian groups from using Gaza as a base to fire rockets into Israel, but on previous form no amount of air raids will accomplish that. They might get more results from launching a ground offensive into Gaza, but that could easily lead to an Armageddon-like battle in which enormous numbers of Palestinian civilians (and sizeable numbers of Israeli soldiers and Hamas cadres) are killed. Even with that, the rocket fire into Israel would be likely to resume once the Israelis withdraw, while a permanent occupation of Gaza would be regarded as a Fail by Israel. It does look a bit like the Israelis might be repeating the mistakes of 2006, by launching a war that they cannot win and that will make them look to the world like total cockfarmers.

That Clausewitz guy began his famous book by saying that war is a continuation of politics by other means. He meant interstate politics (or political struggles between princes, given the times in which he lived). But it is often striking how wars can result from the internal politics of countries. Israel is holding an election in barely a month's time. Binyamin Netanyahu, the loathsome former prime minister who essentially killed the Oslo process, was riding high in the polls with his promise to stop Hamas. It seems like the leaders of the current government have decided to act tough to try and undercut Netanyahu, and it is the Palestinians who are picking up the tab for the government's attempt to regain electoral support.

At the same time, one could ask what exactly Hamas are hoping to achieve by firing rockets at Israeli civilians. At one level, there is something a bit symbolic about Hamas' rockets – they hardly ever hit anything and serve mainly to say "We're still here!". But they are being fired at Israeli civilians, and they do occasionally kill them. From Hamas' point of view, one could see the rocket campaign as an attempt to force Israel to the negotiating table, by imposing a rough balance of terror. However, this has failed; the rocket campaign has instead united Israelis behind ever more draconian (and irrational) policies. I suspect that the main targets of the Hamas rocket campaign are actually the Palestinians. The rockets are meant to show Palestinians that it is Hamas, and not the waster quislings in Fatah, who are taking the fight to the Israelis.

That said, one has to be wary of making any kind of moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel. Israel is the power besieging Gaza (with the kind assistance of Egypt). The balance of forces between Israel and Hamas is tilted so in the former's favour that it is more or less inevitable that any Hamas retaliation to Israel's siege will be made against Israeli civilians. The leaders of Hamas should nevertheless ask themselves whether ineffectually trying to kill Israeli civilians is actually that likely to raise the siege of Gaza.

Some links:

Israel renews air strikes on Gaza (BBC)

Israel's mixed motives for strikes (BBC)

To be in Gaza is to be trapped (Guardian)


Martin Wisse said...

Many of those rockets fired are ot fired by Hamas, but by other Palistinian groups, who don't necessarily want a ceasefire.

For Hamas firing rockets is of course a symbol of defiance, a way to put pressure on Israel to be honest. From their perspective, they've only used rocket attacks in retaliation and as a way to show that Israel's slow starvation of Gaza hasn't any influence on their resolve

ian said...

I think, yes, there is a symbolic nature to Hamas' rocket-firing, it's a way of saying "we're still here!" to the world in general and Israel in particular. I read an interesting piece today which pointed out that in the current round of hostilities (i.e. the events since the November killing of Hamas activists that kicked things off) it is only in the last few days that anyone has been killed by rockets fired from Gaza; the writer suggested that rockets were deliberately being fired into fields rather than at population centres.

I hope to discuss developments in Palestinian military tactics in a future posts.