The Halfway War – Israel and Gaza
The misery should not be disproportionate to the value of the results.
THE HALFWAY WAR
The Price of Stopping Short in Gaza
The Israeli government’s decision to break off its punitive expedition into Gaza prematurely—despite the superb performance of the Israel Defense Forces—calls into question not only the utility, but the ultimate morality, of this “pocket war.”
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When a rule-of-law democracy embarks upon a military campaign its leaders are not committed to pressing to a decisive conclusion, it upsets the ethical calculus. In war, worthy ends can justify ruthless means. But a feckless, inconclusive application of military force that does not produce an improved post-war environment is difficult to justify.
After enduring years of terrorist rocket attacks from Gaza, followed by Hamas’s one-sided abrogation of an extended-truce proposal, Israel acted in self-defense. The initial cause of this three-week war was just.
The subsequent application of heavy, but discriminate, firepower by Israel in dense urban warrens in which Hamas employed non-combatants not only as human shields, but as propaganda sacrifices, was also justified—but only if Israel meant business and intended to continue operations until Hamas was shattered and its senior leadership cadres had been killed or captured.
Stopping short of the campaign’s logical goals abruptly calls into question the level of destruction and civilian deaths. Collateral damage can only be excused when the end attained is greater than the cost.
For example, the relentless bombing campaign against the cities of Nazi Germany was justified as part of a total effort to eliminate Hitler and his regime. But the massive loss of civilian life would not have been acceptable had the Allies agreed to a peace that left the Nazis in power. In war, you may do evil to achieve a greater good, but not without a transcendent moral purpose.
Likewise, the employment of fire-bombing and, ultimately, of atomic bombs against Japanese cities was morally acceptable because of the stakes involved, previous Japanese behavior, and the potential for a far greater loss of life (on all sides) were we forced to invade Japan’s home islands. But a premature peace that accepted a continuation of the militarist regime in Tokyo would have reduced our behavior to wantonness.
The end not only can justify the means, but must.
In the conduct of war, the innocent will always suffer, no matter how scrupulous targeting cells and decision-makers may be. But the misery should not be disproportionate to the value of the results.
The paradox isn’t that Israel caused too many casualties, but that it failed to continue killing Hamas terrorists until the civilian casualties could be justified by the war’s results.
With 1,300 Palestinians dead (most of them Hamas terrorists, but not all) and zones of severe damage within the Gaza Strip, Israel has betrayed its own morality by letting Hamas survive. When the IDF unilaterally ceased fighting on the weekend before the U.S. presidential inauguration, the terrorist leaders, who had hidden in deep Iranian-engineered bunkers under hospitals and schools, had only to emerge into the light of day as survivors to declare themselves the victors.
Life isn’t fair, and neither is war—especially the challenge of fighting faith-fueled terrorists. To win, we have to kill enough of them to destroy their organization and break the will of any survivors. The terrorists only need to survive in sufficient numbers to pop back up and thumb their noses. Yet, the necessity of killing terrorist leadership cadres in large numbers is a lesson Western states, including Israel, have difficulty absorbing and remembering.
From a diplomatic standpoint, Israel did have multiple justifications for stopping short. Hamas had received a significant drubbing and a local humiliation. The Olmert government had timed the operation to exploit the remaining weeks of the Bush administration and, with the inauguration of President Obama looming, the Israeli “triumvirate” of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (the latter a decorated war hero) decided it could not afford to appear as the prime mover in the first foreign-policy crisis facing the new U.S. administration. With President Obama a worrisome unknown to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Israelis decided not to risk a public repudiation from Washington.
Furthermore, Israeli elections loom in a few weeks, and the ruling coalition fears an opposition victory under the leadership of the charismatic Binyamin Netanyahu, whose firm approach to the Palestinian problem resonates with Israelis sick of rocket attacks and still mortified by the mess of the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. (In a peculiar sense, the Gaza incursion was Netanyahu’s war, although he had no direct involvement: the Olmert government felt compelled to act to show it could be as tough as “Bibi.”)
Israel also faced the inevitability of significant greater casualties—friendly, enemy and civilian—if the IDF were ordered to penetrate to the heart of Gaza’s cities. And, contrary to anti-Israeli myths, Israel is ever cognizant of the human cost of war.
Additionally, the global media and anti-Israeli regimes around the world were screaming, exaggerating the carnage in Gaza and ignoring the fact that all Hamas had to do on any given day to stop the fighting was to stop firing blind terror-rockets into Israel and agree to live in peace. While Israeli leaders should have learned by now that their only hope of achieving a durable success in the course of a conflict is to ignore the media, the UN and other terrorist fellow travelers until the job is done, the Olmert government lost its nerve again.
What will emerge as the smoke of battle clears? Perhaps the hammering Hamas received will have chastened the terrorist organization and, despite the current crowing, might have weakened it sufficiently to loosen its death-grip on the Gaza Strip. But the odds are better that Hamas will be able to maintain its local monopoly on violence against its own people and, with the assistance of a multitude of international aid organizations, return to employing aid as an internal political weapon while renewing the smuggling of Iranian-supplied armaments.
While we can’t yet know which trend will emerge the stronger, the odds are that nothing will have been decided by this halfway mini-war. While Israel has set back Hamas’s development of a full-blown second front to complement Hezbollah’s primary front in southern Lebanon, it left Iran’s proxies alive to proclaim themselves resistance heroes.
Israel’s unwillingness to do all that was required to crush Hamas also may have encouraged Iran to intensify its nuclear-weapons program, assured that Israel lacks the guts and wherewithal to stop it.
A half-fought war—that bizarre vice of democracies—doesn’t save lives in the long run, but guarantees a future round of violence—probably with higher stakes and definitely with greater ferocity. In stopping short of its essential goals, Israel broke a fundamental rule of all warfare: He who is unwilling to pay the butcher’s bill promptly will pay it with compound interest in the end.
Ralph Peters is a long-time member of the Armchair General team. A retired Army officer, strategist and columnist, he’s the author of 24 books, including the recent Looking For Trouble and Wars Of Blood And Faith.