As Israeli frustration mounts about violence coming out of Gaza, the idea of a ground invasion, and once and for all to finish with Hamas aggression, becomes more appealing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed this approach, saying that “There probably won’t be a choice but to topple the Hamas regime.” While sympathetic to this impulse, I worry that too much attention is paid to tactics and not enough to goals. The result could be harmful to America’s foremost Middle East ally.
Attitudes toward Gaza are in flux. Efraim Inbar, the strategist who heads the Jerusalem Institute for Security Studies, for years advocated “mowing the grass” as “Israel’s strategy for protracted intractable conflict.” By this, he advocated an occasional reminder to Hamas’ rulers and other Gazans of Israel’s overwhelming power. Implicit in this approach is an acceptance that, most of the time, Israel accepts aggression from Gaza, with its attendant damage to property and life. As recently as May 2019, he dismissed the Palestinian threat to Israel as a “strategic nuisance.”
But Mr. Inbar recently recognized the high costs of this passivity and now calls for a “restricted ground invasion” of the territory: Why? Because “a short-term ground operation will bring better results than Israel’s activity thus far [i.e., mowing the lawn]. We need to maneuver inside enemy territory, locate them, and destroy them, or tie the hands of its members.”
Others agree. For example, Ayelet Shaked, leader of the New Right party, calls for a widescale military operation in Gaza: “We must choose the time that is best for us, evacuate the Israeli citizens who live in towns along the Gaza envelope in order to give us maximum flexibility, and we must uproot the terror from within Gaza.”
To these analyses, I respond with Carl von Clausewitz’ simple but profound counsel: First decide on your policy, then your strategy, then your tactics. Or, in plain English: Start by figuring out what you wish to achieve through the use of force, then decide the broad outlines of your approach, then the specific means.
Seen in this light, debating whether to engage in a ground invasion and to overthrow Hamas is debating a tactic; this should not be the topic of conversation until the goal and the means to achieve it have been decided upon. To start by focusing on tactics risks losing sight of the purpose.
So, what should Israel’s goal in Gaza be?
The occasional show of force against Hamas interests has failed, as has destroying Gaza’s infrastructure; so too the opposite policy of good will and the prospect of economic prosperity. It’s time for something altogether different, a goal that transcends sending signals and punishing misdeeds, something far more ambitious.
Victory is such a goal. That is, aim to impose a sense of defeat on Gazans, from the head of Hamas to the lowliest street sweeper. Aiming for an Israel victory is entirely in keeping with historical war aims, but it is out of step with our times, when even the words victory and defeat have dropped from the Western war lexicon. The Israeli security establishment seeks just peace and quiet vis-a-vis the Palestinians; Mr. Inbar speaks for them in dismissing the goal of victory over Hamas as “naive.”
Negotiations, mediation, compromise, concessions and other gentle means have replaced victory. These sound good; but they have failed in the Palestinian-Israeli arena since 1993, and blindly persisting with them guarantees more destruction and death.
With imposing a sense of defeat on Gazans the goal, what are the strategy and tactics? These cannot be decided on in advance. They require a contemporaneous and detailed study of the Gazan population’s psychology. Questions to be answered might include:
• Does the deprivation of food, water, fuel and medicine in retaliation for attacks on Israel inspire a sense of resistance (muqawama) and steadfastness (sumud) among Gazans or does it break their will?
• Same question about the destruction of homes, buildings and infrastructure.
• Would knocking out the Hamas leadership paralyze the population or prompt an insurrection?
Israel’s security establishment needs to explore these and related issues to map out a sound strategy and to offer reliable counsel to the political leadership. That done, with victory as the goal, Israel finally can address the hitherto insoluble problem of Gaza.
• Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes), president of the Middle East Forum, taught “Strategy and Policy” at the U.S. Naval War College.