Once more into the breach, the IDF has launched massive air strikes into Gaza, in an attempt to stop Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel. A short blog post cannot do justice to the complexity of the situation, except to say that 1) no other country would be asked to tolerate what the Israelis have been asked to tolerate on their southern border; 2) the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza was bad enough before now having to deal with this violence; 3) domestic politics is shot through all of this (with Kadima, Labour and Hamas all trying to show how tough they are in advance of a domestic political contest); and 4) something happens to Matt Yglesias whenever this issue comes up, and he loses 40 points of IQ. The implication in the first sentence that the Israelis did this out of sadism is really beneath him. (Maybe he’s so sick of Marty Peretz that he endeavors to provide the equal and opposite reaction.).
That said, the latest iteration does point to a strategic dilemma on the Israeli side, which the United States needs to focus on a little more clearly. It centers on the distinction, made famous by Thomas Schelling 40 years ago, between brute force and deterrence.
Deterrence means creating sufficient disincentives for the other side to desist from an activity; brute force is simply preventing them from doing it. Deterrence is, “if you go in that room, I will make your life so miserable you will never want to do it again.” Brute force is putting up a huge wall so that they can’t go in that room.
What Israel has learned over the last 7 years is that with Palestinian terrorists, deterrence only works after effective application of brute force. Creating more pain for the Palestinian people didn’t deter, because its leadership was not affected and because the Palestinian public blames the Israelis. Building a wall, however, was effective: it sufficiently stopped the infiltration of suicide bombers that the Palestinian leadership (in both Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades) decided to call things off. Key in the application of brute force in West Bank was the disruption and incapacitation of the Hamas/Martyrs’ Brigades leadership there. Conceivably, this is also deterrence because these leaders didn’t want to be arrested, but it’s not as if they stopped their activities due to incentives: they did so because they were in jail.
Israel claims that it is doing the same thing with these air strikes, targeting Hamas command and control. That seems to be wishful thinking: you can’t really do disruption and incapacitation from the air. Israel has far better intelligence on Hamas than it has on Hizbullah, and so we might see some sort of commando operations designed to disrupt the Hamas network, but it hard to imagine that working, either: Hamas has enough units that have good enough training that they can launch attacks for quite a while even if the leadership is decapitated.
That means that over the medium term, the only way to get rid of the threat is to start destroying Palestinian villages that are close enough to the border to launch rockets from. I doubt that the Israelis will do that, though, because international opinion will prevent it. The other option is a sustained ground offensive, which on the eve of an election seems even more unlikely.
The Israeli problem points to a difficulty in America’s force posture as well: it is extremely well designed for deterrence, and poorly designed for brute force. We have lots of weapons systems that can wreak all kinds of damage on sedentary populations, but we have poor intelligence capabilities to infiltrate terrorist networks, and our defensive capacities against domestic terrorism are pathetic. Look at Israel now: regardless of your views of the equities of that conflict, it is America’s canary in the coalmine.