Prof Paul Rogers: The IDF failure was already becoming clear several months ago, but the Netanyahu government has nowhere else to go

IDF forces in  the Gaza Strip. Photo: Wikimedia

The killing of at least 45 Palestinians in a humanitarian zone near Rafah has caused anger that reaches far beyond the Middle East. And yet Israel’s offensive is expected to continue, with several Israeli tanks spotted in the centre of Rafah on Tuesday, witnesses told Reuters news agency.

It comes after the international criminal court sought arrest warrants for Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant, along with three senior Hamas leaders – all for alleged war crimes.

Separately, the international court of justice demanded that Israel cease its assault on Rafah, and, for a few days last week, there seemed to be signs that Israel was refraining from an all-out assault. The US-based Institute for the Study of War had reported that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were using “less airpower and artillery, and fewer, smaller bombs”, with soldiers clearing “urban areas on foot”.

This has ended with the bombing of the Tal al-Sultan area, where the IDF onslaught caused a huge blaze in a tented area for displaced people. Netanyahu may describe the airstrike as a tragic accident, but that cuts little ice after more than seven months of constant Israeli attacks that have killed an estimated 35,000 Palestinians and injured about 80,000, with as many as 10,000 more people reported missing, presumed dead.

The war is heading towards its ninth month, and during that time the Netanyahu government has repeatedly stated that Israel is using force directed against Hamas, not civilians, but this is at odds with the actual conduct of this war and the whole Israeli way of fighting.

Right from the start, the IDF was extending attacks well beyond Hamas’s paramilitary units. Schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and the like were all early targets, as were journalists, aid workers and medical staff. The Islamic University is just one of two Palestinian universities (along with Birzeit in the West Bank) to make it into world rankings and it was bombed less than a week into the war. Since then, every university in Gaza has been destroyed or damaged.

Deliberate destruction of civil infrastructure is disturbingly common in present-day urban warfare, whether by Russia in Mariupol or Grozny, or the United States, UK and France in Mosul, but the sheer destructiveness of the Israeli way of war takes some beating. This use of “disproportionate force” may constitute an extension of the Dahiya doctrine, which is thought to have originated in a district of Beirut in the 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. It stems from an IDF acceptance, rarely admitted in public, that it is nearly impossible to defeat an entrenched urban insurgency – especially if the insurgents are ready to die for their cause.

Going back to the IDF’s siege of west Beirut in 1982, and repeated in 2006 in Lebanon and the four Gaza wars that preceded the current conflict, it hinges on an implicit understanding that in an urban counterinsurgency operation, Israeli losses become too high. They end up being politically unacceptable, even if the Palestinian losses are 10 or 20 times greater.

Under the Dahiya doctrine, protracted and widespread force is used against the general civilian population in order to achieve two specific aims: the first is short term – to undermine the support for an insurgency, with the aim in Gaza being to make it increasingly difficult for Hamas to operate. The second is long term – to act as a deterrent to future paramilitary movements of any kind, whether in Gaza, the occupied West Bank or southern Lebanon. To put it bluntly, what has been done to Gaza is what will happen to any movement that challenges Israeli security there or elsewhere.

One of the clearest analyses of the doctrine is in the public domain: Disproportionate Force: Israel’s Concept of Response in Light of the Second Lebanon War. Published by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies in 2008, two years after the second Lebanon war, it details the workings of the policy, but that is difficult to reconcile with the carnage, destruction and killings of the current war.

To understand that, and why Netanyahu retains sufficient support to continue with the war, two other elements must be recognised. One is the lasting impact of the Hamas assault last year. Even with the appalling Palestinian death toll since, the Israeli losses on 7 October have still shaken Israeli society to the core.

For decades now, Israel has existed in a security contradiction: apparently impregnable yet consistently insecure, because of the fundamental conflict over land and peoples. This “insecurity trap” will persist indefinitely unless a just settlement with the Palestinians can be achieved. Furthermore, Israel may see itself as a democracy, but if all the territory controlled by Israel is taken into account, it is the non-Jewish population of that “greater Israel” that now has a small overall majority.

The second element is that the war is going badly for the Israelis. Despite the IDF’s massive use of force and the destruction of much of Gaza, Hamas survives and keeps on reconstituting itself. The IDF failure was already becoming clear several months ago, but the Netanyahu government has nowhere else to go, and Biden will not yet take the one key step of cutting off all arms shipments to Israel. As long as the US, and indeed Britain, refuses to accept the ICC and ICJ decisions, Netanyahu can survive.

There is one hopeful sign: that the public mood in Israel is slowly but surely changing, as the Guardian’s Bethan McKernan and Quique Kierszenbaum reported yesterday. After last October’s Hamas attack, 70% of Israelis thought the war should continue until Hamas was eliminated, but one recent poll found that 62% thought that was now impossible. Israel remains a deeply polarised society, but that means it is just possible an end to the war could come from within.

Paul Rogers is emeritus professor of peace studies at Bradford University

Source: The Guardian

29 May 2024 by Paul Rogers

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