Israel has long valued what it calls, its “deterrence capacity’, that is their ability to scare their opponents into submission in order to stop attacks. Yet this ability for Israel is now long gone, and attempts to revive it for political reasons may drag Israel into the abyss.
In 1992, a journal article published in the Israel Studies Bulletin, had argued that Israel’s famed “deterrence capacity” was then waning. The piece touched on the differences faced by Israel’s military, after the 1973 war with Syria and Egypt, which took a large toll on Israel and led to the resignation of its then Prime Minister Golda Meir. It put forth that there would no longer be the swift military victories that Israel experienced in its 1956 and 1967 wars. Instead, the Arab world either no longer feared Israel’s capabilities to the extent they did, or would accept the price that one would have to pay for military aggression against it.
Israel, nevertheless, would attempt to impress the idea of its prized deterrence capacity in the minds of its populace for years to come. This idea had been upheld throughout the years of Israel’s illegal military occupation of Southern Lebanon. The Israeli occupation in Lebanon first took place as part of its 1976 invasion to root out the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Guerrilla fighters, later escalating in 1982 with a larger Israeli invasion which killed between 15,000-20,000 people. Then, after 1985, Israel set up a new set of boundaries in Southern Lebanon, which it held until it was forced out in 2000 due to the resistance of armed militias, namely Lebanese Hezbollah.
The embarrassing withdrawal of 2000, celebrated by Hezbollah and the people of Lebanon, followed by its withdrawal to the perimeter of the Gaza Strip in 2005, which came following a large armed resistance campaign from Palestinian groups, proved too much for Israel to deal with.
In 2006, Israel sought to restore its deterrence capacity – which many would argue hadn’t existed even dating back to its attacks on the PLO in Lebanon – by attacking Lebanon again. Israel thought it had found the perfect opportunity to show the Arab world that it could not be messed with in 2006. Yet when its 30,000 fighters shaped up to Hezbollah’s 6,000 men, it crumbled within 34-days. During the last 72 hours of the conflict, out of spite, and in a fit of rage, Israel pummeled southern Lebanon with thousands of cluster bombs. The cluster bombing against densely civilian populated neighborhoods happened after the UN agreement to end the war had been signed, and pointed to the level Israel was willing to stoop to in order to show its strength.
This failure for Israel in 2006 was the first ever Arab victory over the Israeli military and served the purpose of making Israel look weak before a small but formidable force in the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Daniel Sobelman, an Israel Institute postdoctoral fellow in the International Security Program, wrote on the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, arguing the point that both maintain a “mutual deterrence”. Norman Finkelstein, one of the foremost scholars on Israel-Palestine, argues in his book, Gaza: An Inquest Into It’s Martyrdom, that the “deterrence capacity” that Israel wanted to revive was then sought after in the Gaza Strip, leading to the merciless assault on the besieged coastal enclave in 2008-2009.
Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” from 2008-2009, according to the later disowned Goldstone Report, sought to “punish, humiliate and terrorise” a civilian population in Gaza. The Israelis were clear that this operation was “revenge for Lebanon” and sought to install fear in the hearts of those in the Arab world who considered crossing them. The Gaza Strip, since then, has been Israel’s preferred punching bag.
To quote from a Human Rights Watch Report on the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza:
“Then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly stated on January 12, 2009, that “Hamas now understands that when you fire on [Israel’s] citizens it responds by going wild, and this is a good thing.” Livni said on January 19, 2009, the day after the conflict ended, that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.””
Israel’s inclination to “go wild” and demonstrate “real hooliganism” continued throughout the 2012 and 2014 massacres in Gaza. Although Hamas, which is the democratically elected government in Gaza, had dramatically changed Israel’s tactics in Gaza after they had engaged properly in combat with the Israeli military in 2014. Roughly 67 Israeli soldiers were killed and over 100 injured in the course of fighting Hamas in 2014. When Israel realized that its forces were no match for the highly motivated and committed Hamas ground forces, it reverted back to its bombardments from afar, and after 2014 never attacked on the ground again – only from a distance. The reason that Israel does not place a ground force in Gaza, or for that matter why it refrains from entering a new war, is because it knows the only way to win against Hamas is on the ground, and its population will not tolerate high Israeli soldier casualties.
Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far refrained from risking a ground war against Hamas and up until November of 2018, he was getting away with routinely bombing Gaza in order to look like a strong man. In November, four Israeli soldiers who had entered Gaza and were attempting to kidnap a Hamas commander, were discovered to have been scanning an area in a mysterious car. Two of the soldiers were dressed in drag – pretending to be women – yet were uncovered, and then a firefight ensued in which both an Israeli lieutenant colonel and Hamas commander were killed. The three Israeli soldiers still living, fled from the sight in Khan Yunis (southern Gaza), as Israeli drones struck and killed Hamas members who attempted to apprehend the group before they made it over the separation fence.
What then ensued was a back and forth between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where Hamas and other Palestinian organisations were able to inflict embarrassing losses upon Israel. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad also displayed a new arsenal of weapons. The embarrassment dealt to Israel after their lies and coverups were exposed and soldiers were shown killed on video, forced the then Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to resign from his position. This, as Premier Netanyahu refrained from entering into an all out war. This incident perhaps proved the biggest turning point in the conflict between Israel and Gaza, also working as a cause for political division amongst the leading right-wing Israeli figures.
I would go as far as to say that what truly started Israel on its path to four consecutive elections within the space of two years, was this November embarrassment in the Gaza Strip in 2018.
Since this time, Israel has chosen to put the greatest emphasis on its mission to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a distraction from its setbacks in Lebanon and now even in Gaza. Israel now routinely bombards war-torn Syria as well, attempting to rubber stamp its regional military superiority, yet even in Syria they constantly fail to meet this end. In 2018 Syrian air defenses managed to shoot down an Israeli fighter jet, and from then on Israel has remained too fearful to violate Syrian airspace and instead launches its strikes from the illegally occupied Golan Heights, the seas, and the airspace of Lebanon. Yet now that Syrian air defenses are developing further, even this may prove risky for them in the future. Israel has now given up targeting Hezbollah members in Syria as well, for fear of a response to their aggression, which came last in 2019, changing the rules of engagement.
Israel now confronts its most powerful enemy in the region, Iran, however, this strategy could very easily backfire for the Israelis. If confronting Lebanon, Gaza and Syria in a meaningful way does not work and they are constantly being driven back, what makes them think that this strategy of aggression against the much more powerful Islamic Republic will work?