The Lesson of Gaza
January 26, 2009
Three days after Hamas fired rockets and mortars into southern Israel from Gaza, Israeli military forces launched Operation Cast Lead with the stated objective of defending the country against Hamas rocket fire. As is always the case, Israel asserted its right of self-defense to justify the military operation. But the real issue is not whether Israel has a right to defend itself—it unequivocally does. Rather, the question is whether its use of military force will bring about the desired end state. And the answer is “no,” a fact that deserves serious consideration by the new Obama administration.
The conflict’s toll is 13 Israelis (including 3 civilians) and over 1,200 Palestinians (including more than 400 women and children) killed. A United Nations school and U.N. headquarters in Gaza were among the targets hit by Israeli fire. This is exactly the kind of disproportionate military response terrorists seek to elicit. Every civilian killed is someone’s mother or father, sister or brother. A thousand deaths will only result in thousands more who will seek to avenge their loved ones.
What is especially tragic is that this cycle of violence is a known and predictable phenomenon. For example, the suicide bomber responsible for killing 19 Israelis in Haifa in October of 2003 was a 29-year-old apprentice lawyer, Hanadi Jaradat. Jaradat was an educated woman with a well-paying job who would not ordinarily fit a terrorist profile, but she had motivation: an Israeli crackdown that resulted in the shooting death of her brother and her cousin. The Jordanian daily al-Arab al-Yum reported that Jaradat vowed revenge standing over her brother’s grave: “Your blood will not have been shed in vain. . . . The murderer will yet pay the price, and we will not be the only ones who are crying.” And after the Haifa bombing, family members said, “She carried out the attack in revenge for the killing of her brother and her cousin by the Israeli security forces.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the purpose of the military campaign in Gaza was to completely wipe out Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel. Twenty-two days after the conflict began, Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire and Olmert claimed the offensive achieved all of its goals. The reality, however, is that the only way for Israel to wipe out Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel is to deal with the root causes of Palestinian grievances. In other words, until the issue of Palestinian statehood is resolved there will always be a reason why Palestinians will be motivated to attack Israel. Otherwise, the only result of military action is killing people and perpetuating the cycle of violence. And the only real way to break the cycle is through political resolution, as was the case to ending decades long violence between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
In confronting terrorism, we must see beyond the “they hate us” rhetoric to comprehend the historical and political roots of this hatred. We need to recognize that the terrorist threat to America is driven in large part by U.S. foreign policy—in particular, military intervention (even so-called humanitarian intervention) and occupation abroad—rather than because of innate prejudice or loathing.
President Obama’s Iraq policy suggests that he understands the detrimental effects of conflicts like those in Gaza. His plan to deploy up to 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan by this summer, however, is troubling. Ultimately, military action is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The application of military force—at least the large-scale military force—is not the appropriate response to terrorism. The challenge for Obama is whether this is a lesson truly learned or a lesson lost.
Charles V. Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.
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