By: Daoud Kuttab*
One of the most repeated questions that was asked by many following the attack on the Gaza bound humanitarian flotilla was why did Israel do that? Why did a very powerful army and navy who can easily have controlled the situation in the high seas need to carry out a commando raid that ended up with the death of nine internationals one of whom was an American citizen?
The official Israeli narrative has been very simple. This was not a humanitarian effort but a blockade busting effort by anti-Semitic Islamic militants who nearly lynched the Israelis who boarded their ship to steer it to an Israeli port. Except for Israelis and some American Jews, few bought that line. It reminded many of the Israeli line of being angry at Palestinians for forcing their soldiers to kill Palestinian children.
All the Israeli rhetoric notwithstanding, violent actions against the Gaza siege-breaking folitilla has one purpose, deterrence. Initial autopsy reports published in the British daily the Guardian indicate that 30 bullets were used to kill the nine protestors many of them in the head and at close range, suggesting that the attack was not self defense but rather a premeditated attempt at sending a strong message to anyone who thinks of supporting the embattled people of Gaza and thus the idea of “deterrence.”
Strategic deterrence — defined as the inhibition of attack by a fear of punishment backed up by superior military power — has been part of the Israeli strategy for some time especially when it comes to Gaza. Two years ago Israel went to war against the people of Gaza in order to raise the level of deterrence. The escalating spiral of violence by Israel and Gazan militants indicates not only that deterrence is failing, but also that its effectiveness depends on adherence to fundamental standards of morality.
The latest brutal attacks against international solidarity activists, in international waters, stems from this blind Israeli policy aimed at deterring Palestinians and their supporters from demanding an end to the illegal siege placed on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza. What Israel hopes to accomplish is the end of international solidarity missions. However, while this might have temporary results, it is unlikely to stop international campaigns. In fact, the more likely scenario is that these siege-busting efforts will continue, although, from now on, participants are going to do so knowing full well that their lives might be in real danger. But, once ships continue to sails to Gaza, the effect of the current bloody round will be wiped out. The Israelis will then have to carry out an even bloodier attack in order to raise this level of deterrence.
What makes the Israeli “strategic deterrence” unworkable is that it doesn’t come as part of a comprehensive plan that has a political component. By refusing to politically deal with Gazans (while keeping the tight siege against them), the Israelis are looking for a solely military solution to what is mostly a political conflict.
Shortly after redeploying to the borders of Gaza, Israel severely restricted ties between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the movement of goods in or out of Gaza. When a pro-Hamas parliament was elected in a free and fair election in January 2006, the United States and Israel led a campaign to prevent all banks, including Arab and Islamic banks, from dealing with the new government.
Israel has consistently rejected Hamas’s repeated offers of a cease-fire agreement in exchange for the lifting of the siege on Gaza. The latest offer made by Hamas on May 15th included Hamas’ acceptance of 1967 borders, in exchange for a 10-year truce. Senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Haya said the proposal put forward by Hamas would see the acceptance of a Palestinian state “in stages” on the green line, the 1967 armistice line, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and “the return of all refugees without recognizing Israel in exchange for a 10-year truce,” Al-Haya said during a Hamas conference to mark Nakba Day in Gaza City’s Ash-Shuja’iyeh neighborhood.
Some security strategists and just war theorists argue that there may be nothing morally objectionable about deterrence in cases where the lives and welfare of a civilian population are not directly affected. The threat of retaliation that underpins its strategic effectiveness remains implicit and hypothetical. However, when deterrence becomes indistinguishable from international piracy and collective punishment – it is far less likely to achieve its intended result.
Public opinion polls carried out by the Dialog company and published in the Israeli daily Haaretz have shown that 64% of Israelis support an official dialogue with Hamas. But the Israeli government and army refuse, calling Hamas “terrorists” in order to deny them legitimacy, despite previously reaching understandings in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, which they also consider a “terrorist organization.” Some Israeli voices, including some from well respected security officials are calling exactly for that, talks with Hamas about some kind of an understanding instead of the continuation of the counterproductive siege.
The result has been a clear case of collective punishment in a densely populated strip without any appearance of a political or even an acceptable humanitarian solution.
Israel persistently conflates self-defense and deterrence, while employing collective punishment to advance its strategic aims. This conception of deterrence failed in Lebanon in 2006, with Israeli forced to accept a UN-sponsored cease-fire agreement, and it is no more likely to succeed in Gaza. Indeed, opinion polls conducted in Gaza show a spike in support for Hamas after every Israeli escalation.
The international community must act quickly to force the Israelis to abandon this failed deterrence strategy and instead work on reaching an understanding that can result in a cessation of attacks by both sides. Only such an understanding can permit a start to the groundwork needed for a political resolution that can permanently end both the siege of Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian lands.
* Palestinian journalist residing in Jerusalem and Amman.