Israel: wedded to war?
For Israel, the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war was all about questions. What mistakes were made, and who made them? What could be done to restore the Israeli military’s “deterrence” after a widely perceived defeat? In general, what lessons could be learned from the confrontation with Hizbullah in order that next time, there would be no question of failure?
Unfortunately, it seems that entirely the wrong kinds of conclusions are being reached, at least in the military hierarchy and among the policy shaping thinktanks. On Friday, Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper published comments made by Israeli general Gadi Eisenkot, head of the army’s northern command. Eisenkot took the opportunity to share the principles shaping plans for a future war.
The general promised “disproportionate” force to destroy entire villages identified as sources of Hizbullah rocket fire, the reasoning being that they are “not civilian villages” but rather “military bases” – the kind of reasoning that can land you in a war crimes tribunal.
Eisenkot pointed to how Israel levelled the Dahiya neighbourhood of Beirut in 2006 and confirmed that this would be the fate of “every village from which Israel is fired on”. In case there was any doubt, he added: “This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.”
The frank promise of “disproportionate” force will be chilling for the Lebanese, who even last time round were subjected to indiscriminate attack, the targeted destruction of civilian infrastructure, and carpet cluster-bombing. But what Ha’aretz dubbed the “Dahiya Doctrine” received enthusiastic support in some quarters, such as veteran Israeli TV and print journalist Yaron London.
London seemed highly pleased with Eisenkot’s determination to “destroy Lebanon”, undeterred “by the protests of the ‘world’”. London, while looking forward to Israel “pulverising” some “160 Shi’ite villages” made the implications of Eisenkot’s thinking clear: “In practical terms, the Palestinians in Gaza are all Khaled Mashaal, the Lebanese are all Nasrallah, and the Iranians are all Ahmadinejad.” The meaning of “practical terms” did not need repeating.
The Ha’aretz report also described how similar conclusions were being reached in reports by military-academic institutions. One such paper, published by the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, and unambiguously titled “Disproportionate Force”, details the author’s (reserve Colonel Gabriel Siboni) understanding of the lessons of 2006:
With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.
Siboni urges the Israeli military to strike disproportionately at “the enemy’s weak points”, and only afterwards to go after the missile launchers themselves. Devastating “economic interests”, “centres of civilian powers”, and “state infrastructure” will “create a lasting memory among Syrian and Lebanese decision makers” and thus increase “Israeli deterrence” and tie up “enemy” resources in reconstruction.
A further new INSS publication by a former head of the National Security Council, urges Israel to guarantee that next time around, the Lebanese army and civilian infrastructure “will be destroyed”. Or as the author pithily puts it, “People won’t be going to the beach in Beirut while Haifa residents are in shelters”.
This determination to “create a lasting memory” in the minds of the Syrian and Lebanese is reminiscent of previous Israeli declarations of intent. In 2003, the IDF’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, said that the war being waged in the occupied territories would “sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people”.
In 2006 in fact, the likes of Dr Reuven Erlich, head of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre at the Centre for Special Studies in Tel Aviv, also recommended “searing” into the “Lebanese consciousness” the “steep price they will pay for provoking and harassing us”.
Using brute force to “sear” certain truths into the consciousness of Arabs of varying descriptions has a certain heritage in Israeli and Zionist thought, going all the way back to Jabotinsky’s theory of the “iron wall”. In the 1920s he wrote candidly that “every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement”. The need then was for an “iron wall” of force to bring the Palestinians to the point of giving up “all hope”.
While the brutal logic of settler-colonial domination has been a guiding principle for Israeli military strategists through the decades, it has been complemented by the racist “anthropological” cliche that the “Arabs only understand force”. Interestingly, such tropes are now commonplace in US military discourse, as the Pentagon is also now in the position of directly occupying a Middle East country and facing resistance.
Thus it seems Israel is learning entirely the wrong lessons from the 2006 conflict. Wrong, of course, from a moral point of view (though that only seems to enter the picture in terms of an anticipated international backlash). The conclusion could also be seen as flawed from the perspective of the kind of response it could invite. Fundamentally though, these pledges of disproportionate devastation show that the Israeli military leadership suffers from tunnel-vision policymaking, wedded to the idea that Israel will gain acceptance in the Middle East through force of arms.
Published in the Guardian’s Comment is free.