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Israel’s strategy: between mowing the grass or uprooting it

“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good…so far so good…so far so good…” La Haine (1995)

Writing in the Journal of Strategic Studies at the beginning of this year, Bar-Ilan University-based academics Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir discussed the Israeli military’s concept of ‘mowing the grass’, a “new term” that “reflects the assumption that Israel finds itself in protracted intractable conflict with extremely hostile non-state entities.”

The use of force is therefore not intended to attain impossible political goals, but rather to debilitate the capabilities of the enemy to harm Israel. Realizing the difficulties in affecting the behaviour of radical ideological non-state actors, Israel’s use of force can achieve only temporary deterrence. Therefore, Israel has adopted a patient military strategy of attrition designed primarily to destroy the enemy capabilities.

Months later, with Israel’s massive assault on the Gaza Strip underway, Inbar and Shamir wrote that “Israel simply needs to ‘mow the grass’ once in a while in order to degrade enemy capabilities.”

The phrase had also been used in the context of ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’. On 17 November 2012, The New York TimesEthan Bronner wrote how “the operative metaphor” for the IDF’s approach “is often described as ‘cutting the grass,’ meaning a task that must be performed regularly and has no end. There is no solution to security challenges, officials here say, only delays and deterrence.”

As Inbar and Shamir summed it up in their journal article: “In the twenty-first century, Israel is not aiming for victory or for ending the conflict.” In other words, there is no ‘solution’, just endless, periodic bursts of violent colonial disciplining.

This short-termism is reflected in the diplomatic sphere too, where Israel’s leaders focus on thwarting potential threatening initiatives, as colonisation continues. Israel’s FM Avigdor Lieberman talks about ‘managing the conflict’, not resolving it. Netanyahu just wants to stay in power, while Naftali Bennett advocates annexation and an even cruder form of apartheid.

The return of punitive house demolitions is symptomatic. As well as a clear act of collective punishment (justified by spokesman Mark Regev as an appropriate “price to be paid“), it is a policy that is counter-productive even on its own terms – a 2005 army commission deemed it ineffective – and an obvious knee-jerk appeal to popular anger.

Writing on the revival of punitive demolitions in Haaretz, Asher Schechter called it as “a prime example” of Israel’s “lack of foresight”, as described, he added, “by former Shin-Bet director Abraham Shalom in the documentary The Gatekeepers: ‘no strategy, only tactics’.”

Though ‘deterrence’ and ‘conflict management’ dominate, there is a more disturbing vision being pushed by an active, self-confident far-right. This approach advocates a more decisive blow to Israel’s ‘enemies’, in particular the Palestinians, one that will ultimately remove them from the land altogether: a vision for mass ethnic cleansing and slaughter.

Over the summer, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin urged the “conquest of the entire Gaza Strip”, urging the Israeli army to “designate certain open areas on the Sinai border, adjacent to the sea, in which the civilian population will be concentrated, far from the built-up areas that are used for launches and tunnelling. In these areas, tent encampments will be established, until relevant emigration destinations are determined.”

Meanwhile, Martin Sherman, founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, was given a platform in The Jerusalem Post to argue for the insufficiency of current tactics.

No, periodically mowing the lawn is not a policy that can endure for long – it simply will not cut it. The grass needs to be uprooted – once and for all… The only durable solution requires dismantling Gaza, humanitarian relocation of the non-belligerent Arab population, and extension of Israeli sovereignty over the region.

For now, the expulsions are piecemeal – a family here, a community there. Not that this diminishes the horror of it, of course. Calls for new ways of stripping Palestinians of citizenship or residency rights fall within the current paradigm of ‘deterrence’, rather than wholescale ethnic cleansing.

But the unpalatable reality is that Israel’s approach to the Palestinians is now caught between the tried and trusted tactics of ‘mowing the grass’, of winning the battles but not the war, and an even darker, more drastic alternative. Without serious external pressure, the bloodshed this year in Gaza, Jerusalem, West Bank and Galilee portend worse to come.

Published first by Middle East Monitor

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