Monday, July 03, 2006

israel and the gaza strip: goals and means

It is hard to have any sympathy for Hamas, and like almost everyone else I am praying that the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit--kidnapped while two of his comrades, Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker, were killed in a terrorist attack last week--makes it home safely. Nonetheless it is hard to avoid the impression that this crisis has been badly mismanaged, with long-term implicatons for the surival of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Government. Almost every rule of crisis planning seems to me to have been violated at one point or another. To wit:

1. Always be clear what your goals are. It is surely a humanitarian sentiment to want to see Shalit returned to his family, but recovering a prisoner in wartime can never be a purely humanitarian operation. Moreover Israel plainly has goals--reestablishing deterrence, preventing Kassam rocket fire, restoring some semblance of peace or at least an armed truce--that go beyond recovering one person. Presenting the operation as humanitarian in nature seems to me naive or misguided, and has opened Israel to criticisms of larger humanitarian crises which will inevitably be brought about by the conflict.

2. Think carefully about the consequences of your actions. Israel has stated so many times that it will not bargain for the release of Shalit that even a minimal concession will now appear like a terrorist victory. The arrest of Hamas cabinet ministers has similarly taken on its own peculiar momentum, since pursuant to an advisory opinion they are being charged with criminal offenses (presumably serious ones) rather than held as bargaining chips against Shalit's release. Can they now be released, even if Shalit is, or will there be arguments to hold them anyway?

3. Gradual escalations don't work with fanatics. The early US bombing strategy in Vietnam, code named Rolling Thunder, was a steady escalation designed to convince North Vietnam of the futility of resistance. We all know what happened there. A quietly conveyed message, that Hamas leaders will begin disappearing at some point if Shalit is not returned, might have accomplished more than all of the widely publicized but largely symbolic troop movements (although in fairness, such a message may already have been sent).

It pains me to say so, but I wonder if some sort of international occupation of Gaza, if not all of the Palestinian territories, is not going to come about sooner or later. Israel hates the idea because it thinks, perhaps correctly, that an international force will protect the Palestinians without doing anything to stop terrorist attacks. But that depends on the type of force and its overall composition. In any event the current situation--an endless round of symbolic violence with no real progress toward an agreement, and a gradual escalation to more powerful weapons on both sides--does not seem viable in the long run. Sherlock Holmes used to say that, if all the possible solutions to a problem are improbable, the least improbable one is most often true. Could this be the case in Gaza?


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