Perhaps the strangest aspect of the current war with Hamas is the mantra endlessly repeated by senior military officials: Terror from Gaza has “no military solution.” Former air force pilot Reuven Ben-Shalom, for instance, reported that during a visit to air force headquarters last week, he found “a deep understanding of the limitations of military might. Everyone knows that the military’s goal in asymmetric warfare is not to win a decisive victory, but to bring about a reality which will enable the political echelons to shape the strategic environment.” Similarly, a senior Israel Defense Forces officer declared last week that military action can’t defeat Hamas; the army’s job is merely “to create conditions for the political echelon so that the political process will work."
Needless to say, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: If the army doesn’t think it’s possible to defeat terror, it won’t draft any plans for doing so, and absent a credible military plan, the government can’t even aspire to victory as its goal. But what makes this mantra particularly egregious is that it’s so demonstrably false – because just a decade ago, Israel did achieve a decisive military solution to terror, in the West Bank. And the officers now asserting that no such victory is possible aren’t new recruits who were children during the second Intifada and therefore might not remember what happened; they were active participants in that victory.
True, terrorist organizations still exist in the West Bank; they still try to perpetrate attacks, and sometimes they even succeed. So if you define “victory” as the total elimination of every last terrorist and every last terror attack, then victory wasn’t achieved in the West Bank either. But that’s an unreasonable definition of victory; no society in history has ever completely eliminated murder.
The proper definition derives from the truism that the goal of terrorism is to terrorize. In short, terror has been defeated once the terrorists have lost their ability to terrorize – i.e., once their capabilities are sufficiently degraded, and few enough attacks succeed, that society can function completely normally.
By that definition, Israel has unquestionably defeated terror in the West Bank. The suicide bombings that paralyzed life from 2000-2004 have virtually disappeared, and the tactics Hamas employs in Gaza never started: Not one rocket has ever been fired at Israel from the West Bank, compared to over 13,000 from Gaza, nor has there been a single “terrorist tunnel” of the kind Hamas uses in cross-border attacks from Gaza. Thus despite claiming a handful of casualties every year, terror from the West Bank has been low enough that for the past ten years, Israelis have been able to lead completely normal lives.
Except, of course, down south, where rockets have been launched almost daily from Gaza since Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in 2005. Or during the periodic wars with Hamas in Gaza, of which there have been three in the past six years, when rocket fire spreads to the rest of Israel as well.
In other words, while West Bank terrorists have lost their ability to terrorize, Gazan terrorists are still terrorizing Israel quite successfully. Normal life has been impossible in southern Israel for years, unless you consider it “normal” to have 45% of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to constant rocket fire. And while normal life is possible for other Israelis in between wars, there’s nothing “normal” about having a war shut down much of the country for weeks on end every two to three years.
But there’s no reason why the same techniques that successfully defeated terror in the West Bank couldn’t defeat terror in Gaza as well. Granted, it would be harder, because Israel’s ongoing refusal to deal with the problem has given Hamas years to prepare; as a result, its forces in Gaza are far better armed and more deeply entrenched than they were in the West Bank a decade ago. But “harder” doesn’t mean impossible; Israel’s military capabilities still dwarf those of Hamas. And since Hamas seems unlikely to disappear on its own, Israel would be better off dealing with it now than giving it even more time in which to bolster its capabilities.
Defeating terror in Gaza obviously wouldn’t be cost-free; 18 soldiers have already been killed in the current operation. Former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter – who, as a leading architect of Israel’s victory over terror in the West Bank, is one of the most credible experts on the subject – says Israeli forces would have to stay in Gaza for a year or two to do the job. Others think the IDF would have to remain permanently in part or even all of Gaza, though that seems less essential now that Egypt’s government is finally cracking down on Hamas smuggling tunnels to Sinai, thereby making it much harder for Hamas to rebuild its capabilities once the IDF destroys them. Either way, it’s a price many Israelis might be unwilling to pay, and that’s a legitimate decision, even if I disagree.
But it’s not the army’s business to make that decision. Its job is to present the government with plans for a military solution and let the government decide whether it wants to pay the price. That’s an essential element of democracy: Civilian governments make the decisions and the military obeys, not vice versa.
Given that Israel so obviously did defeat terror in the West Bank ten years ago, there are only two possible explanations for this dogged insistence that there’s no military solution to terror in Gaza. First, these senior officers are so short-sighted that either they can’t recognize the parallel to the West Bank, or they can’t figure out how to apply similar tactics to Gaza. Or second, they don’t think Israel should pay the price a military solution entails, and are forcing their view on the government by refusing to present plans for such a solution. In other words, they’re carrying out a soft coup, just as they did when they prevented the government from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010.
I’m not sure which explanation is scarier. But neither bodes well for Israel.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.