The futility of deterrence

Israel's collective punishment of Gaza and eye-for-eye policies have proven worse than counterproductive.

wounded Gazan 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
wounded Gazan 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The cycle of violence in Palestine and Israel which resulted in the killing of over 100 Palestinians fighters and civilians and three IDF soldiers in Gaza last week and the deplorable attack killing eight yeshiva students in Jerusalem Thursday night reveals the failure of the policies of revenge and deterrence. Mahatma Gandhi described the revenge theory eye for an eye tooth for a tooth as leaving the world eyeless and toothless. As defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary deterrence is defined as (a) the inhibition of criminal behavior by fear especially of punishment (b) the maintenance of military power for the purpose of discouraging attack. Israel which withdrew unilaterally from the center of Gaza to the peripheries in September 2005 has been searching for any way, except one, to stop Palestinian resistance fighters from lobbing rockets into Israel. Shortly after redeploying to the borders of Gaza, the Israelis severely restricted ties between Gaza and the West Bank as well as the movement of goods and people in or out of Gaza. When a pro-Hamas parliament was elected in free and fair elections in January 2006, the US and Israel led a campaign to deny any bank in the world, including Arab and Islamic banks from dealing with the newly elected Palestinian government. THE ONE option that Israeli has continuously rejected is to reach a cease-fire agreement or an understanding with the powers-that-be in Gaza, which at present is the Islamists Hamas controlled government. The latter has repeatedly offered a cessation of attacks in return for the lifting of the siege on Gaza. Public opinion polls have shown that 64% of Israelis want their government to hold a dialogue with Hamas. But the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF refuse to talk to Hamas whom they call "terrorists" so as not to give them any legitimacy. Israelis have previously reached understandings in south Lebanon even though they also consider Hizbullah a "terrorists organization." By refusing to reach an understanding the Israelis' only option was to tighten the screws and increase the pressure. The result has been a clear case of collective punishment on what is arguably one of the most densely populated places on earth with 3,823 persons per square kilometer. Gaza is. 45 km (25 miles) long and 10 km (6 miles) wide. Article 33 in the Fourth Geneva Convention clearly prohibits collective punishment. Upon visiting Gaza, John Dugard, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights said that "Gaza is a prison and Israel seems to have thrown away the key." With movement of people and goods almost totally restricted (there are rare exceptions for extremely sick persons and medicines) the pressure on the people of Gaza escalated. Seeing the world refuse to recognize them, elements of the Hamas-led Palestinian government clashed with President Mahmoud Abbas's forces and ousted them taking full control. This and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier led to further tightening by Israel of its siege on Gaza. In reaction to the siege Palestinian resistance escalated with more homemade rockets (as well as Iranian-manufactured GRADs) against the population of nearby Sderot. Israeli assassination campaigns against the rocket launchers produced even more rockets and the cycle continued. IN APPLYING this ugly theory of deterrence, every time the Israelis' efforts fail to produce the desired results, they tend to escalate the oppression hoping that a few more notches on the pain scale will produce some kind of knockout punch. When the other side refuses to raise the white flag, the deterrence strategy demands yet further pain. This one upmanship has resulted in an extraordinarily high level of fatalities almost exclusively among Palestinians. While more than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air raids in the first days of March, the number of Israelis killed in the past six months can practically be counted on one hand. After a further onslaught of rockets in early in 2008, the Israelis decided to reduce the amount of electricity they were supplying to Gaza - electricity needed for water pumps among other things) to further punish Palestinians. Human Rights Watch stated on February 7, that Israel's cuts of fuel "amount to collective punishment of the civilian population, and violate Israel's obligations under the laws of war." In explaining the Israeli policy HRW rejected Israel's view that restricting fuel and electricity to Gaza was a way to pressure Palestinian armed groups to stop their rocket and suicide attacks. Joe Stork, Middle East director of Human Rights watch said "the cuts are seriously affecting civilians who have nothing to do with these armed groups, and that violates a fundamental principle of the laws of war." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has also added his voice to those describing the Israeli attacks to be excessive. "While recognizing Israel's right to defend itself, I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children," Ban told the emergency session of the UN Security Council on March 2. Michael Byers, a Duke University Law professor clarified in the book Crimes of War that the use of force in self-defense "must not be unreasonable or excessive," and with regard to anticipatory action, the necessity must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." PALESTINIAN indiscriminate attacks against the civilians of Sderot and the attack against the Jerusalem yeshiva can't be condoned and must also be declared crimes of war. At the same time, Israeli deterrence is not only immoral and a violation of international humanitarian law, but it also produces long term negative results. Opinion polls taken in Gaza show a spike in support for Hamas after every Israeli escalation. If the Israelis are trying to delegitimize the Islamist group in the eyes of the Palestinian public, the opposite has been the result. The international community must act quickly to force the Israelis to abandon this approach and instead work on reaching an understanding that can result in a cessation of attacks by both sides in order to prepare the groundwork for a political resolution that can permanently end both the siege and the occupation of Palestinian lands. The writer, an award-winning Arab journalist, is a Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University. [email protected]