“We didn’t want this conflict, but now that it’s started it has to end with a sustained period of quiet,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “That can only be achieved by Israel taking out Hamas – their military structure, their command and control.” Or, as the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) would put it, by “mowing the grass.”
That sounds a bit cold-blooded, but Hamas, the dominant Palestinian organisation in the Gaza Strip, has an equally pragmatic view of its periodic wars with Israel. Both sides are in a conflict that neither side can win conclusively (although Hamas is vastly inferior militarily), and so they engage in occasional bouts of attritional warfare.
A “sustained period of quiet” between Israel and Hamas lasts, on average, about seven years. In between come the wars: ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (a three-week invasion of the Gaza Strip) in 2008; ‘Operation Protective Edge’ in 2014; and the as yet unnamed war of 2021.
There are many smaller clashes in between – the border is never completely quiet – but the major ones that last more than a week and kill more than a hundred people are quite distinctive. The 2008 war killed almost 1,400 Palestinians, including 333 children; the 2014 one killed 2,104 Palestinians, more than half of whom were civilians.
Israeli deaths were a tiny fraction of those numbers – thirteen in 2008, seventy-three in 2014 – and the same pattern is being reproduced this time: 192 Palestinians dead so far, and ten Israelis. But the disparity is only due to the fact that a modern air force and heavy artillery (Israeli) are much more efficient killing machines than primitive unguided rockets (Hamas).
These are always wars of choice in the sense that each side constantly produces provocations that the other can use as pretexts for a war if it wants one. And the choices are easy, in the sense that each side knows it cannot be eliminated from the game no matter how badly it loses the military exchange.
Wars are always (in Clausewitz’s famous formulation) ‘the continuation of politics by other means’. For Hamas, that usually means upholding its reputation as the most effective Palestinian resistance movement – even though it knows it cannot actually win the war.
For the IDF and the Israeli government, it is generally a matter of “mowing the grass”: repeatedly cutting back Hamas’s military capabilities before it gets strong enough to do Israel any serious harm. Since the Gaza Strip is under permanent and almost complete blockade, that threat is very distant, and Israel usually leaves the choice of timing on the next war to Hamas.
If an Israeli government needs a war for domestic political purposes, however, it can also provide the necessary provocation for it, and that may be what happened this time. “Netanyahu is exactly where he wants to be, in the middle of a major crisis, where you don’t want to change the prime minister,” as political analyst Mitchell Barak put it in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu was on the way out, but now the coalition talks to replace him have broken down and his most dangerous rival, Naftali Bennett, has crept back to his side. The war will go on until the grass is short enough in the Gaza Strip, and then peace will return for a while. But this is the last time round for this scenario, for technological reasons.
Hamas’s current weapons – home-made, inaccurate rockets – mean that it can only target large areas like cities, so it reaps the blame for targeting civilians. Israel kills many more civilians in practice, but since it uses precision weapons it can plausibly claim that it tries to avoid killing innocent people. (It usually does try, but the weapons are not that precise.)
Coming soon, however, are next-generation armed drones that are cheap, highly accurate, and very hard to detect or intercept. We saw early versions of them at work in last year’s war in the Caucasus, where Azerbaijani drones decimated a conventional tanks-and-artillery Armenian army. When Hamas gets them, probably in only a few years’ time, it will face a choice.
It can use them for more effective terror attacks, targeting civilian buses, schools and homes: lots of horror, huge Israeli reprisals, and no political gain. Or, if it’s smart, it can only go after Israeli military targets: tanks, airfields, barracks, fuel storage areas and the like. It gets the moral high ground, and gives Israel a problem that is not soluble by military means.
What political deal might then ensue (if any) is very hard to imagine. However Israel, after 30 years when it could just avoid thinking about a future of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians, will have to engage with the problem again. That would be a good start.