The Policy of Deterrence Failed on Hamas and Islamic Jihad

There is reason to believe that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad believe that in the wake of the Goldstone report and the wholesale condemnations of Cast Lead, the Israeli government will not undertake another ground operation in Gaza.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 29, 2011.)

No more war, no more bloodshed, let deterrence do the job of soldiers and weapons on the battlefield. A great doctrine when it works. It worked for the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War. And it has worked for Israel since the Yom Kippur War as far as our neighbors were concerned.

It was actually the foundation of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. When the leaders of a nation contemplating an act of aggression realize that they are faced by almost certain defeat or vast destruction that may endanger their hold on power, they desist, they are deterred.

That is the reason Anwar Sadat, after the Egyptian defeat in the Yom Kippur War, concluded that the time had come to make peace with Israel. And that is the reason the Assads, father and son, have not attacked Israel in the thirty-eight years since the Yom Kippur War.

Of course, miscalculation can always send deterrence to the winds. The Japanese in World War II miscalculated and attacked Pearl Harbor, thinking they could defeat America. And Saddam Hussein miscalculated and believed the Bushs, father and son, would not go to war against him despite his provocations.

So the possibility of miscalculation by the other side must always be taken into account in solving the deterrence equation.

It is quite another story when it comes to terrorists. Usually they cannot be deterred. They are difficult to target, they are responsible only to themselves or their organizations, and they do not care if their surroundings suffer from the retribution brought down by their acts.

Not being deterrable, they must be defeated, as the Israel Defense Forces did after the Passover massacre in 2002.

And then there are the terrorists who assume political responsibility in their “home” base and thus become sensitive and vulnerable to punitive measures taken in the wake of their acts of terror.

That is Hezbollah today. Initially they had no political standing in Lebanon, and it was difficult to identify them with the government of Lebanon and hold the government of Lebanon responsible for their acts of terror. Beirut simply claiming they were incapable of controlling Hezbollah.

The Hezbollah model of the terrorist organization that was presumably uncontrollable by the government nominally in control of the area became a paradigm of terrorist operations soon copied elsewhere.

There was a time, over 10 years ago, when the Syrians controlled Lebanon and also Hezbollah, and they could be held accountable for the acts of terror committed by Hezbollah.

Then, the Israel Air Force, in response to rocket attacks on Israel’s northern settlements, would attack infrastructure targets in Beirut and other locations in Lebanon, and Syrian pressure on Hezbollah would bring about a cessation of the rocket attacks.

The situation changed when Syria left Lebanon and Hezbollah again became an “uncontrollable” terrorist organization. It has changed again as Hezbollah over the years attained political power and became the dominant political actor on the Lebanese political scene.

In Gaza, a terrorist organization, Hamas, rules and is responsible, although here too we see a repeat of the earlier Hezbollah paradigm: Islamic Jihad assuming the role of the “uncontrollable” terrorist organization.

Why did Operation Cast Lead not establish a long-standing deterrent against rocket attacks on the south?

Leaving aside the question of why the IDF was not ordered to complete the job and put an end to the rocket capability of Hamas in Gaza, there is good reason to believe that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad believe that in the wake of the Goldstone report and the wholesale condemnations of Cast Lead, the Israeli government would hesitate to undertake another ground operation in Gaza.

And the rocket attacks can only be stopped by a ground operation.

Are we seeing a failure of deterrence or are Hamas and the Islamic Jihad miscalculating?

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