The very stable cycle of destructive violence in Gaza

Daniel W. Drezner
July 17
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Smoke and fire rise from an Israeli missile strike Tuesday in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.  The odds are excellent that you will see some variation of this photo two or three more times before the year 2020.  (Eyad Baba)

Ever since I was a little social scientist, I’ve been trained to search for equilibrium outcomes. An equilibrium is a situation where no actor has an incentive to deviate from their course of action, which means that the status quo is likely to persist for quite some time. If there’s a hidden bias in international relations, it’s that, as a group, we might focus too much on peaceful equilibria.

There’s a good reason for this — since violent conflict is very, very costly, a lot of international relations scholars focus on why everyone can’t just sidestep actual conflict and cut a peaceful bargain. That said, there is also a literature in international relations on enduring rivals — pairs of nation-states that go to war frequently. And this is because there are occasions when the equilibrium outcome is for both sides to prefer to fight periodically.

Which brings me to Israel and Hamas.

The reason I haven’t written about the latest attacks since they started last month is because online comments on Israel and Palestine are the worst things on the Internet I try to write about when things change … and there’s been no change in this conflict when you step back from the headlines. As Zach Beauchamp notes in his Vox backgrounder on the current conflagration:

Since Israel’s 2005 disengagement, Israel and Hamas have fought three separate wars: in 2006, in 2008-9, and in 2012; Israel invaded Gaza in the first two but only bombed in the third. The 2006 war was triggered by Hamas kidnapping a young Israeli soldier, much as the current crisis was triggered by the kidnapping and murder in the West Bank of three Israeli students. They were killed by men who Israel believes were Hamas operatives.

Israel’s stated goal in the 2008-2009 and 2012 war, which Israel respectively calls Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense, was to destroy Hamas’ ability to launch rockets into Israel. The strategy was to destroy Hamas’ rocket stock and supply lines as well as to deter future Hamas rocket attacks.

That seems to be Israel’s motivation this time around as well. As Steve Erlanger and Isabel Kershner reported earlier this month:

Israeli experts often describe Israel’s periodic campaigns in Gaza in terms of “mowing the grass,” with the limited goals of curbing rocket fire, destroying as much of the militant groups’ infrastructure as possible and restoring deterrence. Critics say the use of such terminology is dehumanizing to Palestinians and tends to minimize the toll on civilians as well as militants.

It does sound dehumanizing, though as Will Saletan points out, Hamas really excels at the dehumanization thing:

Critics accused Israel of violating the laws of war in practice. But Hamas flouted those laws explicitly. It fired rockets on every city within reach, declaring, “All Israelis have now become legitimate targets.” Weapons launched by Hamas and its allies have hit citizens in Gaza. They’ve hit Palestinian homes and buildings in the West Bank. They’ve hit Gaza’s power lines twice, knocking out 20 percent of the strip’s electricity. All this while managing, with more than 1,200 rockets, to kill only one Israeli.

The vast majority of the damage in Gaza has been inflicted by Israel. Yet Hamas has contrived to make the carnage worse….

That’s what Hamas is doing. It’s trading Palestinian blood for political ambitions it foolishly expects to achieve through war. No amount of suffering in Gaza has persuaded it to stop

And that’s pretty much the ongoing dynamic. Israel wants to drain Hamas of rockets, and Hamas wants to show that it can survive any Israeli onslaught. So, they fight periodically, after which a cease-fire is announced. After the cease-fire, Hamas is bloodied, depleted of rockets, but unbroken. Israel is somewhat more secure. Hamas spends a few years to reload, and Israel spends a few years blockading and building more illegitimate settlements in the West Bank and the cycle repeats.

Is there any evidence that this time around will be different? I suspect some in the Israeli cabinet might think so. The range of Hamas’s rockets has increased, which likely bolsters domestic support in Israel for doing something.  Israel now has an Egyptian government committed to cracking down on the smuggling tunnels to Gaza.  And the rest of the Middle East is … let’s say distracted, and therefore less likely to fixate on Gaza.  So maybe the Netanyahu government and the IDF thinks that this time they can really clean out Hamas.  Except that short of a complete re-occupation of the Gaza strip, that won’t happen — Hamas is too entrenched in Gaza, and the IDF is not going to go for a complete re-occupation.  No embargo of Gaza will be keep all arms from getting in, and Hamas can manufacture missiles indigenously.  Indeed, there’s already loose talk of a more comprehensive cease-fire from the Israeli side, which suggests that the law of diminishing marginal returns on the airstrikes has kicked in.

So the spoiler alert for Israel and Gaza is that nothing has actually changed, and there’s little evidence to suggest that there’s any disruption in the equilibrium cycle of violence. Which means I’ll be referring back to this post in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Am I missing anything?

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