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Israel, Hamas, and micro-deterrence

Against my better judgment, I write to offer a tentative thought about the escalating violence between Israel and Hamas. To be clear, this post says nothing whatsoever about justice or blame. It is merely a tentative thought — a question, really — about deterrence.

Israel prides itself on its measured and calibrated response to Hamas rockets and mortars. But I wonder if there is a downside to this careful calibration: unpredictability. The calibration is, as it were, macro-calibration, not micro-calibration. A Hamas fighter firing a mortar knows that he is one of many firing mortars, and he knows that these mortars collectively will provoke Israeli retaliation. But he does not know quite what the extent of the retaliation will be.  And, more importantly, he does not have the sense that there is any marginal retaliation for his mortar in particular.  At the margin, firing his mortar may seem to him to be “free.”

I have been wondering what would happen if Israel took the following position: For every rocket or mortar fired from Gaza into Israel, Israel will fire, say, five missiles at Hamas targets in Gaza. Not four, not six: exactly five. If this were Israel’s announced and enforced policy, then any given Hamas fighter would perhaps have a far more immediate and personal sense of deterrence. As he contemplates firing a mortar at Israel, he would know with certainty that, if he fires, then exactly five missiles will land on his Hamas brethren in Gaza. He would know that, in effect, he is pulling six triggers at once: one aimed at Israel and five aimed at Hamas. One imagines that, under such circumstances, he might at least think twice. Cf. tit-for-tat.

To the extent that Hamas is perhaps more decentralized and less hierarchical than a traditional military, it might be particularly important for deterrence to work at the operational level: for each individual fighter to be somehow deterred from firing his particular mortar. I wonder if this sort of automatic, mathematical response might achieve that sort of micro-deterrent effect.  Would such a policy ultimately produce less bloodshed and more peace?

Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a Professor of Law at Georgetown, a Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, and an occasional Broadway producer.

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