Friday, October 27, 2023

Airstrikes While You Wait

On October 13, Israeli defense officials made the infamous announcement giving Gaza residents "24 hours" to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip in advance of an imminent ground invasion.

Three hundred thirty-six hours later, the ground invasion still hasn't materialized. The Israeli government appears internally divided about the feasibility of a ground invasion -- how it could be managed, whether it can practically achieve the objective of "destroying Hamas", how it interacts with the objective of freeing the hostages, is it possible to accomplish without unacceptable losses. And so, weeks after the invasion seemed to be imminent with the space of a day, we continue to wait on an uneasy precipice.

[T]he government called up around 360,000 reservists and deployed many of them at the border with Gaza. Senior officials soon spoke of removing Hamas from power in the enclave, raising expectations of an imminent ground operation there.

But nearly three weeks later, the Netanyahu government has yet to give the go-ahead, though the military says that it has made a few brief incursions over the border and that it will make still more in the days ahead.

The United States has urged Israel not to rush into a ground invasion, even as it pledges full support for its ally, but domestic considerations have also played a role in the delay. Beyond the hostages, there is concern about the toll of the operation and uncertainty about what exactly it might mean to destroy Hamas, a social movement as well as a military force that is deeply embedded in Gazan society.

When asked what the military objectives of the operation are, an Israeli military spokesman said the goal was to “dismantle Hamas.” How would the army know it had achieved that goal? “That’s a big question, and I don’t think I have the capability right now to answer that one,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said at news briefing a week after the attack.

At one level, this looks like yet another illustration of the Netanyahu government's broader pattern of dithering and incompetence that has characterized its response to this entire crisis. Yet while I bow to no one in viewing Netanyahu as an ineffectual and criminal buffoon, on this narrow point I won't fully agree: if one doesn't yet have a workable plan for how an invasion will destroy Hamas, it is better to hold off on the invasion than to do it just in order to do "something". The only thing worse than dithering about in uncertainty because you don't have a plan is doing a full-scale invasion of a neighboring territory because you don't have a plan, and given the choice between the two I'm glad the Israeli government has so far chosen the former route.

That being said, this puts the Israeli aerial strikes into Gaza in a different light. With the Israeli government locked in paralysis over how to resolve the current crisis, the airstrikes have all the appearance of a deadly holding pattern -- a "something" to do while the army waits for the politicians to figure out an actual plan. Taken that way, it's hard to justify the airstrikes -- and the massive devastation they've caused to Gaza's civilian population -- as justified. 

The airstrikes are cast as necessary to a campaign of "destroying Hamas", and maybe if they actually would accomplish that end they could be warranted. But in reality, when you drill down to it, there's virtually no evidence presented that the airstrikes are at all effective at securing that goal. The airstrikes are not "destroying Hamas". Rather, it seems like Israel doesn't yet have a plan for how to "destroy Hamas" and is lobbing missiles into Gaza while it tries to figure it out. The term "proportional" is often misused in international conflicts -- it's not a requirement that all military violence be meted out at a 1:1 ratio -- but here the actual legal meaning is illustrative: the question is whether the expected military benefit is proportionate to the anticipated civilian cost. There's been little evidence presented that these airstrikes actually have much in the way of expected military benefit vis-a-vis the objective of destroying Hamas, and so is hard to justify against the damage dealt to innocent civilians.

One name given to Netanyahu's overall failed strategy for relating to Palestinians was "managing the conflict". The term, like "mowing the lawn", was a self-conscious abdication of any effort to actually resolve the conflict; it accepted that the conflict would exist in perpetuity and tried to tamp down on the costs (to Israel) to acceptable levels. Hamas' attack on Israel on October 7 is a genuine crisis for Israel, but to a large extent the Netanyahu government's response can be characterized as "managing the crisis", because they have no idea how to resolve it. The goal of destroying Hamas is unquestionably just, but they can't figure out how to accomplish it. They can't give Hamas a win by just capitulating to its demands. They have a justifiably furious populace for whom they've got nothing to show, and an international community that's running out of patience. They're stuck. A "better" government than them would also probably be stuck, but this dilemma is certainly beyond the capacities of the pathetic rabble  of fascists and lickspittles that comprises Netanyahu's coalition. And so again, the airstrikes really seem more than anything like a stalling tactic. They are not a route out of the crisis, they do not even move Israel materially in the direction of emerging from the crisis. Rather, they are a relatively costless (for Israel; for Palestine the costs are devastating) measure it can dole out to do something while it gropes for an actual way out of the crisis that has eluded it thus far.

It is infuriating that the proximate villains of the atrocities on October 7 are largely inaccessible to be brought to justice. At some level, what we're seeing is an interplay between Israel's immense power (in the form of bombs and missiles and tanks) and terrible impotence (to have stopped the attacks in the first place, to bring justice to their actual perpetrators).

And yet: airstrikes on Gaza cannot be justified in perpetuity on the basis of "we can't figure out how to bring Hamas to justice, and we can't think of anything else to do." It is, I'll repeat, infuriating that we can't figure out a way compatible with basic human rights standards to make it so that Hamas pays its deserved price for the atrocities it committed on October 7. This is why I've been repeating ad nauseum that we need to devote a lot more of our creative energy to thinking about alternatives that can secure Israel's existential security interests in the wake of those attacks (including the interest in not sending the message that brutal massacres of civilians are the best way to secure boons for the Gaza population, which is why even from a left-humanist perspective "just give Gaza everything it wants" is horrifyingly less feasible now than it was on October 6). But it's also the case that the argument against a ceasefire, insofar as it takes the form "we can't cease our fire precisely because we haven't figured out yet how our continuing to fire will secure our valid security interests" simply does not work as an argument, and with each passing day it grows less and less persuasive.

To put it in stark terms: when do the airstrikes have to stop? When "Hamas is destroyed"? We've already said that the airstrikes don't seem like they'll do much to advance that agenda, so if that's the answer then it merges with "never". Just a perpetual bombing of Gaza until the "rubble bounces". But, as horrifying as October 7 was, it does not and cannot serve as a foundation for "Israel can bomb Gaza forever for no apparent significant military gain or purpose." The mismatch between the conceptual justification ("Hamas must be destroyed") and the actual practice (airstrikes which nobody seems to think will actually do much to destroy Hamas) means that the two categories will never actually merge, and that is a direction of perpetual, endless war.

I've spoken critically about the calls for a "ceasefire" which really aren't about a "ceasefire" at all, but boil down to the desire for "a flat rule that Israel is not permitted to pursue any of its security objectives via projection of military power". But the notion that, if Israel cannot figure how to actually pursue its valid security objectives via projection of military power it shouldn't be given license to simply exert military power indefinitely for its own sake, has a lot more purchase. The simple fact is that if Israel can show an actual plan for how a military operation -- whether we're talking airstrikes, a ground invasion, special forces raids, or something else -- actually will accomplish the end of "destroying Hamas", that's a conversation, and is not something that should be preemptively and categorically ruled impermissible. But right now, Israel doesn't seem to have any such plan, and the notion that it can indefinitely immiserate Palestinian civilians as a sort of holding pattern while it tries to figure one out is harder to stomach. 

Put differently: it is understandably infuriating to those who were directly and indirectly terrorized by Hamas' violence to witness Israel dithering about in uncertainty because it doesn't have a workable plan to resolve this crisis. But it's still better than Israel lofting bombs into Gaza indefinitely because it doesn't have a workable plan to resolve this crisis. If Israel can't determine how a military operation will actually translate into significantly advancing its legitimate security objectives, then it should cease fire unless and until it can figure it out.

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