The Hamas raid last week against an army post in Israel, with the murder of two soldiers, the wounding of a third, and the kidnapping of 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, is a classic example of the tactical jujitsu that terrorists have employed dating back to the FLN’s attacks on French troops in Algeria in the 1950’s. The twisted logic goes something like this: You’re fighting against an enemy whose military might is vastly superior to your own. So you engage in acts of provocation designed to invite a disproportionate response. When the provoked response comes, it is met with international condemnation. So powerful is this approach that a young Yasser Arafat is said to have been motivated by this example in planning PLO strategy following the Six Day War.
Palestinian militants have been cynically playing this game for decades with a blatant and utter disregard for human life–both that of Israelis who are killed or maimed in their attacks and that of fellow Palestinians who suffer in the Israeli response. In the months leading up to this latest atrocity, militants had been firing ever-increasing numbers of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israeli towns and villages. The IDF has now moved into Gaza, but the fact is that it is extremely difficult to prevail against an enemy so canny and nihilistic that it will send teenagers to blow themselves up to further the cause.
What to do?
One could argue that the Israelis need to turn a blind eye to international opinion. It is they who are under attack, they who are dying, and they who need to respond as appropriate. The world has never been particularly well-disposed toward Israel in the first place; why should Israel allow its citizens to live in fear of bombers and shells when the world may condemn it no matter what it does?
The danger with this approach is that it tends to lead down a slippery slope toward ever-stronger responses designed not just to stop attacks, not just to deter, but to punish indiscriminately. Unless a country is very careful to minimize unnecessary casualties, the situation becomes increasingly entrenched and radicalized. Making the leap from constructive and preventive measures to oppression and collective punishment isn’t just bad policy; the country runs the risk of losing its moral compass and even its very soul.
In responding to attacks, it is imperative–for its own sake–that Israel act with the greatest restraint possible while still taking steps to defend its own citizens. So far, Israel has acted with care to avoid casualties, but it bears pointing out that Hamas has ‘won’ this round by provoking Israel to respond, making Israel reactive rather than proactive.
As it moves ahead, Israel must avoid the temptation to reach for “easy” military solutions and instead must do the hard work of pursuing militants while engaging in the search for lasting political solutions. Both tactically and ethically, it is the right thing to do, for Palestinian terrorism is an enemy that must be defeated not only militarily, but morally, with an approach whose concern for innocent human life can counteract a martyr-happy culture of death.