Responding to Hamas’ horrific killing of some 1,400 Israelis on Oct. 7, Israel has targeted the Gaza Strip with one of the most devastating military assaults of modern times. By day six, according to Middle East analyst Charles Lister, Israel had dropped more than twice as many bombs on this densely populated civilian area as the anti-Islamic State coalition dropped per month on an area 126 times as large. By day nine, Israel had pummeled 2.2 million civilians with the equivalent of “a quarter of a nuclear bomb,” according to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor. By day 19, bombardment had destroyed or severely damaged at least 200,000 housing units or 45% of the housing stock in Gaza, leaving around 629,000 civilians to shelter in 150 U.N.-designated emergency shelters. By day 23, Israel had killed more than 8,300 people, including 3,400 children, and injured 20,240, while another 1,800 remained missing or trapped under the rubble. Bombardment has been accompanied by Israel cutting off water, electricity, food, medicine and fuel — forms of collective punishment that are illegal under international law.
While the ferocity of Israel’s military campaign is unprecedented, the logic driving it is not. Political scientist Boaz Atzili and I documented similar drivers in our 2018 book “Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States That Host Nonstate Actors.” There is a long history of Israel’s use of collective punishment against Palestinian civilians, dehumanization and denial of Palestinian peoplehood and forced displacement as strategies of war. But there is another key factor shaping why, how and against whom Israel has used military force: what political scientists call “strategic culture,” or the engrained system of beliefs, values, assumptions, habits and institutionalized practices that shapes how states approach conflict.
For the first 40 years of its statehood, Israel’s military doctrine was oriented to wars with other states. By the early 1990s, however, its main challenges were no longer conventional armies but nonstate actors. A shift in Israel’s thinking and behavior came to the fore with bombing campaigns on Lebanon in the 1990s and reprisals against the second Palestinian Intifada in the 2000s. A strategic culture crystallized that shifted from the use of military force to achieve specific on-the-ground objectives to, instead, intense concern about the appearance of weakness. Our book traces several alarming features in this evolving strategic culture, all of which are reaching frightful heights in the current war.
The first is a belief in the inherent rather than instrumental utility of military actions. A key pillar of Israel’s security doctrine has always been deterrence: the use or threat of force to convince adversaries not to challenge Israel because the costs will be high. Since the 1990s, Israel has increasingly adopted the logic that when its deterrence fails — as it did on Oct. 7 — even more overwhelming violence is needed to reestablish that deterrence. For decades, however, the effectiveness of extreme punitive responses has been more assumed than critically evaluated. Genuine exploration of nonmilitary options has all but disappeared. Pounding the enemy — “raining down hellfire,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed it last week — has become the solution to every problem. It is a goal in and of itself. [Continue reading…]