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From Containment to Counterinsurgency in the Gaza Strip

[Destruction in Gaza, 2009. Image by Wikimedia Commons User Gloucester2Gaza.] [Destruction in Gaza, 2009. Image by Wikimedia Commons User Gloucester2Gaza.]

Israel’s recently terminated “Operation Protective Edge” against the Gaza Strip was beyond destructive. Little is left standing in Shuja’iya, Khoza’a, Beit Hanoun, and Rafah’s east, where photos reveal a tableau of grey ruin. Israel shelled hospitals, targeted ambulances, killed paramedics, leaving the health sector strained beyond the breaking point. As Israeli munitions rocked graveyards, even the dead rested uneasy.

According to one development NGO, the war simply demolished the economy, “turning factories into piles of rubble and destruction,” with over 180 leveled since the assault began on 7 July, and billions of dollars in damages. The power plant is ruined, tens of thousands of homes are damaged, and over 2100 Palestinians killed at the hands of the Israeli forces.

This was the third such attack in the last six and a half years, and by far the most brutal.

The ferocity is not random. It is not insanity, not daemonic. It is not something alien, undecipherable, or illegible, antediluvian, a misplaced phenomenon in a postcolonial world.

Least of all is it a symptom of the decay of the Israeli project in Palestine.

Rather, the events of the past seven weeks were modern and entirely logical, as Israeli colonialism in full bloom has turned the Gaza Strip into a laboratory of social control and de-development.

The seeds of Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip began germinating in 1967, when the area was invaded and occupied. Until the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel slowly settled the Strip, grabbing land and water. Israeli businesses imported its laborers, while the state steadily stymied the industrialization of the Gazan economy.

As the Oslo Accords took hold, Israel cut off its dependency on Palestinian labor from the Gaza Strip, instituting first a permit system which initially constricted the flow of labor, and then in fits and starts cut it off altogether.

During that time, Palestinians in the West Bank remained useful as cheap labor in industrial zones within the Jewish settlements, as a labor force to build those settlements, and as a captive market for Israeli products. As Israel undercut the industrial and agricultural sectors throughout the Oslo years, it was able to rely on a mostly compliant Palestinian Authority (PA) to protect the settlement project in the West Bank.  

In Gaza Palestinians also were a captive market for Israeli products. But as labor flows reduced to a trickle, then dried out entirely, the Strip’s people became an object of political management rather than economic exploitation.

In spite of the PA being the major employer in the Gaza Strip, Hamas slowly emerged as the only political organization capable of tending to the people’s needs. It effectively blended social welfare, resistance, and a commitment to combat corruption. Its violent pushback against Israeli colonization during the second intifada (which started in September 2000) forced Israeli forces to withdraw to the Strip’s periphery. As the second Intifada ground to a halt, the next phase was the so-called “disengagement.” Here Israel followed the second of its dual colonial axioms of population management and territorial acquisition: the first, maximum land, minimum Palestinians. And the second, when Israel was forced to place displaced Palestinians somewhere in historic Palestine, “maximum Arabs on minimum land.”

Defeating Hamas

With the 2006 Palestinian election, which Hamas won, disengagement and enclosure of the Gaza Strip turned into a strategic dilemma. A political movement which refused to surrender suddenly governed a portion of the Palestinian territories. As the challenge from Hamas mounted, Israeli policy shifted from containment to counterinsurgency, operating through both direct coercion and indirect infrastructural violence. Its techniques ranged from infrequent full-scale attacks, to far more frequent targeted assassinations, to the nearly daily destruction of Palestinian agricultural and fishery capacity, and on to hamstringing the banking system.

Israel slammed the Strip with “Operation Summer Rains” in 2006, and then tried to break Hamas with the attempted 2007 Dahlan coup d’état. When that failed to destroy Hamas, Israel turned to siege, coupled with ongoing assaults. The siege targeted Palestinian economic institutions and productive capacity in order to eliminate any possibility of the material strength that, in the minds of Israeli planners, could underpin political resistance to their project. Israel also meant to make the economy scream in order to break internal support for the Hamas movement—an intensification of rather than a departure from earlier policies of economic sabotage.

Through this poisonous mélange, Israel has prevented Palestinians from setting in motion a cycle of economic development. The aim is to prevent a PLO-in-Lebanon-style independent and militarized state from arising anywhere in historic Palestine. Rather, Israel seeks economic and political forms which remain dependent and beholden.

As Israeli goals of economic accumulation and political domination became inseparable from one another, crippling unbowed elements of the Palestinian movement became imperative.

And so as the residents of the Gaza Strip besieged their siege in 2007 and 2008, Israel turned to ever-more-overt coercion. In response to the blockade Palestinians launched rocket attacks. Those attacks have continually provoked upset from Israelis eager for a return to the desolate silence of defeat that they identify as “normality.” That upset takes form amid the counter-insurgency exercises called “Cast Lead” in 2009, “Pillar of Cloud” in 2012, and now “Protective Edge,” euphemized in military doctrine as “mowing the lawn.”

The term comes from the offense intelligentsia. “Mowing” refers to the impossibility of pulling out the grass in surrounding territories—chiefly Lebanon and the Gaza Strip—by the root. The inevitable growth of armed resistance forces the Israeli counter-insurgency apparatus to cut down any movement which arises to fight for Palestinian self-determination.

In Gaza, Israeli policy differs from the imperial warfare of the United States, particularly as it was practiced in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. In that arena, planners viewed insurgency as a technical rather than political problem, one which enough military force could defeat. But kinetic violence was never enough, which is why US operations steadily escalated to napalm and carpet-bombing.

Israeli policymakers currently in power understand that, for several reasons, military force cannot decisively defeat Palestinian aspirations. For one thing, the links between Palestinians and the surrounding Arab and Muslim populations pose a barrier to mass killing. Relatedly, since Israel’s primary funder, the United States, is aware of the potential for Palestine to expose the venality of its other regional clients, Washington inevitably calls Israel to heel after a certain amount of destruction.

Given this constellation of constraints on the intensity and duration of violence, Israel instead resorts to frequency: its attacks have become routine. As Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir explain,

Those who forlornly ask “when is this going to end?” and use the cliché term “cycle of violence” have psychological difficulties digesting the facts that there is no solution in sight and that the violent struggle against Hamas is not going to end anytime soon (not as long as the enemy’s basic ideological motivations remain intact). But still, important periods of quiet are attainable via military action, and this is what explains Israel’s current offensive.

Shamir and Inbar note that Israel does not want to reoccupy the Gaza Strip (i.e., with boots on the ground), and that the Palestinian people oppose the surrender accords (i.e., Oslo), which get passed off as “peace” agreements in the Israeli and US public spheres. Instead, Israel aims to batter the colonized population into temporary quiet, understanding that forced submission is impossible, re-occupation is unfeasible, and real peace is unthinkable.

During such offensives a range of strategies are available. The calculations by which Israel selects strategies are less limited by its military capacity and more so by the wider political arena. Of course, the question of the human consequences of shattering Palestinian society does not directly arise in Israel’s strategic evaluations.

Generally, the Israeli army has opted for the time-tested strategy of low-intensity metropolitan counterinsurgency: long-distance shelling of Palestinian targets in order to turn the Strip to rubble. During such attacks, the line between “civilian” and “non-civilian,” itself the product of colonial-era law, fades with ease. Israeli forces do not limit themselves to purely military targets. Rather, bolstered by endless lawfare, they make a wide range of people killable, including any and all Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.

The level of destruction of civilian infrastructure in 2014 was so extreme as to suspect that Israel has opted for the “Dahiya Doctrine”; this is the name given to an approved Israeli “plan…[to use] disproportionate force” on Lebanese villages from which projectiles fired into Israel were supposedly launched, and to “cause great damage and destruction there.” In the first implementation of that plan, Israeli forces leveled the Dahiya suburb of Beirut in the 2006 invasion.

The Israeli liberal class shrugs at such atrocities as the cost of keeping Israel safe. As Amos Oz explains, “there can be no way in the world to avoid civilian casualties among the Palestinians as long as the neighbor puts his child on the lap while shooting into your nursery.”

The Roots of Israeli Violence

Such thinking is unlikely to go away as long as “mowing the lawn” maintains profits for an Israeli arms-industrial base that depends on the existence of an enemy. Settler-colonialism ensures an enmity. But the endurance of settler-colonial structures in historic Palestine is ultimately the product of Israel’s internal social relations as well as its links to the United States.

Since its founding and especially since 1967, Israel secured internal cohesion through nationalism and an atmosphere of manufactured threat. Militarism and regional instability were also of use to European colonial powers. As the United States slowly took over France and Britain’s regional dominion in the Eisenhower years, it also brought Israel more and more into its orbit. By 1967, the United States and Israel consummated their relationship with that year’s generational defeat of the Arab nationalist movements. US weapons firms profited greatly from the post-1967 regional arms race. And US oil firms profited from the high prices which were the result of the “instability” those arms provoked. Finally, the entire US geopolitical order has relied on gutting any national project in the global South that could not be turned into a “friendly force.” For that reason the US has historically been in alignment with the Israeli goal of destroying Palestinian nationalism, all the more so when the Palestinian struggle was the regional symbol of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

Before 1993, Israel was, to some extent, able to supply guns-and-butter to its Jewish population. But the repression of the second intifada and after that, the violence in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, went hand-in-glove with increased neoliberalism within that hallucination of liberal Zionists, “Israel proper.” The welfare state was eliminated within the Green Line while it continued beyond it—in the settlements. Other classes, too, increasingly had a stake in that same project, as middle-class real estate speculators and construction agents grew fat off housing starts. Through this process, Israel enfolded the Occupied Territories into Israeli society, making partition prohibitively costly and dangerous to social stability. This danger further reinforces Israel’s need to destroy any Palestinian force which refuses to accept Israel’s post-’67 territorial acquisitions.

Furthermore, with the turn to explosive conflict throughout the second intifada and after, defense exports to foreign markets turned into a lucrative welfare system for the rich. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip were turned into a testing ground for the repression industry: as a defense industry source comments, “The transition from the laboratory to the battlefield will do these companies good.” Those companies have historically been tightly tied to the Israeli armed forces. As Haaretz notes,

The link between the IDF and the defense industry is also very personal. Most of those in the weapons industry in Israel are former senior military officers, who have appeared quite frequently over the past month during the fighting in Gaza as commentators on television and radio.

National cohesion around hatred of the enemy was an important element in national unity. And behind it all, during this period the military-industrial core again synced up with the permanent war policies of Israel’s patron-in-chief: the United States, as the latter moved from the slightly muted violence of the Clinton administration to the full-bore invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a result, Israel’s military exports exploded from two billion dollars in 2002 to 3.4 billion in 2006—a fourteen percent annual increase. By 2012, Israeli defense exports totaled six billion dollars. In 2013, Elbit alone sold three billion US dollars, Israeli Aircraft Industries 2.65 billion US dollars, and Rafael two billion US dollars.

Currently the industry accounts for 150,000 jobs. The recurrent move to war as a means of challenging Palestinian aspirations is at the very foundation of the industrial and financial architecture of Israeli society.

The Limits of Force

Still, fighting the last war, Israel relies on a fraying strategy of social shattering, economic debility, and institutional weakness to keep Palestinians under control. An asymmetrical resistance movement has emerged in the social gaps left by Israeli counterinsurgency strategy. As analyst Mouin Rabbani comments, “What had been a rather unsophisticated militia is rapidly transforming into a professional guerrilla army, an accomplishment all the more remarkable given conditions in the Gaza Strip.”

The strategy of draining the sea in which the guerrillas swim has failed. The support within the Gaza Strip for Hamas and the other militant factions was total throughout the operation, despite the razing of much of the Strip’s infrastructure. “Mowing the lawn” is becoming difficult as Israeli force confronts grass that is increasingly hard to cut.

Meanwhile, among the Israeli population, there is a widespread sense not merely that they have not won this war, but that the old methods of winning such wars no longer work.

The result is deep unease. Despite the current supposed “long-term” truce, Israel remains in the middle of the ford. It recognizes that a lasting defeat of the resistance movements would require full-scale reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. And more sober officials are correctly worried that the costs of such an operation would be higher than Israeli society is willing to bear.

Furthermore, the Israeli economy is now in a stage of military Keynesianism that redistributes from bottom to top. Israel can barely sustain the “normalcy” of middle-class life on either economic or political levels. As one commentator notes, Israel is rapidly acquiring the income stratification of the global South, with “a high-tech and financial elite, with very large groups of workers beneath it whose entire employment horizon is rapidly shrinking.”

Given the breakdown of the settler social compact, there remain only war and nationalism as means of manufacturing consent, with continued settlement building functioning as a release valve to let off social pressure. But settlement building reinforces the continued empowerment of the hardline populist right. The Netanyahu government was caught between the rock of a popular armed guerrilla movement and the hard place of intense political pressure to not end the operation without something it can present as a victory. It is far from clear that the current arrangement is saleable as a victory to the Israeli public, especially since the million-plus residents of Israel’s south appear to see the threat from rockets as far from over.

Meanwhile, Palestinian demands for a seaport, reconstruction, and an airport have been difficult for the Israeli leadership to reject without appearing rejectionist. For that reason they have been postponed—the object of future discussions, during which Israel is likely to be intransigent.

Quiet will now prevail, at least until the next escalation, which seems only a matter of time. Within Israel, there exist voices even further right than the far-right Netanyahu who wanted a far more decisive victory. Rhetoric of mass slaughter and population transfer is audible within the Israeli cabinet, amongst the commentariat, within the religious elite, and of course among the people. Israeli military analysts are aware that at best they achieved a tie. Furthermore, it is significant that Hamas and Islamic Jihad forced Israel to treat them as negotiating partners, even if only to wriggle, postpone, and no doubt eventually evade their core demands. Meanwhile, the military capacity of both groups as well as the other resistance factions are basically intact, and cannot be dismantled without a spectacularly violent future escalation.

Many Israeli planners are aware that such an operation would be a difficult sell to its sponsors in Europe and the United States, where shifting public opinion is beginning to enter the governments’ calculus. Siege is an easier sell to European and US publics than bombardment. As a result, each application of military force carries increasing cost.

Israel’s considerable investments in managing foreign public opinion suggest that it is highly aware of the need to keep the international public on its side. This strategy, too, is beginning to thin. By now the European publics consider Israel a major threat to world safety, and Latin American governments are taking concerted action against Israel. Even in the United States, young people strongly disapprove of Israel’s conduct in this recent attack.

The Israeli intelligentsia is aware and apprehensive of this erosion. As Inbar and Shamir note, “The only ‘unsustainable status quo’ is a situation where Israel cannot defend itself by itself for fear of international disapproval.”

With such words they are basically confessing to grassroots organizers one of Israel’s weak points: the world is made up of states, armies, and corporations, but also humans. The task of the latter is to raise such a din that the former have no choice but to respond to it.

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