Collective Punishment in Gaza Will Not Bring Israel Security

Scholarship suggests the overwhelming violence unleashed on the strip is not just a violation of international law — it is militarily ineffective

Collective Punishment in Gaza Will Not Bring Israel Security
Israeli flares descend on bombed-out buildings in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 30, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

The second feature is justification of military reprisals on grounds that are moral as much as strategic. Israel’s belief that it is justified in using military might, even in violation of the international legal requirement of proportionality, is rooted in its historic sense of existential vulnerability and conviction that right is on its side in the fight against foes bent on its destruction. While this belief in its own righteousness has long infused Israel’s strategic culture, it has taken on a more sweeping moralistic tone over time. Indeed, the rationale guiding military actions has increasingly shifted from the “logic of consequences” (rational action calculating expected returns from alternative choices) to the “logic of appropriateness” (whereby action seeks to fulfill social norms about what is good and proper). This comes to the fore in the current war, which Netanyahu has described as a fight of “good over evil, light over darkness.” Strategic utility is thus not the only, or perhaps even the primary, rationale for military force. Rather, Israel bombards the enemy because it claims that it is justified in doing so. 

A third feature of Israeli strategic culture is a lack of nuance or differentiation in the targets of military force. In principle, the Israeli army endorses the notion of “tailoring” deterrence policies to address specific circumstances. In practice, however, Israel has increasingly turned to blanket, indiscriminate and brute force without meaningful attention to context, root causes or the real drivers of conflict. For more than a decade, this has been on display in recurrent shows of overwhelming military strength in Gaza that security elites refer to as “mowing the grass.” The metaphor is telling. Grass has neither feelings nor intelligence. As long as grass is alive, it is destined to grow; the only thing that can limit its growth is periodically taking a blade to shorten it. In using this analogy, Israel’s security establishment suggests that its enemies are similarly undeterrable and their belligerence inevitable. It does not seriously consider their motivations or the possibility that they may respond to incentives other than violence. 

The current siege of Gaza has shifted from mowing grass to uprooting it entirely. Indeed, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s declaration that Israel is “fighting human animals” points to an even more startling biological metaphor. It not only casts all of Gaza as a fair target, but also deploys dehumanizing rhetoric of the kind that scholars have long recognized as genocidal. 

In the history that we examined in our book, these three elements came to a climax in the “Dahiyah Doctrine.” Named after Israel’s crushing of the Dahiyah suburb of Beirut during its stalemated 2006 war with Hezbollah, this concept endorses overwhelming and disproportionate use of force to punish and deter attackers, as well as destruction of government and civilian infrastructure. As Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkott described the model:

What happened in the Dahiya quarter … will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on. … We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases.

The current bombardment of villages, towns, hospitals, telecommunications and other pillars of civilian life in Gaza is the “Dahiyah Doctrine” intensified to a previously unimaginable degree. Fueled by a strategic culture that invokes moralistic justifications for extreme, undifferentiated military force as an end in itself, Israel’s current punitive campaign is of dubious security utility. Israel has carried out four devastating wars against Gaza, in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021, with the aim of deterring or defeating Hamas. But during these years Hamas has only grown more sophisticated in its capacities and more brazen in its efforts, as the Oct. 7 attack demonstrated. Even if Israel now succeeds in destroying Hamas as an organization, it risks strengthening Hamas as an ideology and expression of Palestinians’ resolve to fight occupation and subjugation.

The only achievement of Israel’s prior assaults on Gaza, to say nothing of the 16-year blockade that the U.N. has judged as making the enclave “unlivable,” is unspeakable suffering for millions of Palestinian civilians and the inevitable recurrence of another war. The same is the case today. Bombardment, siege, forced displacement and the denial of humanitarian access might satisfy the desire for revenge, but these actions cannot bring Israelis security. As long as self-determination is denied, Palestinian resistance will continue, be it in ever-more deadly forms of violence heralded by Hamas’ latest attack or in the myriad nonviolent forms that Palestinians have also undertaken for over a century.

There is no military solution to the irreducibly political problem of two peoples seeking to live with freedom and dignity on the same small piece of land. Security requires peace, which can only be obtained through a meaningful negotiations process grounded in respect for international law and the human rights of all peoples.

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