Sign #3: Limits on Israel’s Military Power

This is the third of my nine Signs of Hope for Israel and Palestine. You can read Sign #2 here, Sign #1 here, and an introduction to the series here.

In my last post, I listed the details of the awesome power of Israel’s military, and stated that the recognition of its military superiority can be a Sign of Hope for peace.

I now must state what the limits of that military power are, and why those limitations constitute another Sign of Hope.

While Israel does have awesome firepower and the ability to rain fire and destruction on its enemies near and far, and while Arabs (and certainly Palestinians) have no credible military power to threaten, much less defeat Israel, nonetheless this military machine has long reached its outer limits and no longer can achieve any additional strategic goals on behalf of the State of Israel and its policies.

Geographically, Israel’s army can no longer capture or hold additional territories: to the North, it advanced as far as Beirut but had to withdraw and was not even able to hold a “sanitary corridor” in South Lebanon, in the face of Lebanese resistance by Hezbollah created largely in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Any further incursion into Syria, beyond the Golan Heights, would necessitate occupying the Syrian capital of Damascus, with its 4 million inhabitants, which is only 20 miles from the current borders. No Israeli general or politician would seriously contemplate such a step after the Lebanon debacle.

To the South, Israel’s army reached the Suez Canal but had to withdraw from Sinai, after the October War, as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. The Sinai Peninsula stretched the Israeli army to its limits, and Israel was pleased to withdraw from that area. It has even withdrawn from the densely-populated Gaza Strip, and while it still controls the borders of the Strip, the air above it, and the sea coast, it is unlikely to achieve much more militarily by reoccupying it.

To the East, despite the fact that some extremists would claim historical and religious rights to some of the territory east of the Jordan River (two and a half tribes of ancient Israel were “promised” territory there), the political and demographic headaches involved, not to mention the international outcry, would make any territorial expansion to the East wholly unthinkable.

In addition, some military analysts point to the fact that the Israeli Army made a poor showing both in its war on Hezbollah[1] and its war in Gaza[2], [3]. Other than remote bombardment and destruction, its army failed to effectively engage adversaries on the field of battle, despite their numerical and equipment advantages. In all cases, Israel has captured all the territory its army can possibly capture and hold, and can at best hope to achieve effectively demilitarized zones to prevent Arab armies from approaching it.

It is true that the Israeli army continues to believe in the power of deterrence, yet that power does not seem to have the desired effect on non-state actors, who continue to form a security threat to Israel and its citizens.

The reality is that Israel’s “security” challenges are no longer military in nature, but have to do with the very essence of the political struggle it has with Palestinians and the Arab world in general. In that struggle, military domination and power seem to have little effect. Israel is facing a determined population that, despite the huge imbalance of power, has not been cowered and refuses to acquiesce to continued Israeli domination.

Even though Israeli intelligence has made impressive successes in infiltrating hostile organizations, it has not been able to neutralize the feelings of the people, or their willingness to carry out often hopeless attacks. The latest manifestations of this resistance has been “lone wolf” attacks by individuals not affiliated with any of the armed or political groups, and even individuals who have no access to weapons or training have been using household instruments (knives and scissors) or vehicles to ram into soldiers, settlers, or civilians. The army leaders have made it clear that politicians cannot look to them for answers when the civilian population under their control erupt from time to time into mini “intifadas”[4].

Imposing excessive punishment on the population, as well as collective retribution against the families and communities of the perpetrators have also failed to do anything other than increase the level of hatred and bitterness and determination to resist.

Israelis often complain that the Palestinian Authority (their greatest ally in controlling the population) is “not doing enough.” And they also hypothesize that certain elements, as opposed to the occupation, “incite” the population, and that the school curriculum (which is approved by Israel) somehow further incites Palestinian children to resist. The reality is that their insistence on military responses as their preferred solution has failed.

While the Israeli population at large continues to emphasize the military as a necessary tool for achieving its goals, objective observers, including many in Israel’s own military leadership, recognize that force alone and military power alone cannot achieve these goals, and that some form of cooperation by Palestinians is required to get them the security they need. And this growing realization is itself another Sign of Hope.

[1] http://www.counterpunch.org/2006/10/13/how-hezbollah-defeated-israel-2/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/22/opinion/sunday/israels-army-goes-to-war-with-its-politicians.html?_r=0

[3] https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/israel-approaches-to-peace-process-by-daniel-kurtzer-2016-08?barrier=accessreg

[4] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/individual-intifada-mahmoud-abbas-terror-attacks-idf.html

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