Is Israel repeating mistakes of the past?

Israel has promised a "war to the bitter end." Yet history shows that battling an organization like Hamas is almost futile.

Published December 31, 2008 5:42PM (EST)

It was almost a century ago when the British soldier T.E. Lawrence described for posterity the World War I revolt of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Lawrence helped organize the revolt, and he famously said that combating such an uprising was "like eating soup with a knife."

His adage may not be perfectly applicable to the current Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas, after all, is more than just a rebel group. It is simultaneously a political party, a social-services organization and a terrorist group. It is a sworn enemy of Israel, and it continues to incessantly fire rockets across the border, hoping to kill Israeli civilians at random. The group has a civilian and a military component.

Still, the maxim uttered by Lawrence -- who was later immortalized in the film "Lawrence of Arabia" -- does have a present-day application when speaking of the ongoing fight against terror groups like the Taliban, Hezbollah, al-Qaida. And Hamas. Lawrence was essentially describing the problems that result when a regular army comes up against an irregular fighting force. In military parlance, such a conflict is called "asymmetrical."

Armies and governments prefer to avoid such conflicts. They often end without a clear victor; nobody capitulates, there is no white flag waved, no peace treaties signed. Other rules apply. One of them is the following: If the militarily inferior rebel group manages to survive, it is seen as the victor.

Two years ago, the truth of this rule was brought home to Israel after its summer war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. The Israeli army attacked with the goal of ending the Hezbollah threat after the terror group kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese border. But the war, pitting the ultra-modern Israeli force against a few thousand irregulars from Hezbollah, dragged on for weeks. Now the war is seen as a disaster in Israel, and Hezbollah came away seen as the victors, and its image in the Middle East was only strengthened.

Nevertheless, Israeli officials are once again resorting to the all-or-nothing rhetoric heard in 2006. This time around, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has spoken of a "war to the bitter end" and of an "all-out war." This time, the opponent is Hamas.

Israel's anger is understandable. On Dec. 19, Hamas elected not to renew a fragile six-month-long cease-fire with Israel and began once again lobbing explosives at random across the border into Israel. Those rockets have killed four people this week. But the question remains: Is a vast military offensive of the kind we have seen this week the best way for Israel to proceed?

It is certainly risky. Most experts on asymmetrical warfare warn that it is virtually impossible to eliminate a group like Hamas -- with its military and social components -- merely with superior firepower. Furthermore, the offensive strains Israel's relations with its neighbors Jordan and Egypt -- bonds that have never been very tight. It also weakens the positions of those Palestinians who were in favor of a negotiated peace with Israel.

The last five days of Israel's bombardment of the Gaza Strip, which have seen over 350 Palestinians killed and many more wounded, have highlighted the problems inherent in such an asymmetrical operation. Planes have targeted mosques because Israel thinks they are being used to cache weapons; apartment blocks where high-ranking Hamas members live have been destroyed, almost guaranteeing civilian casualties. The university was destroyed because it espoused the Hamas ideology. Each one of these targets presents a dilemma -- and the images they create are unhelpful to Israel. Indeed, the only targets that make sense are the smuggler tunnels under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

It is also unclear that the offensive brings Israel a single step closer to its ultimate goal of eliminating Hamas entirely. Indeed, the more intense the Israeli bombing campaign has become, the more Palestinian rockets have flown across the border into Israel. Hamas may be briefly weakened as its commanders are knocked off and its weapons depots destroyed. But, in the long run, it is difficult to see Hamas not benefiting the same way Hezbollah benefited from the 2006 war. Their aura as resistance fighters can only be strengthened.

Some have argued that the bombing campaign makes it clear to the Palestinians exactly what their support of Hamas can result in. Whether the demonstration of power will make Palestinians more interested in a peace deal with Israel, though, is doubtful.

It is always the case that, when the situation in the Middle East escalates, the world holds Israel to a different standard than its enemies. Israel, surrounded by enemies though it may be, is a democratic society based on the rule of law. Whereas nobody expects much from Hamas, one can hope that Israel would have more regard for civilian casualties. And one can hope that it would learn the lessons of the past.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that the country's leaders "view it as important to keep up the pressure on Hamas," according to the New York Times. Preparations are still being made for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Should it come to that, no one should be surprised if, in a few months, another investigative committee -- as happened after the 2006 Lebanon war -- comes to the conclusion that the conflict was a mistake.

This time, to be sure, the entire Israeli government was brought in to the decision-making process. But, in 2006, one of the primary criticisms was that Israel had not sufficiently defined its war aims before marching into southern Lebanon. "War to the bitter end," certainly doesn't sound any more precise.

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This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online.


By Yassin Musharbash

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