Despite the best efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to stop Hamas from raining rockets on towns and cities in southern Israel, it is unlikely that Operation Cast Lead will achieve this goal.
To be sure, Israel has every right to defend itself. No government can stand idly by as its citizens absorb thousands of indiscriminate attacks. Yet, while Israel's version of "shock and awe" has demonstrated the lethality and proficiency of its military machine, especially the air force, the bombing's failure to suppress the rocket fire indicates the limits of the use of force in the Middle East.
For 60 years, Israel has been applying force in one form or another against the Palestinian population located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The Israeli government and its supporters have always argued that the exercise of military power in light of terrorist outrages is, as it is now in the Gaza Strip, entirely justified. Yet the important point is not whether violence was employed legitimately but whether this policy achieved its desired goals. The answer is emphatically no. To be sure, the Israelis have scored tactical victories such as the "targeted killing" of Hamas leaders that helped weaken the organization during the 2000-2003 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Yet, the setback for Hamas was only temporary. The organization rebounded, won the most seats in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and defeated its rivals in a bloody confrontation in June 2007, driving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction from the Gaza Strip entirely. As the military operations in Gaza indicate, Hamas has remained a potent and capable adversary.
From a broader perspective, Israel's policy of collective punishment through a crippling economic blockade of Gaza and massive retaliation in response to rocket attacks for the expressed purpose of driving a wedge between Hamas and the Palestinian population is also bound to fail. While many Palestinians may not support Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces' violent responses have hardly divided the population.
Israeli military planners and intelligence analysts expect that the Palestinians who are forced to suffer for the sins of Hamas will either withdraw their political support for the organization or seek to destroy it. While the logic behind such reasoning seems sound, it vastly underestimates the powerful concept of sumud (steadfastness) in Palestinian society. This idea, which has become an important feature of Palestinian identity under occupation, dictates that for the ultimate goal of statehood Palestinians must endure hardship and sacrifice rather than break ranks under Israeli pressure. From the Palestinian perspective, submitting to Israel's will, no matter how much force the Israeli military can bring to bear, will only delay the day when Palestinians will realize national self-determination.
Although the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis may be unlike any other, other governments are unwittingly confronted with the limits of military power in the Middle East. For the better part of the past 25 years, Turkey has been battling the Kurdistan Workers Party, a terrorist organization committed to Kurdish nationalism and, at one time in the not so distant past, Marxism. The Turks suspect the group of wanting to carve out a portion of southeastern Turkey for a Kurdish homeland.
Since November 2007, when the Bush administration began providing intelligence to Turkey, the Turkish armed forces have been pounding the Kurdish nationalist fighters hiding out in northern Iraq. Despite repeated Turkish claims that the group is near the breaking point, the conflict is likely to be long and protracted. During the first round of bitter fighting that took place between 1984 and 1999, an estimated 30,000 Turks and untold numbers of ethnic Kurds were killed. There is little reason to believe that the use of force against the separatists now will produce a different and better outcome.
A pattern clearly emerges when you take a broad historical view of the use of force in the Middle East. It did not work in Algeria for the French, who killed upwards of a million Algerians between 1958 and 1962 in an attempt to hold onto their prized colonial possession; it has not worked for the Turks against the Kurdistan Workers Party; and it is unlikely to force Hamas to give up its armed struggle against Israel. The problem in each of these cases is that force was (or is) being employed to suppress nationalism or a nationalist issue. Under these circumstances, the consequence is not the pacification of the target population but an intensification of violence.
The Israelis may achieve a measure of security for their southern communities in the short run (another cease-fire seems inevitable), but Hamas will live to fight another day. Without a clear military solution to the conflict, Israel will ultimately end up, one way or another, having to negotiate with one of its most bitter enemies. To do otherwise is to fate the almost 1 million Israelis who live within rocket range of Gaza and the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there to endless convulsions of violence.
Steven A. Cook is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.