Has Israel become a prisoner of its strategic defence doctrine?

It wasn’t just the violence. It was also the timing. Hamas’s October 7 slaughter of Israelis on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War sent a message to Israel. In October 1973 Egyptian and Syrian armies invaded. It was a close-run thing. Israel was caught napping; in the early days of the war, success was far from certain.

But there are other anniversaries this year which shed light on the war in Gaza.

2023 marks the 100th year since the publication a famous essay about relations between the Arabs and Jews, the “Iron Wall” by Zeev Jabotinsky. Odessa-born Jabotinsky was a Zionist who fought for the British in World War I and migrated to Israel. In 1923 he published an essay that has been commented on frequently in the Israeli press after October 7. He warned his readers that the Palestinians were never going to accept a Jewish majority. "Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population,” he argued. “Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach."

The Israelis remember the metaphor of the “Iron Wall”. A well-known conservative Rabbi, Hayim Navon, wrote recently in the magazine Makor Rishon: “We have to delete from our dictionary, plain and simple, the word ‘deterred’ and in its place we must substitute ‘crushed’ … For the sake of our children’s lives, we must never again allow anyone to crack the Iron Wall.”

The other significant anniversary is the 70th anniversary of the Qibya Massacre. It foreshadowed Israel’s response to the savage massacre on October 7. On October 12, 1953, Palestinian infiltrators threw a grenade into a Jewish home a few kilometres from the Jordanian side of the armistice line. A mother and two of her children were killed as they slept. This capped months of killings by Palestinian fedayeen and reprisals by Israelis. The Israeli army decided to teach the Palestinians a lesson.

On the night of October 14, half a brigade of elite Israeli troops led by Major Ariel Sharon – yes, that Ariel Sharon, later to become Prime Minister – forced their way into the Arab village of Qibya, on Jordanian side. They ordered the inhabitants to leave and then blew up their homes. Either because they didn’t know or didn’t care to know, many of the villagers were still huddling in their houses. About 70 people died.

The raid was denounced around the world and in the United Nations. But the widespread outrage did not bother Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. As historian Daniel Gordis relates in his book Israel: a concise history of a nation reborn, Sharon briefed Ben-Gurion after the event. Ben-Gurion said: “It doesn’t make any real difference what will be said about Qibya around the world. The important thing is how it will be looked at here in this region. This is going to give us the possibility of living here.”



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Ben-Gurion’s defiance was distilled into a security doctrine named after Moshe Dayan, the Defense Minister during the Yom Kippur War. In 1955 Dayan gave a lecture entitled “Reprisal raids as a means for ensuring peace.” He said:

“We do not have the means to prevent the murders of [Israeli] workers in orchards or of families sleeping in their beds at night. What we can do is set a very high price for our blood, so high that no Arab locality, Arab army or Arab government will want to pay it …

“Our victories and failures in the minor skirmishes along the border and even beyond, have great influence on our ‘ongoing security’ and on the Arab world’s assessment of Israel’s power and Israel’s belief in its own strength [. . .] The Arabs will decide not to start up with us only when they realize that if they do so, they will encounter harsh reprisals and drag us into a conflict in which they will be at a disadvantage.”

“Since then,” writes Israeli military historian Yagil Henkin, “the Dayan doctrine has been repeated many times by Israel’s top decision-makers and high-level commanding officers.”

It’s not difficult to see echoes of Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” and the “Dayan doctrine” in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to the crisis of October 7. It is a bloodier replay of the 1953 Qibya massacre. Israel’s response to the savage murder of three innocent Israeli civilians was the destruction of a village and a 20 to 1 body count.

For a nation which is only 75 years old, Israel has a tormented and complex history with deep reservoirs of heroism, achievement, terror and sadness. But three things stand out as I survey today’s war in Gaza.

First, Israel’s response to the massacre of October 7 followed a template which is a century old. Is it fit for purpose? It began as a response to cross-border raids by fedayeen rabble living on farms. In the 21st century, is it an appropriate response to an enemy based in a densely populated city? Are the Israelis hostages of their own strategic defence dogmas?

Second, the Dayan Doctrine is not the Just War Doctrine. It is a revival of Caligula’s maxim about the barbarians on Rome’s borders, oderint, dum metuant, let them hate us so long as they fear us.

The traditional conditions for a just war are:

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain.
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  • there must be serious prospects of success.
  • The war must not produce evils worse than the evil to be eliminated.

The Dayan Doctrine ignores these subtleties; it is simply “crush them”, in the words of Rabbi Navon. Allusions to just war theory are window-dressing.

But is deterrence through overwhelming violence really the only way to engage with an enemy? In fact, Israel knows how to use carrots as well as sticks. It has successfully wooed Muslim countries like the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Why doesn’t it ditch the Dayan Doctrine of deterrence through fear in favour of economic engagement, for instance? It will take decades, but the time to start is now.

Does that sound naïve? Probably. But it’s also realistic. How is Israel defending its next generation by inflaming Palestinians with hatred as they bury their dead and look upon the ruins of Gaza? The last condition for the just war, that it must not result in worse evils, relates not only to Hamas, but to Israel. In ten years' time, will Israel  be safer, more respected, more united, and wealthier after pounding Gaza? Unlikely. 

Third, Prime Minister Netanyahu has defended his tactics in Gaza as a positive good. “Victory over these enemies begins with moral clarity,” he said on October 30. “It begins with knowing the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong. It means making a moral distinction between the deliberate murder of the innocent and the unintentional casualties that accompany every legitimate war, even the most just war.”

With respect, and without wishing to support pro-Palestine demonstrators mindlessly chanting “from the river to the sea”, this is bunk. Yes, the actions of Hamas were appalling, are evil, and are utterly unjustifiable. Hamas is just a murderous mafia, not a government. But moral clarity emerges after asking whether Israel is waging a just war. 

And moral clarity demands that Netanyahu acknowledge that there could be other ways to bring home the hostages and punish the barbarians on Israel’s borders than killing 15,000 people in Gaza, most of them women and children. 

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. 

Image credits: screenshot / The Guardian 


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  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-12-05 17:50:46 +1100
    Yes, Israel is still applying the Dayan doctrine.

    However: it does not work. To the contrary, it is now a threat to Israel’s existence.

    Why: simply, because the Palestinians are willing to pay the price. Do you not understand that Hamas was expecting, probably even hoping for exactly this response by Israel?

    In the eyes of that part of the world not controlled, Israel has become just as evil as everybody else.

    And I would not be surprised to see ever more Israelis emigrating to safer places in the future.

    An eye for an eye or ten eyes for an eye do not work anymore.

    Re the point that the Palestinians were economically better off under Israeli rule. Well, the black South Africans were also better off economically under the rule of the white South Africans. So? The Hebrews were better off economically under Pharao’s rule. So?

    Both the Arab Muslims and the Jews are ultimately driven by an evil force, by the desire for power, by revenge, by hate – by basically pretty human and earthly motives.

    If you – Jews and Muslims and everybody else- want to be more divine, if you want to grow morally, act more like what you are, more like an image of God, you need to turn to Jesus Christ.

    Otherwise you will fail.
  • Israel Kalman
    commented 2023-12-03 22:31:08 +1100
    Michael, thanks for your gracious response, and for providing the article by Thomas Friedman, who always has thought provoking ideas. And forgive me for writing this article-length comment.

    First, two minor comments, then a more general one. One, there are no clear statistics on the number of civilian deaths in Mosul, and I read that the Kurds, who were intensely involved, estimated them to be around 40,000. 80% of the city was razed by the bombing. But regardless of the numbers, where were the mass demonstrations against the bombing?

    Second, yes, Netanyahu has been prime minister for 16 years, and this is presented as though it is equivalent to the years Hamas and PA head Abu Mazen have been in power. But there is a big difference. The latter have been dictators, putting a stop to elections. Netanyahu is not. He has had to earn his position by fair general elections. And his 16 years have not been consecutive. Many people in Israel, including highly intelligent and politically savvy ones, are highly supportive of him, and see him as Israel’s greatest leader, wrong or right.

    My general comment is about where you are getting your info from. While you take a conservative viewpoint on most matters, your recent writings are all taken from a leftist playbook. This is not to say that we should not take leftist views into account. In a democracy, in which various viewpoints are tolerated, there will alway be a polarization of views, and that is expressed in Thomas Friedman’s recommendation of having a Red and Blue Team to hash out how to deal with the situation. But I think you are unaware that your sources in your articles about the Israel/Hamas war are strictly from the left.

    The latest article, about the Iron Wall, is based on an article from Telem, which is a self-declared leftist publication. One of its major goals is to bring down Netanyahu. You also mention the views of a “conservative rabbi” on the conflict. Conservative rabbis are not defined by having conservative political views. The politically conservative Jews tend to be Orthodox. Conservative Judaism a liberal branch of Judaism, formed to be a backtrack from the more radical Reform Judaism, which has abandoned most of Jewish law and theology, is closer in practice to Christianity than to traditional Judaism. While this rabbi should be listened to, he is not a representative of what Israeli rabbis think (which is not monolithic even among the Orthodox).

    In a previous article, you cite Betselem. This is not a mainstream Israeli organization. It is a controversial far left organization, and is dedicated to fighting for the rights of Arabs who are mistreated by Israel. This is an important role, but it can exist because Israel is democratic. There is no counterpart in the Arab world–an organization that fights for Israelis against Arab abuse. Betselem gets hefty funding from European pro-Palestinian organizations that are thrilled to have Jews who give them fodder for delegitimizing Israel.

    Israel faces a unique situation because of all the world’s concern. It turns warfare upside down, creating an almost impossible Catch-22 for Israel, The winner in the Israel/Palestine conflict is the one who endsup being the biggest loser. The losing side then gets the sympathy and support of the “enlightened” world, and actually wins. Thus, Thomas Friedman suggests that Israel should lose the battle in order to get the world, and particularly the Palestinians, to see the error of their ways in supporting Hamas.

    What most people don’t take sufficiently into account is that the Palestinian’s have become so murderously hateful towards Jews and Israel that we can’t expect the rational kind of reaction from Palestinians that Friedman suggests. First off, If they were to blame Hamas for their situation, they would have done it long ago. But they can’t, because then Hamas is likely to kill them. And they have come to see themselves as ultimate victims of Israel, so their masses eagerly buy into Hamas’s blaming of Israel for their problems.. And there are hundreds of millions of well-meaning people throughout the world who will continue to publicly and aggressively support the Palestinians and Hamas, and blame Israel. So without some truly major psychological intervention in the thinking of Palestinians, they will continue to blame Israel.

    Furthermore, it is a mistake to think of the Palestinian Authority as different from Hamas. They are no less committed to destroying Israel than Hamas. They just play their cards a little differently. Ever since they were given power, they, too, have been teaching their children to hate and kill Israelis and Jews since early childhood. Once they see a good opportunity to try to destroy Israel, they will do it as fervently as Hamas.

    I think there is a better solution, but it would have been easier to implement several years ago. I wrote an article eight years ago presenting it. I think it is still relevant, even regarding Barak Obama, who is still a highly revered public figure, great orator, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize that he doesn’t yet deserve. However, ISIS needs to be replaced with Hamas in the article. Michael, I would be happy if you were to reprint it in Mercator if you find it worthy.
    My Advice to President Obama for Achieving World Peace
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2023-12-03 11:24:30 +1100
    Izzy Kalman raises some good points which I did not touch upon in my article. If the dispute is over historical claims to the land which is the sovereign state of Israel, there is a possibility of negotiating and reaching a modus vivendi. It’s incredible and a tribute to Israeli diplomacy that they managed to establish relations with Saudi Arabia, for instance. But if it is over the claims of religious fanatics, the problem is infinitely more difficult.

    Not being an expert by any means on Israel and Palestine, I would only venture a hope that if the Palestinians somehow got rid of Hamas, it would be easier to reach an agreement on difficult questions. But bombing will only strengthen their prestige amongst the Palestinians, I suspect. And the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia loathe Hamas. Surely they would help behind the scenes to undermine them. But the bombing campaign makes it impossible for them to lend a hand.

    New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman published a very thought-provoking column the other day with an alternative strategy for dealing with Hamas and Gaza.

    I agree that there is a lot of inconsistency in attitudes towards Hamas, given that the US and its allies bombed Mosul to bits to eliminate ISIS in 2017. But casualties in Gaza appear to be far higher.
  • Israel Kalman
    commented 2023-12-03 07:36:24 +1100
    I need to add one more point to my previous comment. It has been decades since Israel has used the approach of killing many more Palestinians than they lost. If anything, they bend over backwards to avoid their deaths. There are shackles put on soldiers on how they can respond to terrorists. The large number of deaths on the Palestinian side is because they purposely put civilians in the way. Hamas wants large number of deaths because it is a fantastic pr weapon against Israel, and it works so well.
  • Israel Kalman
    commented 2023-12-03 06:04:33 +1100
    Michael, I am always impressed by you. This is a very thoughtful piece raising excellent questions. I am certain that there are better solutions than the intensive bombardment of Gaza, but they would have been more effective years ago.

    The main problem is that this war is different from most. It can’t be understood by looking at it as though the participants all have a Western mindset. This is a truly religious war that Hamas and the Palestinian leadership is waging against Israel first and the modern world secondly, and it didn’t begin in recent years. It was at the heart of the struggle of the Jews to create a State in the first place.

    Israel has done a decent (not perfect, but decent) job of coexisting with the Arabs that stayed during the war of independence, and the Israeli Arabs today are the freest, most highly educated and most prosperous Arab population in the Middle East. (I am not talking about the ruling class of places like Saudi Arabia, only about the conditions of the general population.)

    But what most people don’t realize is that the best period for the Palestinians in Gaza, Judea and Samaria was during the two decades that they were ruled by Israel. Those were the years after being conquered by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 and ending in 1987 with Yasser Arafat being imposed upon Israel as the leader of the Palestinians. Arafat immediately initiated an Intifada and the situation has gone downhill steadily since then. But in that twenty year window (and I know from personal experience) the Palestinian economy flourished, as Israelis came to shop by them, go to their restaurants and hire them to work. Palestinians traveled and worked freely throughout Israel and Israelis traveled freely in the Palestinian territories. Their education and infrastructure were enhanced. Had Arafat or his ilk not arrived, the entire situation would be totally different today.

    Israel has, in fact, been using economic carrots with the Palestinians in recent years, but that approach has been proven not to work. It’s because the Palestinians have been ruled by an organization that is not interested in coexistence with Israel but is hell bent on destroying it and the Jews of the world, and they have had a few decades to brainwash their children essentially from birth to hate and kill Jews. We saw the results on Oct. 7. In the years after Arafat’s assent to power, there has been almost no contact between Jews and Palestinians because of the terror he brought, so the Palestinians have no way of knowing that we are not the devils that they have been brainwashed to believe we are.

    Hamas is not different from ISIS. I didn’t see the massive criticism of the US and the other nations that cooperated to destroy ISIS by destroying Mosul. And the populations of the world did not hold massive, angry demonstrations when the US was bombing the crap out of Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent civilians, for supposedly having had something to do with 9/11. Nor did I see such concern about devastation committed against Arabs in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. When Arabs kill Arabs, no one seems to care much.

    There is an excellent podcast available on YouTube about the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is an interview with historian (not Jewish), Francisco Gil-White. It is called, if Israel Falls, Is The United States Next? It may change the way people see the situation. https://youtu.be/jb88EqPUhOs?si=qE3pVYalA3Hii5le

    I would also recommend a talk to the UN by an extremely brave man, Mosab Hassan Yousef, about his journey in life as a son of one of the founders of Hamas. https://youtu.be/pjOEJumoABg?si=7F0HyUQR8lggMXji

    Israel is not perfect, but it is not a genocidal nation. It is the Palestinians, thanks to their leaders, that is genocidal. Instead of pressuring Israel to be more gentle with Hamas, which actually enhances their victory over Israel, it would be infinitely more helpful if the peace-loving nations of the world were to unite in condemning Hamas and demanding–yes, demanding!–that they unconditionally surrender. If they did that, the door will be opened for a better future for the Palestinians.
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2023-12-01 15:50:32 +1100