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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