Can Israel win the Gaza war? It depends how you define success.

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Dec. 30 2008 4:02 PM

Can Israel Win the Gaza War?

It depends how you define success.

A target in the northern Gaza Strip. Click image to expand.
A target in the northern Gaza Strip following an Israeli air raid

In a 2006 article about Israel and the doctrine of proportionality, Lionel Beehner of the Council on Foreign Relations explained that applying the test of "proportionality" to Israel's military operations can be a tricky exercise. According to the doctrine—originated in the 1907 Hague Conventions—"a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante." 

When Beehner wrote this backgrounder, Israeli forces were bombarding Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two soldiers and the consequent shelling of Israeli towns with rockets. Now, three years later, the question of proportionality is once again being discussed, especially by those who oppose Israel's actions against the Hamas government in Gaza. "In its efforts to stop amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities," writes Palestinian professor Daoud Kuttab in the Washington Post, Israel reacted with "disproportionate and heavy-handed attacks." In other words, "nagging" isn't enough to justify airstrikes.

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But for Israel, the daily shelling of civilians with rockets—homemade or not, events of recent days have proved that they are capable of killing—was much more than nagging. And Israeli leaders will claim that the response is far from disproportionate. "Our goal is not to reoccupy the Gaza Strip," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Asked if Israel was out to topple Gaza's Hamas rulers, she said, "Not now." If reinstating the status quo ante is the test of proportionality, then Israel passes with flying colors. All it wants to do—as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert explained—is "to improve the security reality of southern residents in a thorough manner." A modest goal for a prime minister who promised two years ago, during the war in Lebanon, to "operate in full force until we … take control and terminate … radical, terrorist, and violent elements."

Today, Olmert's Lebanon war is not seen as a great success. The more ambitious the leader, the greater the chance for failure. Olmert was far too ambitious in 2006, but he is rather sober today. So when Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post wrote that "Olmert badly miscalculated in launching the 2006 offensive against Hezbollah—and he's probably making the same mistake in Gaza," Diehl was the one making a questionable assumption. He assumed that Olmert's success will be measured by the ability of Hamas to retain its power: "Hamas … almost certainly will still control Gaza, and retain the capacity to strike Israel, when Olmert leaves office in a few months." But Olmert never promised Israelis that he would dismantle Hamas' rule in Gaza.

Of course, Olmert might be bluffing. Maybe his real goal is to uproot Hamas, a policy that some of his Cabinet members support. Even then, he would still be able to claim that a return to the status quo ante was all that Israel was trying to achieve. That is because ante also needs a clearer definition: Is it the ante just before the Lebanon war or the days before Hamas took over the Gaza strip (an action that was described as a "coup" not by Israel but by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas)?

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