To deter or to defeat
Hamas cannot be deterred; as the organization is struck, its support among the local population grows.
It is not only our naive foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who has announced that in the wake of the Gaza operation, Israel has restored its deterrent capability. Many of Israel's politicians are echoing this view. This would suggest that whereas Hamas did not hesitate to launch rockets against Israel's towns and villages over these past years, after the blows it took these past weeks it will not dare to do so again in the future.
Our military spokesmen boast of the blows Hamas has received, of the massive destruction of its infrastructure, of the hundreds of Hamas fighters who have been killed, and of the fact that a "price tag" has now been put on their rocket attacks against Israeli civilians, high enough to keep them from repeating such attacks in the future. Some even use the expression the "landlord has gone crazy" to express that from now on, Hamas will fear massive Israeli responses to any attacks. Enamored with the concept of deterrence, some even have gone so far as to claim that the blows delivered by the Israeli Air Force to Lebanese targets during the unsuccessful Second Lebanon War, nevertheless succeeded to reestablish Israel's deterrent capability in the north, as the recent Katyusha rockets that fell on Nahariya were no more than "an isolated incident."
Deterrence, after all, provides the best of all possible worlds - the enemy is deterred from launching aggressive action, war and the attendant loss of life is avoided, and in an atmosphere of stability, life can go on normally. The popularity of the concept of deterrence goes back to the Cold War, when the nuclear capabilities of the U.S. and the Soviet Union deterred both countries from launching nuclear strikes on each other. And in fact, the mutually assured destruction, even after being hit by a nuclear strike, was sufficient to establish a balance of terror.
This concept may apply to some of Israel's neighboring states, countries with considerable human and material assets that might be severely damaged by an Israeli response to aggression, and countries that have totalitarian governments whose rule might be endangered under such circumstances. Whether a nuclear Iran could be deterred by such considerations is not at all certain. That question is being pondered by decision makers in Jerusalem and Washington.
But deterring a terrorist organization is quite another matter. It does not seem likely that a terrorist organization could be deterred from pursuing its aims, which include terrorizing civilians. Terrorist organizations do not generally own substantial assets that are vulnerable to attack, and striking them seems to increase their support from their fanatical fans. Their leaders, if killed, are quickly replaced by others. No, Al Qaida cannot be deterred; it has to be defeated. The claim that Hezbollah has been deterred from using its massive rocket arsenal on Israel is based on the fact that since the cease-fire, their rockets have not struck Israel (except for the recent attack in the north). But it is far more likely that rather than being deterred by Israel, Hezbollah intends to move at the time and place of its choosing. The capability to strike is there, and the proverbial pistol in the first act will go off before the play is over.
Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel, cannot be deterred. As the organization is struck, its support among the local population grows, and its popularity among fundamentalist Muslims around the world increases. It attaches no value to life, whether Muslim or Jewish. Israel is concerned over the loss of life in the Gaza Strip during the current round of fighting, but Hamas is not. The infrastructure in Gaza, if destroyed or damaged, will quickly be rebuilt with foreign donations after the fighting is over. If a cease-fire is established before Hamas' rocket capability has been eliminated, the group will be seen as the victor.
The idea of deterring Hamas is a fantasy. Hamas has to be defeated. Defeating it means eliminating its ability to launch rockets at Israel, and that means that the IDF has to reach the areas where the rockets are being launched. When the rockets cease falling on Israel, it will be clear who won this conflict, and from that point all other issues regarding the presence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip can be dealt with.