Israel's Addiction to Military Force, Its Only Response in Times of Crisis

Amnesia, or even insanity, must lie behind Israel’s constantly repeated, but spectacularly ineffective, reliance on massive military force when its citizens are abducted.

Emily L. Hauser
Emily L. Hauser
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IDF soldiers take part in searches for the three kidnapped teenagers, near Hebron, June 21, 2014.
IDF soldiers take part in searches for the three kidnapped teenagers, near Hebron, June 21, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Emily L. Hauser
Emily L. Hauser

People have short memories. It’s an all-too-human quality that frankly allows politics to continue. But even so, there are times when Israelis’ short-term memory loss can leave me breathless.

When three yeshiva students were kidnapped two weeks ago, the collective response was immediate, and visceral: Bring the boys home, and spare no effort, no matter how costly or violent. The nation’s security forces leapt into action, and Israelis’ prayers were mixed with palpable rage. Few worried that dozens and then hundreds of people – Palestinians -were being swept up in a massive and indiscriminate dragnet; few paused to consider the efficacy or ethics of raiding well more than a thousand targets, including private homes, universities, and media outlets; few questioned the wisdom of using live fire against those who dared protest it all, killing (among others) a 15-year old boy and a mentally unstable man on his way to morning prayers. Military spokesman Peter Lerner told us, and few questioned it, that the government and military “are committed to resolving the kidnapping and debilitating Hamas terrorist capacities, its infrastructure and its recruiting institutions.”

And perhaps – perhaps – if these methods had successfully resolved past abductions, if the forces intent on grabbing Israelis had abated, perhaps we could at least understand the impetus, struggle as we might with the unending horror of this unending war. But the simple fact is that all of these methods, all of them, have been used time and again, and all have failed spectacularly.

I don’t ask that our memories be terribly long. Just 25 years, a single generation. Consider Nissim Toledano, Nahshon Waxman, Avi Sasportas, Ilan Saadon, Yaron Chen, Ehud Goldwasser, and Eldad Regev, and ask yourself if massive, indiscriminate Israeli reaction to the capture of those men helped them in any way. For that matter, consider Gilad Shalit. He did come home, thank God, but it wasn’t because of wars, or raids, or crackdowns. It was because of a prisoner swap that tore the Israeli people apart.

Contrary to the heartbreaking list above, neither Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, nor Naftali Fraenkel were wearing an IDF uniform when they were taken, so their capture was (if anything) even worse – a war crime, in fact, because targeting noncombatants is a war crime, even if those doing the targeting suffer the consequences of a political ideology that undergirds the noncombatants’ living arrangements. That the three were hitchhiking in occupied territory does not change their noncombatant status.

Yet the fact that they remain missing points to another fact that hasn’t changed: Israel has never managed to demolish, destroy, or debilitate the capacities, infrastructure or recruiting of anyone. These massive operations, down to and including those campaigns that were as good as wars (eg: 2006’s Operation Summer Rains) or were, in fact, actual wars (Lebanon 2006, Gaza 2009, Gaza 2012) may have killed hundreds and hundreds of people, decimated the infrastructure of whole communities, even disrupted the operations of Hezbollah, Hamas, et al, for a time – but I think we all know the answer as to whether any of these groups have ever been “debilitated.”

It’s always the same blistering bluster, the same ferocious promises, rinse and repeat, as if we’ve never heard any of it before. I’ve been reporting on the Israeli government’s insistence that it was about to deliver a death blow to Hamas since 1994, and here we are. Again. Twenty years later.

All of this is, to put it mildly, the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. I do not know, we do not know, no one inside or outside of Israel knows, what would happen if Israel tried something fundamentally different, but we do know what happens every time Israel does this: It looks just like every other time Israel did it.

I cannot even begin to imagine what the families of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel are going through right now, and I fervently hope that each young man is returned safely and soon to those who love them.

But there is a larger question at stake, one that encompasses every Israeli: How is the country to go forward? Successive Israeli governments have proven – again and again and again – that they are incapable of militarily eliminating the threat posed by forces hostile to Israel’s citizens. Will the country’s leaders begin to ask different questions, and seek different answers?

Or will they simply bank on the fact that the people they serve are likely to forget their incompetence, once more time?

Emily L. Hauser is an American-Israeli writer currently living in Chicago. She has studied and reported on the contemporary Middle East since the early 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Chicago Tribune and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter: @emilylhauser

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