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Flaws in Israel's 'punish and deter' strategy

As Israeli tanks and reservists gather at the Israeli-Gaza border, Meron Rapoport outlines the strategy that may explain their next moves
Dahiya in Arabic means 'suburb' or 'outskirts'. In Beirut, when you are speaking about al-Dahiya, you are talking about a large, mainly Shia suburb in the southern part of the city. In Israeli military jargon, Dahiya is more than a place. It's the name of a military strategy of using "disproportionate force" against any attack on Israel in order to "punish and deter", according to the drafters of this theory. It's a theory applied in Lebanon in 2006, against Dahiya quarter, and one applied again and again, and once again this week in Gaza.
In 2006, Hezbollah's headquarters were set in the heart of the Dahiya neighbourhood. When Hezbollah sent rockets flying at an army patrol on the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two, its headquarters were the first location Israel bombed in retaliation. The result of the attack was devastating. A ten-story building collapsed and the centre of Dahiya was levelled to the ground.  
Two years later, Colonel Dr Gabi Siboni, then the head of the Program on Military and Strategic Affairs in Israel's Institution for National Security Studies (INSS) and a personal friend of some of Israel's leading generals, wrote that the idea behind the theory was "to hit and punish in dimensions which will require long and costly reconstruction efforts . . . A response meant to foster a long living memory . . . to deepen the deterrence and postpone action against Israel for years."
The truth is that the attack on Dahiya was not the first time Israel used this method of applying its air force and artillery in order to "punish and deter" the other side, be it Hezbollah or Hamas. In 1996, Shimon Peres, then prime minister, ordered a massive attack on southern Lebanon which ended only after Israeli artillery shells killed more than 100 civilians who had sought shelter in a UN facility in Qana. In the beginning of July 2006, just a few weeks before the war with Hezbollah, Israel reacted heavily to the kidnapping of one of its soldiers on the border with Gaza. Operation Summer Rains (the Israeli army is very imaginative with names) resulted in 163 Palestinians killed, of whom 78 were not involved in the fighting, according to data given by B'tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. Similar operations with similar results were held in recent years in the Gaza Strip. 
The war against Hezbollah in 2006 happened on a much larger scale. It took more than five weeks and casualties were much higher: 165 Israelis killed, including 44 civilians, and 1,091 Lebanese killed, at least 900 of whom were civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. It wasn't only the centre of Dahiya that was wiped out. Villages and towns all over southern Lebanon were very heavily bombarded and damaged. Yet naming this strategy as a theory was justified not only because of the sheer size of the destruction, but also because it served as kind of excuse the generals gave to the Israeli public, most of whom perceived the war as a failure. The Israeli army had failed to stop Hezbollah's missiles from attacking Israel. The army was forced to explain why and to insure the public it wouldn't happen again. 
Two years later, the theory was formalised in 2008. Major General Gadi Eizenkot, than head of the Northern Command and current deputy chief of staff, coined the term Dahiya Theory in an interview to Yediot Ahronot. The idea that the army should chase every rocket launcher was "complete nonsense"', according to Eizenkot. Israel should concentrate on deterrence, he said, and what we had witnessed in the Dahiya would be doubled next time. "Against every village from which they will fire on Israel, we will apply disproportionate force and inflict damage and destruction… This is not a recommendation. This is the plan and it was approved."
In retrospect, this theory allowed the army to depict the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel as a success. If Hezbollah stopped firing on Israel after 2006, goes the theory, it is not because it achieved its aims like releasing all Lebanese prisoners in Israeli prisons or because it is now part of the Lebanese government. Or because the political landscape in Lebanon has changed. It is because the destruction of Dahiya and dozens of villages and towns and Israel's "disproportionate" reaction deterred Hezbollah from going to war against it again. Yet more important than explaining the past, this theory gave a platform for the future. The more aggressive Israel will be, the less regard it has for humanitarian consequences, it will better achieve its goals of buying relative calm - a calm built on fear, not on political settlement. 
This strategy is the basis of every Israeli military operation in Gaza since 2006. It manifested itself most during operation Cast Lead which began in December 2008, only a few months after Eizenkot's interview. As part of this deterrence policy, combined with the understandable reluctance with risking the lives of its soldiers, Israel applied very aggressive methods in populated areas in the Gaza Strip. The result: 1,391 Palestinians were killed during the 21 days of the operation. There are questions about how many of those killed actually participated in the fighting. Israel says most of them did. B'tselem says 759 of those killed, most of whom were women and children didn't. But there is no question that the Dahiya Theory of using disproportionate force was central to this operation.
But if the main goal of this strategy is to deter, to discourage Hamas from firing rockets into Israel, it seems that it just doesn't work. The current operation, Solid Rock (the official English name is Defensive Edge), is the fifth in the last eight years, one every year and half. It seems that even the military gave up the pretence that it will be able to stop rockets being fired on Israel. As Eisenkot said, the Israeli army has no intention or possibility to chase down every rocket launcher, neither does it want to invade and occupy the Gaza Strip. The price to be paid in the lives of Israeli soldiers would be too high. It prefers now to make Hamas and the Palestinian population in general "pay a price", even if that means targeting the private homes of Hamas or Islamic Jihad activists, killing them and their neighbours at the same time.
But the main blame doesn't lie with the army. More than a military strategy aimed at Hamas or Hezbollah, the Dahiya Theory is a political strategy aimed at the Israeli society. When Israeli civilians are hurt, be it by the kidnapping of three teenagers in the West Bank or missiles attacks from Gaza, they expect a response. They do not have the patience to investigate who is responsible for this situation, for this escalation. That is quite normal. But as the Israeli government and politicians fail to offer them any path leading to a settlement with the Palestinians, the only response they can give their public is the promise to "punish" those responsible for these attacks. This is where the Dahiya Theory fits in. Nobody really believes it will work or be able to stop or even delay future attacks for too long. But it gives a meaning and a purpose to all of these repeated bursts of violence.
It is too early to say how and when this round of violence will end. Calls for a ground operation are growing stronger, but it is quite clear that such an operation will not destroy Hamas' ability to launch rockets on Israel. It will just lead to more bloodshed. The Israeli army, with all its mighty power, is just a tool in this bloody game. 

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo credit: Israeli soldiers gather in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on Thursday (AFP)

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