The Self-Fulfilling Dahiya Doctrine

In light of the encouraging reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be moderating his position toward peace, I wanted to bring attention to this revealing New York Times article published on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Not out of some desire to counter good news with bad. But rather, the juxtaposition of these two stories could easily be described as a lesson in the futility of intransigence.

The Times describes the pervading security mindset within Israel, one which emphasizes the need to “shorten and intensify the period of fighting and to lengthen the period [of relative peace] between rounds.” That is, Israeli security officials make the calculation that because conflict of some sort is inevitable, be it with Hezbollah or Hamas or even perhaps Iran down the road, it is in Israel’s best interest to maximize its firepower in brief bursts to temporarily subdue the enemy, ostensibly ensuring a longer peacetime environment before the next campaign is needed. In a modern era of asymmetric warfare, they view this as preferable to a drawn out guerrilla conflict that would cost countless more lives and drain Israel’s economy.

This formulation has become known as the Dahiya Doctrine, named after the Shi’a district in Beirut destroyed during Israel’s war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. It calls for the disproportionate use of force. It does not distinguish between military compounds and the civilian properties that immediately surround them. It seeks to crush vital infrastructure. But above all, it does these things in order to set a memorable precedent. Attack Israel, and it will respond ten-fold.

It reminds me of an episode of the television show “The West Wing,” during which President Bartlet argues with his security team about how to respond to a recent terrorist attack: 

Bartlet: What's the virtue of the proportional response?

Admiral Fitzwallace: I'm sorry?

Bartlet: What is the virtue of a proportional response? Why's it good? They hit an airplane, so we hit a transmitter, right? That's a proportional response. They hit a barracks, so we hit two transmitters.

Admiral Fitzwallace: Yes, that's roughly it, sir.

Bartlet: This is what we do. I mean, this is what we do.

Leo: Yes sir, it's what we do. It's what we've always done.

Bartlet: Well, if it's what we do, if it's what we've always done, don't they know we're going to do it? I ask again, what is the virtue of a Proportional Response?

Admiral Fitzwallace: It isn't virtuous, Mr. President. It's all there is, sir.

Bartlet: It is not all there is.

Admiral Fitzwallace: Just what else is there?

Bartlet: The disproportional response. Let the word ring forth, from this time and this place, gentlemen, you kill an American, any American, we don't come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!

This is, perhaps, the single most accurate and concise description of Israeli military strategy in Gaza last year, first set forth in Lebanon in 2006.

Without going into the legality (much less morality) of this sort of doctrine, it behooves us to consider its utility in concert with negotiating an arc toward peace. Can a Dahiya Doctrine coexist with reconciliation? Or more precisely, does it contain the ability to lay the groundwork for reconciliation? It’s possible that the answer to this question contains a clue about the Israeli government’s actual commitment to a lasting peace and a normalization of relations with the Palestinians.

A simple way to tackle this issue is to look at a recent case study. According to independent sources, Israel’s use of the Dahiya Doctrine in Gaza last year resulted in around 1,000 civilian deaths, 700 of whom were adults. If we assume that nearly all of those adults had families, and incorporate the fact that the average birthrate in Gaza is approximately five children per family, there are somewhere around 3,500 kids who are now parentless as a result of Operation Cast Lead. (While it’s probable that some of those adult casualties were from the same family, thus reducing the total number of orphan children in this equation, others were surely grandparents with significantly more offspring than the average of five. So 3,500 may in fact be a reasonable estimate.)

Now to Hamas. It is a religious movement that draws upon a particular form of militant Islamism to be sure, but its core power lies in its ability to mobilize Palestinian society toward its unique ideological brand, and away from all others. In order to survive, Hamas must constantly demonstrate not only its valuable service to society, but its invaluable service to society. This is nothing more than social movement theory 101. Using this context, the Dahiya Doctrine, with the approximately 3,500 vulnerable children it left behind in Gaza, all but assured Hamas a future base from which to draw vital support. Humans are at their most vulnerable, their most impressionable, during their formative years. And these children’s formative years were dramatically and irreparably impacted by Israel.

Of course, there are a multitude of other factors at play here, and it would be a mistake to imply that this is the only propaganda tool in Hamas’ public relations arsenal. Further, it’s important to note that there are clear cases of Hamas using civilians as human shields, as well as purposefully setting up military headquarters in crowded civilian neighborhoods to ensure international outrage if Israel launched a strike. But it would also be a mistake to ignore a pattern at work here. The Dahiya Doctrine is, in the end, self-fulfilling. Though its raison d’etre comes from the assumption that conflict between Israel and its immediate neighbors is inevitable, it’s increasingly apparent that the overwhelming and disproportionate use of force does little more than set the stage for the next round of violence in a year, or two, or perhaps fifteen. In other words, the Doctrine helps to foment and maintain the very environment it purportedly seeks to subdue.

And was anything gained as a result? Did Israel accomplish anything of lasting strategic value? The tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle weapons were only temporarily damaged by Israel, and are reportedly back in use. There were recent reports of Hamas acquiring longer-range missiles that could strike Israeli cities beyond the relatively sparsely populated Negev desert. The regular barrage of missile attacks has stopped, yes, but that fact cannot be used as an indicator of Hamas’ organizational strength. It is just as entrenched in the Palestinian community as ever, and retains the ability to monopolize authority and squeeze out those who wish to moderate. And let us not forget the international condemnation of Israeli actions and the Goldstone Report which forever documented the destruction and formalized the findings.

This is why Netanyahu, despite his apparent newfound willingness to negotiate, has not made any headway. There simply isn’t a partner on the other side. The Palestinian community is fractured, and even moderates like Mahmoud Abbas are reticent to join Netanyahu in negotiations for fear of backlash from their own political base. It’s not that the Palestinians don’t want peace—no group wants it more—but the Dahiya Doctrine represents the antithesis of peace in their eyes, and you can’t enter into negotiations when Israel is holding all of the meaningful cards and retains a looming military policy that may be unleashed, even if a few Israelis are hurt by Palestinian militants.

So it appears that Netanyahu will continue to make peaceful overtures, which will not be reciprocated by his Palestinian counterparts. This costs Netanyahu nothing, and may even reap dividends. In the battle of perception that defines so much of this conflict, perhaps Netanyahu is betting that this dynamic will give him leverage over the international community who may begin to see the Palestinians, and not the Israelis, as the recalcitrant party in the region. If that happens, Palestinians will almost certainly feel pressured to concede much more ground then in previous rounds of peace talks.

All this goes by way of saying that the Dahiya Doctrine may in fact be designed to promote a negotiated peace—but for whom, in what capacity, and at what cost? For the time being, it has only contributed to a stalemated environment, and possibly an entire generation of disaffected youth. For those of us who desperately want to see Israel achieve peace, and believe a fair and honest negotiated settlement is the only way to get there, the self-fulfilling Dahiya Doctrine is moving the process in the wrong direction.

This article is simultaneously published with our partner site, World Policy Journal

Benjamin Netanyahu, Gaza, Israel, Mahmoud Abbas, Military, Palestine, Peace