The following is by Thomas Mitchell, Ph. D., an independent scholar who occasionally contributes to this blog:
For some 55 out of Israel’s 60 years of existence, Israel and the Arabs have been playing out a long-term strategic game. The Arabs, unable to beat Israel in a conventional war and destroy it or force it to peace on their terms, have preferred a strategy of attrition carried out through Palestinian fedayeen or self-sacrificers. The Palestinian fedayeen usually pursued a terrorist strategy of attacking civilian targets on the grounds that no Israelis were innocent and therefore all were legitimate targets—the argument of terrorists everywhere. Israel attempted to counter them through a series of defensive measures such as roving patrols, minefields, electrified fences, etc. But some of the fedayeen always got through and caused Israeli civilian casualties.
Israel therefore developed the strategy of retaliation. It would respond periodically with disproportionate attacks on the infrastructure of the country that the attacks were coming from. Usually it was police stations or even army bases—security infrastructure. This led to a series of escalations resulting in a conventional war followed by a period of quiet.
There was a period of Palestinian infiltration from 1949-56, followed by Israeli reprisals from 1953 to 1956, supported by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Dayan. This is the period in which Arik Sharon first became a household name in Israel as he was the instrument of Israeli retaliation. This cycle ended with Israeli collaboration with Britain and France in an attack on Egypt that resulted in severe embarrassment for the Europeans and ten years of relative peace and quiet for Israel.
Yasir Arafat, George Habash and Ahmed Jibril began the second round in the mid-1960s with Syrian-sponsored terrorist attacks carried out through the territory of Jordan and Lebanon. Israeli retaliation for these strikes and attacks on Syria’s attempt to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River led to the June 1967 war. This war tripled the size of the territory that Jerusalem controlled but led to less than a year of peace before Fatah and the other Palestinian fedayeen organizations were embarking on a new round of terror attacks.
The IDF fought a war of attrition with Palestinian infiltrators along the Jordan River that escalated when Egypt joined in along the Suez Canal in March 1969. The Israeli Air Force devastated the Egyptian economy with attacks on Egypt’s economic infrastructure in reprisal for Egyptian shelling of Israeli troops along the canal. This round ended in a cease-fire along the Canal negotiated by the Americans, the death of Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser from a heart attack and the Jordanian civil war. A multiple hijacking of airliners carried out by the PFLP and threats against the hostages held within Jordan forced King Hussein to move against the fedayeen and expel them from Jordan.
The fedayeen then moved to southern Lebanon—Fatahland—where they had the sanction of the Arab League and a weak Lebanese government to operate against Israel. After several years of attacks and reprisals Israel began intervening in the Lebanese civil war that broke out in April 1975 on the side of the Christians. Seven years later Sharon and Menahem Begin, with the partial consent of the government, invaded Lebanon and drove the PLO out of Fatahland and Beirut.
An Israeli occupation quickly turned the Shia population of southern Lebanon from allies into deadly enemies and Hezbollah was born under Iranian sponsorship. Hezbollah conducted a deadly and skilled war of attrition against the IDF and its Lebanese allies for the next eighteen years until the Israel public finally decided that Israeli interests in Lebanon weren’t worth the casualties. Israel withdrew from Lebanon unilaterally and the Arabs proclaimed their first military victory against Israel (they also proclaimed one in October 1973, but few took that claim seriously).
Hamas was born in the first Intifada and came of age during the Oslo period. In October 2000 a fourth series of attacks and reprisals began with the Al-Aksa Intifada. From 2001 to 2004, Israel carried out a series of raids and invasions into the West Bank to deal with the suicide bombings perpetrated by the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat was isolated, quarantined in his Ramallah compound, and stripped of Western influence until his death. Finally, Israeli casualties were brought to a more acceptable level.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from this sad history. First, Israel has always held the landlords rather than the tenants responsible for bad behavior. Second, the initial result of Israel’s strategy is escalation and a rise to the level of violence and suffering but eventually a catharsis is reached. Third, this strategy has come about because of an Arab refusal to deal with Israel. This was initially a general refusal, then a Palestinian refusal and finally a refusal just by the Islamist radicals. Fourth, this strategy has over time caused various Arab actors to drop out of the Arab consensus. First, Egypt exited in 1974, followed by Jordan in 1994 (although in practice, decades earlier), and the PLO in 1993 and 2004. Today, only Iran and its Syrian ally and its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas remain in the consensus of rejection. Fifth, this strategy has unpredictable results over the medium term. An ineffectual Palestinian threat in southern Lebanon was replaced by a very serious Hezbollah Shia threat.
Before the Arabs saw Israel as a second South Africa or Algeria they saw it as a modern Crusader state. The Crusaders lasted for two centuries in the Holy Land from 1099 to 1291. Crusader and Arab/Saracen fortunes varied during that period. Arab rejectionists take the long view and figure that time is on their side. Israel also believes, incorrectly, that time is on its side.
The Crusaders survived as long as they did because they were able to negotiate truces with the Saracens, particularly with Salah al-Din. All Israeli actions should be aimed at enhancing negotiations with the relevant authorities that will result in peace on acceptable terms. Hamas is now the landlord in Gaza.