Gaza and the Failure of Deterrence

Every day in the Gaza Strip, strategic deterrence – the inhibition of attack by a fear of punishment backed up by superior military power – is being put to the test. The escalating spiral of violence by Israel and Gazan militants indicates not only that deterrence is failing, but also that its effectiveness depends on adherence to fundamental standards of morality.

Some security strategists and just war theorists argue that there may be nothing morally objectionable about deterrence in cases where the lives and welfare of a civilian population are not directly affected. The threat of retaliation that underpins its strategic effectiveness remains implicit and hypothetical. However, when deterrence becomes indistinguishable from collective punishment – barred under international law by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – it is far less likely to achieve its intended result.

Israel, which withdrew unilaterally to the periphery of Gaza in September 2005, has been seeking to prevent Palestinian resistance fighters from lobbing rockets into its territory. Shortly after redeploying to the borders of Gaza, Israel severely restricted ties between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as the movement of goods in or out of Gaza. When a pro-Hamas parliament was elected in a free and fair election in January 2006, the United States and Israel led a campaign to prevent all banks, including Arab and Islamic banks, from dealing with the new government.

Israel has consistently rejected Hamas’s repeated offers of a cease-fire agreement in exchange for the lifting of the siege on Gaza. Public opinion polls carried out by the Dialog company and published in the Israeli daily Haaretz have shown that 64% of Israelis support an official dialogue with Hamas. But the Israeli government and army refuse, calling Hamas “terrorists” in order to deny them legitimacy, despite previously reaching understandings in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, which they also consider a “terrorist organization.”