Why Did Israel’s Deterrence Fail?

If deterrence is supposed to be about who’s the strongest, why did it fail in the Gaza strip?

The Gaza strip is a densely populated area about twice the size of Washington D.C. on the Mediterranean Sea bordering Egypt and Israel.  Under a series of agreements signed in the mid to late 1990s, Israel transferred its security and civilian responsibility to the Palestinian Authority (PA).  Not so surprisingly, autonomy was short-lived and Israel moved its military back in September 2000.  After much international effort, another “final settlement” was reached and Israel moved its forces and settlers out again, but then Hamas replaced the PA via local elections, and Gaza’s provocation towards its former master has been nearly nonstop.

The most provoking habit the folks running around the Gaza Strip have is their addiction to launching missiles into Israel.  Not that one missile isn’t enough to provoke a military response, but the missile launchings have numbered into the hundreds and even thousands.

After Israel had had enough, they initially inflicted punitive strikes on the police and Hamas headquarters throughout Gaza–assuming that even if a government wasn’t actually performing the indiscriminate attacks, they are responsible for policing the people within their border.

In the fighting that followed, it appeared Israel was trying to reduce Hamas’ leadership and their inventory of missiles.  The missiles are called Qassam rockets, which are basically three-foot to seven-foot long rolls of sheet metal (with fins) filled with 1 to 20 pounds of explosives made from fertilizer.  The largest missiles have a range up to ten miles.  Easy to make, easy to launch and run, hard to counter-fire against.

But the ability to launch rockets indiscriminately across the border pales in comparison to Israel’s Defense Force (IDF).

So why didn’t deterrence work?

The answer is fairly simple.  Hamas leadership decided it was worth more to fire the missiles than the price they would pay for firing them.

Sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?

Hamas’ objective appears to be acceptance and belonging to the community of Islamic governments around the world.  Sometimes it seems the only thing they completely agree on is that Israel needs to be destroyed.  Of course Hamas doesn’t have the power to push Israel into the sea, so they launch crude terror weapons to terrorize the Jews and to inspire those who hate the Jews. They’ve got enough sheet metal and fertilizer to keep building rockets for a long while.  The folks who launch the missiles require little training and support, thus they’re well inventoried to continue.  They probably feel quite good about themselves when they launch the missiles.  In addition, it appears that no contextual elements (population, legalities, economic, environmental, or diplomatic factors) work towards dissuading them at all.

Israel has plenty of military means and will to punish the Hamas-led Gaza Strip for their missile attacks– nobody believes Hamas could out fight the IDF.  Hobby-shop missiles can kill regular people going about their normal lives but they can’t stop a column of tanks.   But the attacks did increase Israel’s population and government support enough to persuade the IDF to strike back.

Almost immediately, journalist began to feed Americans and others stories about how disproportionate the use of force was.  Someone even said it wasn’t a fair fight.  Imagine that.   Does anyone really believe pirates should be fought with fishing boats, or a thug with a knife should be fought with a knife, or thieves should have their stuff stolen as punishment for their crimes?

No.  The forces that seek to stop pirates, thugs, thieves, or missile launching neighbors will always go in better armed, seeking to use overwhelming force to stop the activity.  That tactic is actually better for everyone.  When the sides are close to being evenly matched, the historically proven results is a protracted war of attrition–shades of Rome and Carthage or the American Civil War or World War II–thus bloodshed is greater.

So, knowing that Israel was so much more powerful than Hamas, why didn’t deterrence work?

Deterrence is a value-based decision equation, where the perceptions of the antagonist decide if deterrence will work or not.  The protagonist has to adjust the factors of the equation enough to tilt the value towards their desired outcome.

The equation looks like this:  If PV(cA/xA) > OV(e∆/x∆) then Σ∆ = a∆ = D

I know. It seems kind of complicated.

If you want to know all the details, you can read my book on line–or even buy a copy if you want to impress the folks you work with.  But for the sake of this specific situation, let me simplify it even more.

Basically everything–except the two objectives (PV and OV)–were the same values.  The unacceptable behavior (e∆) wasn’t just expected–it was on-going.  Some Hamas leaders have said the behavior was about security, but it seems more likely the actions were meant to insult or provoke Israel to military action with the firing of missiles in the quest of Hamas’ objective (OV), which is to belong  to the exclusive club of Islamic nations that hate the Jews.

The advertised threat (PV) from Israel was a military response to punish Hamas.  Which was limited to showing the world that Hamas is weak–which would reduce their esteem.  Israel has never tried to maximize death or destruction when they wage war. Their enemies know that.

Since “loss of esteem” is less valuable than “belonging to the club” the deterrence equation tipped to the right and the antagonist (Hamas) was not motivated to alter their behavior.  Thus deterrence failed.

When Israel executed the predictable punishment, Hamas defiantly continued to launch missiles.  So Israel was forced to attack other factors in the deterrence equation–they went after the will and the means of the antagonist to fire missiles at them.  Even though Hamas has lost some of its leadership and its fielded forces, it still has enough means to generate some missile attacks.  So they continued to fire missiles even after Israel declared a cease fire.

So did Israel’s actions solve anything?

Yes–a little–it reduced the means of the attacks but did not eliminate it.  So it has not solved the problem, its just made it more tolerable.

In order for the Israeli deterrence strategy to have worked with Hamas, they needed to reduce Hamas’s ability to produce and launch the cheap rockets down to zero.  Not very easy.

The Gaza strip area would have to be reduced nearly back to the stone age to make that possible.  For now, not even Israel is ready to extract that price from the people who live there.

Does that mean Israel can’t deter the firing of missiles at them?

No.  Deterrence can work, but the factors of Israel’s deterrence strategy must change.  Before they can have successful deterrence, Israel has to up the ante.

When the certainty of success is congruent on both sides of the deterrence equation, the precious possession has to be more valuable than the value of the antagonists objective.   Possessions are myriad but can be placed in one of five main categories:

    Category of Values       Relative Values
        Survival                  Highest
        Security                  High
        Belonging                 Middle
        Esteem                    Low
        Actualization             Lowest


Israel’s deterrence planners need to select an objective that has a value at least equal to the category of “belonging” or of a higher value, and the value standard has to be according to the value-set of the antagonist decision-makers.  Then Israel needs the antagonist to be certain that they will follow through with divesting Hamas of that particular precious possession unless they alter their behavior.  Only then, will deterrence be successful.

Deterrence is a little like a dance.

It takes two to tango.  The protagonist must lead by providing the motivation.  The antagonist follows by deciding if the motivation is sufficient for deterrence.

It just makes sense.

One Response to “Why Did Israel’s Deterrence Fail?”

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