Retribution Not Messaging is What Israel Needs

As Israel embarks on yet another operation against Hamas and by extension its new governmental partner, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, it might do well to reconsider why Israeli deterrent “messaging” doesn’t seem to get through to the Palestinian Arabs.

“Messaging” may seem like an odd term to use when referring to a military operation, but under Israel’s current military doctrine, that is exactly the intent of its current operation and the two that preceded it (Pillar of Defense and Cast Lead), as well as Israel’s 2007 Lebanon campaign. Israel no longer seeks to win wars, or even to exact retribution. Rather it operates to convince its adversaries to improve their conduct through carefully modulated military operations.  

There are many inside and outside the Israeli political/military establishment who consider this policy a success. They might point to the relative quiet on the Lebanon border since 2007, or periods of relative calm along the Gaza border following each Israeli operation in that area. But such assertions carry loads of caveats. 

Israel’s Lebanon border has remained relatively quiet, but Hizb'allah, in violation of the cease-fire agreement, has vastly increased its military capabilities. The calm there is likely due more to the influence of Hizb'allah’s patron Iran, than Israeli messaging. Hizb’allah serves Iran as a potent deterrent to any Israeli operation against its nuclear facilities. And over the past year Hizb’allah has been very busy fighting in Syria. It will likely emerge from that conflict more confident, battle hardened, and aggressive than ever.

With the Palestinian Arabs, the idea that Israel’s messaging works depends, as a certain former president might say, on your definition of “quiet.” Israel’s Gaza border is never quiet in the sense that any other country judges its borders quiet. Nor are the Palestinian-governed areas of the West Bank really quiet. Hamas and other Palestinian groups attack Israel all the time, just not with the frequency and range of targets that occur during “flare-ups” like we have now. The year after Israel’s “successful” Pillar of Defense operation (2013) saw a doubling of terror attacks according to Israel’s internal security force, Shin Bet

The current flare-up, beyond being related to the ill-advised and farcical Kerry/Obama peace attempt, stems directly from the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank, and a subsequent revenge murder by a few Israeli civilians. 

The murders and revenge murder allow us to cut through a lot of the cant and blather and get to the heart of the matter. We’ll start with a rhetorical question.

What is the most fundamental function of government? Is it providing free contraceptives to sexually active young women? Stirring up public hysteria over planetary climate cycles? Providing food, shelter and comfort for illegal aliens? Defending the nation against attack? You get a zero if you answered yes to any of the above. The most fundamental government function, at the most basic level, is exacting revenge.

Common defense in humans is instinctive, as it is in most social animals. Wolves and lions don’t need governmental structures to defend the pack or pride. Even social insects organize common defenses. 

On the other hand, seeking vengeance seems to be an instinctive but very human trait. In hunter-gatherer societies, where the family/clan is the only social unit, it is the responsibility of that unit, or a designee, to exact vengeance. As clans evolved into tribes and the first proto-governmental structures evolved, exacting vengeance became a tribal/governmental imperative, just as families/clans had functioned on a smaller scale for most of human prehistory. 

This was a critical step in the evolution of larger human organization. The family/clan surrendered the responsibility and freedom of exacting vengeance in return for the tribe’s assurance that it would get the job done. 

As tribes turned into civilizations and individuals and families surrendered more and more freedom and power to government, exacting revenge against enemies, foreign or domestic, became a complex aspect of governance that increasingly attenuated natural human aggression and the desire for vengeance from its actual implementation. Today, especially in advanced Western societies, exacting revenge is actively discouraged. Governments have increasingly abrogated this responsibility, seeing as “uncivilized.”

However, in tribal societies, the concept of vengeance attacks remains alive and well.

Arab societies, especially Palestinian Arab society, remain essentially tribal. Arabs have always been a tribal people. Muhammad united the Arabs for the first time under the banner of Islam, but for the most part it did not take. Upon his death there was immediate dispute over whether his successor should be a blood relation, which resulted in the Sunni/Shia schism which persists violently to this day.

The first real Arab civil government (technically the second caliphate) was the Umayyad Caliphate, which lasted less than a century, and was riven by factional disputes, during which time three “Muslim civil wars” were fought. As in this period, almost all Muslims were Arabs -- Islam having not yet become a true universalist religion -- these were essentially Arab tribal wars.

The succeeding Abbasid Caliphate was Arab only in name. It was administered largely by Persians and later Turks. Well before the Abbasid’s fall to the Mongols in 1258, the Arab experiment in non-tribal centralized government essentially came to an end.  And while the Arabs have had, and continue to have, the odd kingdom or “country” here and there, they remain an essentially tribal people. Current events stretching across the Arab world, from Tunis to Baghdad, bear this out. The Palestinian refusal to accept a state, though offered many times, is part and parcel of this phenomenon.   

Much of Israel’s problem in dealing with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians Arabs operate on tribal imperatives, while the Israelis try to address them in terms acceptable to modern Western sensibilities. It doesn’t work, and never will work. Polls show that most ordinary Palestinian Arabs want to continue the conflict with Israel, and support rocket fire and attacks against Israeli population centers. This is part of a bottomless need for vengeance dating from the so-called Nabka -- the Palestinian term for the "disaster" stemming from the founding of Israel. That the Nabka was inflicted on the Arabs by Jews -- an inferior people in the Arab/Muslim psyche -- makes the need for ongoing vengeance even more acute. Nothing short of the destruction of the enemy (Israel and the Jews) will satiate it. Moreover, the creation of a “Palestinian” state has nothing to do with it. 

In the decades after its founding, Israeli governments, acting as effective governments must, engaged in purely retaliatory actions in response to Arab attacks, punctuated here and there by punishing military campaigns that allowed the tiny state to grow and prosper, and which eventually forced peace agreements (Egypt and Jordan) or long-term armistice (Syria.)

But with the Palestinian Arabs, for a variety of reasons, the Israelis long ago ceased to operate on a retributive basis, and rather have sought to appease them through grants of territory (Gaza and much of the West Bank), release of captives, and tribute (disguised as aid.)  After the heinous slaying of the Israeli teens, the Israeli government typically failed to act. This proved too much for some Israelis, and a small number sought retribution on their own, slaying (in equally heinous fashion) an Arab teen. 

The current Gaza operation is not retributive either. It continues to be a “messaging operation” in accord with Israeli doctrine, and so a futile operation, as recent history has shown. Until an Israeli government realizes and acknowledges this, Israeli will continue to fight one war, while the Arabs fight another. It is a war Israel might still lose.

As Israel embarks on yet another operation against Hamas and by extension its new governmental partner, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, it might do well to reconsider why Israeli deterrent “messaging” doesn’t seem to get through to the Palestinian Arabs.

“Messaging” may seem like an odd term to use when referring to a military operation, but under Israel’s current military doctrine, that is exactly the intent of its current operation and the two that preceded it (Pillar of Defense and Cast Lead), as well as Israel’s 2007 Lebanon campaign. Israel no longer seeks to win wars, or even to exact retribution. Rather it operates to convince its adversaries to improve their conduct through carefully modulated military operations.  

There are many inside and outside the Israeli political/military establishment who consider this policy a success. They might point to the relative quiet on the Lebanon border since 2007, or periods of relative calm along the Gaza border following each Israeli operation in that area. But such assertions carry loads of caveats. 

Israel’s Lebanon border has remained relatively quiet, but Hizb'allah, in violation of the cease-fire agreement, has vastly increased its military capabilities. The calm there is likely due more to the influence of Hizb'allah’s patron Iran, than Israeli messaging. Hizb’allah serves Iran as a potent deterrent to any Israeli operation against its nuclear facilities. And over the past year Hizb’allah has been very busy fighting in Syria. It will likely emerge from that conflict more confident, battle hardened, and aggressive than ever.

With the Palestinian Arabs, the idea that Israel’s messaging works depends, as a certain former president might say, on your definition of “quiet.” Israel’s Gaza border is never quiet in the sense that any other country judges its borders quiet. Nor are the Palestinian-governed areas of the West Bank really quiet. Hamas and other Palestinian groups attack Israel all the time, just not with the frequency and range of targets that occur during “flare-ups” like we have now. The year after Israel’s “successful” Pillar of Defense operation (2013) saw a doubling of terror attacks according to Israel’s internal security force, Shin Bet

The current flare-up, beyond being related to the ill-advised and farcical Kerry/Obama peace attempt, stems directly from the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank, and a subsequent revenge murder by a few Israeli civilians. 

The murders and revenge murder allow us to cut through a lot of the cant and blather and get to the heart of the matter. We’ll start with a rhetorical question.

What is the most fundamental function of government? Is it providing free contraceptives to sexually active young women? Stirring up public hysteria over planetary climate cycles? Providing food, shelter and comfort for illegal aliens? Defending the nation against attack? You get a zero if you answered yes to any of the above. The most fundamental government function, at the most basic level, is exacting revenge.

Common defense in humans is instinctive, as it is in most social animals. Wolves and lions don’t need governmental structures to defend the pack or pride. Even social insects organize common defenses. 

On the other hand, seeking vengeance seems to be an instinctive but very human trait. In hunter-gatherer societies, where the family/clan is the only social unit, it is the responsibility of that unit, or a designee, to exact vengeance. As clans evolved into tribes and the first proto-governmental structures evolved, exacting vengeance became a tribal/governmental imperative, just as families/clans had functioned on a smaller scale for most of human prehistory. 

This was a critical step in the evolution of larger human organization. The family/clan surrendered the responsibility and freedom of exacting vengeance in return for the tribe’s assurance that it would get the job done. 

As tribes turned into civilizations and individuals and families surrendered more and more freedom and power to government, exacting revenge against enemies, foreign or domestic, became a complex aspect of governance that increasingly attenuated natural human aggression and the desire for vengeance from its actual implementation. Today, especially in advanced Western societies, exacting revenge is actively discouraged. Governments have increasingly abrogated this responsibility, seeing as “uncivilized.”

However, in tribal societies, the concept of vengeance attacks remains alive and well.

Arab societies, especially Palestinian Arab society, remain essentially tribal. Arabs have always been a tribal people. Muhammad united the Arabs for the first time under the banner of Islam, but for the most part it did not take. Upon his death there was immediate dispute over whether his successor should be a blood relation, which resulted in the Sunni/Shia schism which persists violently to this day.

The first real Arab civil government (technically the second caliphate) was the Umayyad Caliphate, which lasted less than a century, and was riven by factional disputes, during which time three “Muslim civil wars” were fought. As in this period, almost all Muslims were Arabs -- Islam having not yet become a true universalist religion -- these were essentially Arab tribal wars.

The succeeding Abbasid Caliphate was Arab only in name. It was administered largely by Persians and later Turks. Well before the Abbasid’s fall to the Mongols in 1258, the Arab experiment in non-tribal centralized government essentially came to an end.  And while the Arabs have had, and continue to have, the odd kingdom or “country” here and there, they remain an essentially tribal people. Current events stretching across the Arab world, from Tunis to Baghdad, bear this out. The Palestinian refusal to accept a state, though offered many times, is part and parcel of this phenomenon.   

Much of Israel’s problem in dealing with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians Arabs operate on tribal imperatives, while the Israelis try to address them in terms acceptable to modern Western sensibilities. It doesn’t work, and never will work. Polls show that most ordinary Palestinian Arabs want to continue the conflict with Israel, and support rocket fire and attacks against Israeli population centers. This is part of a bottomless need for vengeance dating from the so-called Nabka -- the Palestinian term for the "disaster" stemming from the founding of Israel. That the Nabka was inflicted on the Arabs by Jews -- an inferior people in the Arab/Muslim psyche -- makes the need for ongoing vengeance even more acute. Nothing short of the destruction of the enemy (Israel and the Jews) will satiate it. Moreover, the creation of a “Palestinian” state has nothing to do with it. 

In the decades after its founding, Israeli governments, acting as effective governments must, engaged in purely retaliatory actions in response to Arab attacks, punctuated here and there by punishing military campaigns that allowed the tiny state to grow and prosper, and which eventually forced peace agreements (Egypt and Jordan) or long-term armistice (Syria.)

But with the Palestinian Arabs, for a variety of reasons, the Israelis long ago ceased to operate on a retributive basis, and rather have sought to appease them through grants of territory (Gaza and much of the West Bank), release of captives, and tribute (disguised as aid.)  After the heinous slaying of the Israeli teens, the Israeli government typically failed to act. This proved too much for some Israelis, and a small number sought retribution on their own, slaying (in equally heinous fashion) an Arab teen. 

The current Gaza operation is not retributive either. It continues to be a “messaging operation” in accord with Israeli doctrine, and so a futile operation, as recent history has shown. Until an Israeli government realizes and acknowledges this, Israeli will continue to fight one war, while the Arabs fight another. It is a war Israel might still lose.