During its standoff with the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbullah in 2006, Israel responded with an all-out war beginning with a blockade and an intense aerial bombing campaign. The campaign was later developed into a military blueprint called the Dahiya Doctrine, a strategy of asymmetric warfare.
The Doctrine was named after the Dahiya neighbourhood of Beirut, where the headquarters of Hizbullah was entirely razed by the Israeli air force using two-thousand-pound bombs and other heavy ordnance. It was outlined by Israeli chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, head of the northern command in 2006, who said it encompassed the destruction of the civilian infrastructure of regimes deemed to be hostile to Israel.
The sinister strategy was later used in Gaza during confrontations with Hamas after the Islamist group seized control of the Strip in 2007, causing wholesale killing, mostly of defenceless civilians, and the wanton destruction of the homes and property of hundreds of thousands of people.
Israel’s military commanders have since boasted that its lethal aerial campaigns, which have become a cornerstone of their defence strategy, have preserved Israel’s qualitative military edge and helped it to maintain military superiority over its neighbours.
However, the latest brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza might be a “victory” that could on the contrary show that the myth of Israel’s military superiority and the illusion of its political success is coming to an end.
The confrontations erupted on 10 May amid escalating tensions that began with spontaneous grassroots protests over the expulsion of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and harassment by Jewish extremists and Israeli police of Muslims praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
This angered Palestinians in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli land, air and sea blockade siege since 2005 when Israel withdrew from the Strip. Palestinian militant groups began firing rockets into Israel, and Israel responded by disproportionally hitting targets in the territory.
Over more than a week, the flare-up has widened as Hamas and other Palestinian groups have fired rockets and Israel has expanded its aerial campaign. Its sophisticated warplanes, helicopters and drones have carried out more indiscriminate attacks aiming to punish Gaza residents and not just the missile launchers.
In one incident, an Israeli airstrike on Saturday killed at least 10 members of an extended family in a refugee camp in Gaza where hundreds of thousands of residents are descended from Palestinians who fled their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
The strike came hours before another Israeli air assault that levelled a prominent high-rise building in Gaza City that housed international media outlets including the US Associated Press and the Qatari Aljazeera.
As of the time of writing, nearly 200 people have been killed in Gaza, including 60 children, according to local reports, and thousands more have been wounded. At least 10 people have been reported dead in Israel.
By resorting to the Dahiya Doctrine, Israel wants to inflict immense destruction, not distinguishing between civilian and military targets. Israeli proponents of the strategy justify its use as being intended to inflict severe damage on their opponent’s infrastructure and civilian centres in order to achieve deterrence and avoid getting dragged into wars of attrition.
They also see the Doctrine as responding to the complex demands of Israel’s asymmetric engagements with non-state actors, which use missile attacks on Israel to offset its military superiority and achieve political victories.
The strategy is coupled with a sophisticated air-defence system that Israel has built up to intercept rockets fired by its adversaries and to help prevent conflicts from escalating. However, Israel’s Iron Dome, often touted as one of the world’s most-effective interceptor systems, has failed thus far to provide adequate security to Israeli built-up areas.
While some of the rockets fired from Gaza have failed to reach their targets, a large proportion of them have landed in Israeli towns and installations and have inflicted a number of deaths and considerable damage.
But Israel’s strategy of attacking Hamas, turning into a full-scale war, has failed to silence the Gaza rocket launchers. Instead, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank have added to the febrile atmosphere, as Israelis and Palestinians have found themselves mired in violence in Israeli cities with mixed Jewish-Arab populations that were supposed to be exemplars of coexistence.
The introduction of Israel’s punitive airstrikes on Gaza, with all the devastation that these have incurred, as well as the rising tensions with the rest of the Palestinians have transformed the Israel agenda and left the Palestinians with no political horizon for a just and viable peace.
Broadly speaking, wars commence and conclude with formal declarations, truces and treaties. The parties often start thinking about the post-conflict terms when the guns fall silent.
But there are good reasons to believe that once the current flames die down, hopes held out that Israel will become “a responsible stakeholder” and engage in a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians will be dashed.
Moreover, the devastating Israeli strategy seems to be designed to give the Israeli government the freedom to cancel a peaceful solution entirely and to continue to pursue its policy of annexation in the West Bank in order to block the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
For 12 years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a new term in office, has done everything he can to stall the peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and the Israeli political establishment have ramped up Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, laying the ground for a Greater Israel.
Emboldened by former US president Donald Trump’s green light to annexation in his so-called “Deal of the Century” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu has worked hard to extend Israeli law to the West Bank and to exercise its sovereignty over the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Last year’s Abraham Accords establishing diplomatic relations with the four Arab states of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan seem to have bolstered Netanyahu’s anti-peace stance further and dashed hopes that Israel would give up land it occupied in the 1967 War for peace.
A two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has had wide international support as the only path for the Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, has now become a distant prospect and consequently a death rattle for regional stability.
This introduces horrific alternatives.
With Israel’s scorched-earth strategy in Gaza, the imposition of an apartheid system on the West Bank Bantustan, and Jewish supremacy over the Arab community within Israel itself, the Arab-Israeli conflict had arrived at a critical juncture in Middle Eastern history.
Being bent on creating a state that is self-described as Jewish, Israel has become hooked on its extremists’ methods and seems determined to continue on its “historic” project to draw up its final borders and control the lives and futures of some eight million Palestinian Arabs.
In reality, this shows that Israel’s only remaining option is to expel the Palestinians from both Israel and the West Bank through annexations, ethnic cleansing and mass population transfers.
Yet, even if one accepts this conclusion, transfers such as those that preceded the creation of Israel in 1948 have no merit, as Israel’s deterrence strategies such as the Dahiya Doctrine and the Iron Dome are falling apart under a few thousand homemade projectiles.
Wherever the Palestinians are transferred to in the neighbouring countries they will be able to continue to produce rockets and to fire them on Israel across the border, forcing it to live in constant fear and in the shadow of perpetual wars.
Israel may be the most powerful state in the Middle East in terms of sophisticated military force, capabilities, training, equipment and nuclear weapons, which could make it militarily unassailable.
But the recent escalation has surprised Israel, showing it that pursuing its “mowing the grass” strategy to try to cut back “harmful weeds” in its surroundings is not working and that in the long run it cannot solve its existential problems.
Israel’s arrogance of power has always been dangerous, but its recent horrific cycle of hostilities, going largely uncondemned by the international community, is now making it even more arrogant and insecure and therefore even more perilous.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly