A Pillar Built on Sand

John Mearsheimer · Israel's Assault on Gaza

In response to a recent upsurge in tit for tat strikes between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, Israel decided to ratchet up the violence even further by assassinating Hamas’s military chief, Ahmad Jabari. Hamas, which had been playing a minor role in these exchanges and even appears to have been interested in working out a long-term ceasefire, predictably responded by launching hundreds of rockets into Israel, a few even landing near Tel Aviv. Not surprisingly, the Israelis have threatened a wider conflict, to include a possible invasion of Gaza to topple Hamas and eliminate the rocket threat.

There is some chance that Operation ‘Pillar of Defence’, as the Israelis are calling their current campaign, might become a full-scale war. But even if it does, it will not put an end to Israel’s troubles in Gaza. After all, Israel launched a devastating war against Hamas in the winter of 2008-9 – Operation Cast Lead – and Hamas is still in power and still firing rockets at Israel. In the summer of 2006 Israel went to war against Hizbullah in order to eliminate its missiles and weaken its political position in Lebanon. That offensive failed as well: Hizbullah has far more missiles today than it had in 2006 and its influence in Lebanon is arguably greater than it was in 2006. Pillar of Defence is likely to share a similar fate.

Israel can use force against Hamas in three distinct ways. First, it can try to cripple the organisation by assassinating its leaders, as it did when it killed Jabari two days ago. Decapitation will not work, however, because there is no shortage of subordinates to replace the dead leaders, and sometimes the new ones are more capable and dangerous than their predecessors. The Israelis found this out in Lebanon in 1992 when they assassinated Hizbullah’s leader, Abbas Musawi, only to find that his replacement, Hassan Nasrallah, was an even more formidable adversary.

Second, the Israelis can invade Gaza and take it over. The IDF could do this fairly easily, topple Hamas and put an end to the rocket fire from Gaza. But they would then have to occupy Gaza for years to come, since if they left Hamas would come back to power, the rocket attacks would resume, and Israel would be back where it started.

An occupation of Gaza would trigger bitter and bloody resistance, as the Israelis learned in southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. After 18 years of occupation they conceded defeat and withdrew all their forces. This experience is the reason the IDF did not try to invade and conquer southern Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008-9. Nothing has changed since then to make a full-scale invasion of Gaza a viable alternative today. Occupying Gaza would also place another 1.5 million Palestinians under formal Israel control, thereby worsening the so-called ‘demographic threat’. Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 to reduce the number of Palestinians living under the Israeli flag; going back now would be a huge strategic reversal.

The final, preferred option is aerial bombardment with aircraft, artillery, missiles, mortars and rockets. The problem, however, is that the strategy does not work as advertised. Israel used it against Hizbullah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008-9, but both groups are still in power and armed to the teeth with rockets and missiles. It is hard to believe that any serious defence analyst in Israel thinks another campaign of sustained bombardment against Gaza will topple Hamas and end the rocket fire permanently.

So what is going on here? At the most basic level, Israel’s actions in Gaza are inextricably bound up with its efforts to create a Greater Israel that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the endless palaver about a two-state solution, the Palestinians are not going to get their own state, not least because the Netanyahu government is firmly opposed to it. The prime minister and his political allies are deeply committed to making the Occupied Territories a permanent part of Israel. To pull this off, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will be forced to live in impoverished enclaves similar to the Bantustans in white-ruled South Africa. Israeli Jews understand this quite well: a recent survey found that 58 per cent of them believe Israel already practises apartheid against the Palestinians.

Creating a Greater Israel will produce even bigger problems, however. In addition to doing enormous damage to Israel’s reputation around the world, the quest for a Greater Israel will not break the will of the Palestinians. They remain adamantly opposed not only to the Occupation, but also to the idea of living in an apartheid state. They will continue to resist Israel’s efforts to deny them self-determination. What is happening in Gaza is one dimension of that resistance. Another is Mahmoud Abbas’s plan to ask the UN General Assembly on 29 November to recognise Palestine as a non-member state. This move worries Israel’s leaders, because it could eventually allow the Palestinians to file charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court. Thus, the dream of a Greater Israel forces Tel Aviv to find ways to keep the Palestinians at bay.

Israel’s leaders have a two-prong strategy for dealing with their Palestinian problem. First, they rely on the United States to provide diplomatic cover, especially in the United Nations. The key to keeping Washington on board is the Israel lobby, which pressures American leaders to side with Israel against the Palestinians and do hardly anything to stop the colonisation of the Occupied Territories.

The second prong is Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s concept of the ‘Iron Wall’: an approach that in essence calls for beating the Palestinians into submission. Jabotinsky understood that the Palestinians would resist the Zionists’ efforts to colonise their land and subjugate them in the process. Nonetheless, he maintained that the Zionists, and eventually Israel, could punish the Palestinians so severely that they would recognise that further resistance was futile.

Israel has employed this strategy since its founding in 1948, and both Cast Lead and Pillar of Defence are examples of it at work. In other words, Israel’s aim in bombing Gaza is not to topple Hamas or eliminate its rockets, both of which are unrealisable goals. Instead, the ongoing attacks in Gaza are part of a long-term strategy to coerce the Palestinians into giving up their pursuit of self-determination and submitting to Israeli rule in an apartheid state.

Israel’s commitment to the Iron Wall is reflected in the fact that its leaders have said many times since Cast Lead ended in January 2009 that the IDF would eventually have to return to Gaza and inflict another beating on the Palestinians. The Israelis were under no illusion that the 2008-9 conflict had defanged Hamas. The only question for them was when the next punishment campaign would start.

The timing of the present operation is easy to explain. For starters, President Obama has just won a second term despite Netanyahu’s transparent attempt to help Mitt Romney win the election. The prime minister’s mistake is likely to have hurt his personal relations with the president and might even threaten America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. A war in Gaza, however, is a good antidote for that problem, because Obama, who faces daunting economic and political challenges in the months ahead, has little choice but to back Israel to the hilt and blame the Palestinians.

The Israeli prime minter faces an election of his own in January and as Mitchell Plitnick writes, ‘Netanyahu’s gambit of forming a joint ticket with the fascist Yisrael Beiteinu party has not yielded anything close to the polling results he had hoped for.’ A war over Gaza not only allows Netanyahu to show how tough he is when Israel’s security is at stake, but it is also likely to have a ‘rally round the flag’ effect, improving his chances of being re-elected.

Nevertheless, Pillar of Defence will not achieve its ultimate goal of getting the Palestinians to abandon their pursuit of self-determination and accept living under the heel of the Israelis. That is simply not achievable; the Palestinians are never going to accept being consigned to a handful of enclaves in an apartheid state. Regrettably, that means Pillar of Defence is unlikely to be the last time Israel bombards Gaza.

Over the long term, however, the bombing campaigns may come to an end, because it is not clear that Israel will be able to maintain itself as an apartheid state. As well as resistance from the Palestinians, Israel has to face the problem that world opinion is unlikely to back an apartheid state. Ehud Olmert said in November 2007, when he was prime minister, that if ‘the two-state solution collapses’ Israel will ‘face a South-African-style struggle’, and ‘as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.’ One would think Israel’s leaders would appreciate where they are headed and allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own. But there is no sign that is happening; instead, Israel foolishly continues to rely on military campaigns like Pillar of Defence to break the Palestinians.


  • 17 November 2012 at 7:33am
    duglarri says:
    I don't think the long-term plan is to make the Palestinians accede to Israeli rule. Greater Israel can't be a reality with a minority of Jews.

    I believe it's abundantly clear that the long-term plan is to cause them to self-deport. There is a plan, and the plan is transfer.

    Just because a plan is impractical and likely to lead to disaster does not mean it is not the plan.

    • 24 November 2012 at 3:20am
      daniel mcauliffe says: @ duglarri
      I believe this is correct.Bibi believes that Israel can colonize the west bank and then invent some sort of pretext to expel all the Palestinians or enough to maintain the Jewish majority.

  • 17 November 2012 at 8:28am
    Attrition says:
    "Netanyahu’s gambit of forming a joint ticket with the fascist Yisrael Beiteinu party"

    How can any partei not be fascist in a colony?

  • 18 November 2012 at 1:57am
    citydem says:
    Thank you Professor Mearsheimer for having the courage to speak out. I've visited Israel twice and there is much to admire. I especially like Tel Aviv and the cafe society on Dizengoff. However the annexation of the West Bank and the Apartheid system that is developing as a result will eventually bring Israel to an end.

  • 18 November 2012 at 5:27am
    voiceofmoderation says:
    I'm not sure some of the assumptions underlying this article are correct. I don't think anyone in Israel considers Pillar of Defense as a means to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza, nor does anyone think that would be a good idea, as it would almost certainly be replaced with something worse. Nor is the goal to reoccupy or resettle Gaza, I think there is wide acceptance in Israel that they want nothing to do with that territory. Nor is there even belief that an an assault/invasion will permanently stop the rocket fire, it is only believed that this will bring a temporary respite (much as Cast Lead did), hence the "cutting the grass" euphemism widely used in the Israeli media. All Israel wants out of Gaza is a cessation of attacks on its territory, even if it's temporary.

    Also, you may want to read up on the "Iron Wall" theory, as you seem to describe it exactly backwards. Iron Wall is a theory (from the 1920s) that Jews settling in the Palestine Mandate would only be able to reach accommodation with the Arabs once the latter had realized they would not be able to destroy the Jews with military force. It is most certainly not a theory that requires "an approach that in essence calls for beating the Palestinians into submission," as you describe it.

    This article toes the line between opinion and propaganda.

    • 24 November 2012 at 2:32pm
      Attrition says: @ voiceofmoderation
      Since 2000, 6,622 Palestinians (+160 and rising) and 1,097 Israelis (+5) have been killed.

      All you have to do is imagine the reaction if the position were reversed.

  • 18 November 2012 at 7:04pm
    Robert H Stiver says:
    As good as this analysis is (and it is very good, despite some carping...), I lament that Professor Mearsheimer doesn't state a searing empathy for the innocent kids, their mothers, and other victims of Zionist Israel's state terrorism. Think of the psychological effects of this enterprise of persecution on these victims! (if they manage to survive the onslaught physically intact). Zionism -- I use Lebanon 2006 as the tipping point -- has, with every one of its adherents, Jewish, "Christian," secular, fallen into full, irremediable criminal psychosis. The professor's last two sentences quite succinctly make this point: a commonly used definition of insanity is to persist in doing whatever hasn't worked to date and that will ultimately surely doom the crazies....

  • 19 November 2012 at 2:54am
    former_subscriber says:
    It is also worth asking: What is the rationale behind the Palestinian strategy in persisting in firing rockets at Israel?

    • 24 November 2012 at 2:32pm
      Attrition says: @ former_subscriber

  • 20 November 2012 at 2:37am
    David Wilson says:
    since the traffic in rockets is at least somewhat restricted, it seems inconsistent to suggest that firing hundreds of them is a 'predictable response' to the killing of Ahmad Jabari - preparations for that scale of 'response' wopuld simply have taken longer than the time elapsed,

    so the commenter who suggested "This article toes the line between opinion and propaganda." may not have gone far enough - the article does not toe the line at all, it steps over the line, QED.

  • 20 November 2012 at 6:40pm
    SG says:
    What utter rubbish. If, as you admit, Israel has zero interest in reoccupying Gaza, how on earth can this operation be about reoccupying Gaza to create a Greater Israel?

    The fact is the only people who lay claim to the entire land are your pals in Hamas, who explicitly profess their desire to annihilate Israel, along with their guilt-ridden champagne socialist allies who roam the streets of Hampstead and Islington reciting: 'Palestine shall be free, from the river to the sea.'

  • 21 November 2012 at 7:38pm
    carymar says:
    Thank you Professor Mearsheimer for telling us the truth. You are obviously a man of great courage. I read your letter from 4 years ago about the last bombing of Gaza. Spot on. The Palestinians will stop the rocket assault and agree to a long term truce if the Israelis will (1) stop assassinating their leaders (2) stop jailing their people (3)allow them to leave their cage which is Gaza. There is a problem, will this battle for this land ever end. Won't Hamas continue to pursue regaining the rest of Palistine, which was stolen from them in the Nakba. We already know the Israelis have no intention of ever allowing a 2 state solution.
    Is this problem perhaps insolvable. As American citizens, shouldn't we extricate ourselves from this quagmire, pull our vast funding of Israel (and other Middle East countries since we're broke) and let them try to sort this out for themselves. By the way does anyone realize that there are ten of thousands of Christian people living in the occupied territories. Yes, they're being killed with the bombs we give Israel.

  • 24 November 2012 at 3:16am
    daniel mcauliffe says:
    The fist link is incorrect the poll does not say that they believe Israel practices apartheid now but that they would approve of it if the west bank was annexed. Although I agree 100 percent with the premise of your article.

  • 24 November 2012 at 2:34pm
    Attrition says:
    Zionist apologists are Don Logans, pissing on the carpet.

  • 9 December 2012 at 5:38pm
    Iron_Webmaster says:
    Israel runs a military dictatorship over millions of non-Jews.

    It is not reasonable to call it other than a ruthless, foreign military dictatorship.

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