By Targeting Palestinian Civilians Israel Only Strengthens Influence of Islamist Ideologues

Mer Khamis(Pictured: Murdered actor and activist Juliano Mer-Khamis.)

Hardliners, whether Israeli or Palestinian, do not desire a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that ends in a negotiated peace like the one that U.S. President Barack Obama suggested in his speech of May 20, 2011, calling for a negotiated two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-Six Day War borders.

These radicalized actors want an all-or-nothing end that justifies their ideological certainties. It has to end that way for them. Human rights groups, Israeli and Palestinian, are just as much an enemy to Palestinian hardliners and Israeli hardliners. Palestinian extremists pursue a “strategy of tension” by targeting Israeli civilians, hiding behind Palestinian civilians (knowing that massive retaliation will follow) and assassinating Palestinian moderates. They hope to provoke a radicalization of the conflict on the Palestinian AND Israeli sides by framing the debate as a “clash of civilizations” or an “existential threat” conflict.

On the Israeli side, the IDF pursues the “Dahiya Doctrine,” which amounts to the collective punishment of civilians “to make the fear we sow among them greater.” In practice, it necessitates the targeting of civilian infrastructure in a military operation to break the people’s “will” to support their (that is, “the enemy’s”) political leadership.

Or as tsarist General Mikhail “Bloody Eyes” Skobelev put it when summarizing his campaign strategy for subjugating Central Asian tribes, “the harder you hit them, the longer they stay quiet.”

The Dahiya Doctrine, as an extreme form of collective punishment, has its genesis in the US occupation of the Philippines. Applied more selectively, it is the practice of executing (or jailing) X number of civilian hostages based on the number of one’s soldiers killed or wounded by the enemy (recall how the capture of a single Israeli soldier was used as a plank in the political foment in Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008). Such a practice has been more recently employed by the Axis Powers and the USSR in WWII, the USSR in Afghanistan, Israel in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) and the Pakistani Army in its border conflicts.

On the scale that the Israelis have practiced it, the Germans, Americans and British practiced it in WWII through city destruction (i.e., flattening whole cities deliberately to break the population’s will to fight).

It has never worked, though. Such a strategy strengthened the civilian support for their political leadership, as was the case during WWII when German “terror bombing” and Allied “area bombing” failed to break support among the British, German and Japanese populations for continuing the war. If anything, it intensified their resistance by amplifying their suffering.

Today, Israel inadvertently strengthens Islamist ideologues through the practice of the Dahiya Doctrine, just as extremist Palestinian groups and Israeli settlers knowingly attempt to set the tone for the conflict (“clash of civilizations,” “existential threat“) by attacking one another and luring their rivals into massive retaliation operations like Operation Cast Lead or the al-Asqa Martyr’s Brigade’s operations against civilian targets and use of child suicide bombers in the al-Asqa Intifada. They are all quite happy that the violence is setting the tone for the debate and drowning out negotiated political settlements.

That is why hardliners such as these are railing against any two-state solution: they do not want it, and cannot accept it because then their reason for existence, their capacity to hold onto power (because it is ultimately about power), is called into question.

It also goes a long way towards explaining inter-Palestinian violence, which has taken the lives of thousands of those committed to peace, such as Juliano Mer-Khamis and Vitorrio Arrigoni. People like Juliano and Vitorrio are dangerous to peace – even more dangerous than the President of the United States or Israeli moderates – in the eyes of those who oppose a negotiated settlement.

For these extremists who pursue violence, it must end with one people, on one land – no compromise, no coexistence. And land is, more so than religion, at the heart of this conflict.

Machiavelli, although writing nearly five centuries ago, adequately characterized the nature of the current state of the conflict, writing in The Prince:

But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.

Both sides have intentionally caused deaths of civilians to spread fear and wreck vengeance. And in doing so, such belligerents simply hope to use the pain from those losses to advance their preferred solution: a world where the other side ceases to exist, or whose existence provides justification for retaining control over a people through a cycle of attack and retaliation.

The conflict, of course, must be decided by those bound up in it. But, when the US government is providing Israel with upwards of US$3 billion in aid annually, Americans should have a say in how Israel approaches the conflict. After the Israeli electorate, American taxpayers are the biggest shareholders in the Israeli state.

We – Israelis, Palestinians and Americans – have an obligation to seek a just return on our collective investment, as taxpayers, yes, but also as people who, by virtue of our nationality, believe in just compensation for the disposed and the wounded.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.