Why is deterrence not working against Israel?

With American backing Israel is able to shatter the myth of Hamas and reinforce its deterrence capability

Dr Moonis Ahmar April 09, 2024
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at amoons@hotmail.com


When on October 7 last year, Hamas struck Israel with a surprise attack, the Jewish state was gripped with fear and panic because after years of strikes against the people of Gaza, it was expected that the regime of Benjamin Netanyahu would be unable to proceed with its one-sided deterrence. Now, Hamas has tried to convey to the world that its deterrent posture against Israel will work and the Jewish state will be unable to deter Palestinians with brutal attacks.

Deterrence is a concept that tends to create fear in the minds of the adversary about an unacceptable level of damage in case it carries out its belligerent acts. It is a combination of three Cs: capability, credibility and communication. In case of Israel and Hamas, deterrence only works unilaterally as Palestinians were unable to effectively retaliate when the Jewish state carried out lethal attacks against unarmed Gaza. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza but continued to besiege the Palestinian enclave from land, sea and air. Holed up in a few hundred kilometers of land, around 2.3 million Palestinians lived a miserable life in starvation and deprivation of basic necessities.

For Hamas, October 7 was a defining moment when it tried to demonstrate its power and deter Israel by launching coordinated land, sea and air attacks on southern Israel killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages. The initial impact of the attacks reflected an element of surprise, but within hours, Netanyahu’s regime was able to seize the initiative from Hamas and carried deadly attacks on Gaza.

Why did Hamas fail to match Israeli deterrence with its own and how did it miscalculate its capability and credibility when it lacked a war machine and support from its so-called allies? Deterrence cannot work in a vacuum and needs to put psychological pressure on the adversary of an unacceptable level of damage. Initially, Hamas was able to keep up the pressure and sustain fear in Israel by continuing its rocket attacks, but within two weeks it ran out of the available options when acting on high moral grounds. Because of Hamas’ killing and abductions in southern Israel, Israel embarked on unprecedented massive retaliation by destroying major infrastructure and rendering millions of Gazans homeless. Israel’s edge in deterrence led to 33,000 killings of Palestinians and its resolve to annihilate what it termed Hamas as an organisation and preventing any future attacks from Gaza.

From every standpoint, Israel has been able to ensure its deterrence in the Middle East in terms of its military might and nuclear capability to an extent that no Arab state can match with the technological, economic and military edge of the Jewish state. Israel’s gradual enforcement of deterrence vis-à-vis its Arab neighbours could be gauged from the fact that since 1948, the Jewish state has never been defeated in any of the Arab-Israeli wars, which enabled Israel to occupy Arab territories of Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza and Sinai. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza but kept that Palestinian enclave under siege. Violating UN Security Council resolutions Israel annexed Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and established illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Deterrence has, thus, worked for Israel while the Arab states have miserably failed to ensure a balance of terror.

Why deterrence is not working against Israel needs to be examined from three angles.

First, if deterrence is working for Israel despite its 9 million population as compared to more than 300 million Arabs living in its midst, it means that the Jewish state has technological, military, economic and R&D superiority. In this situation how did Hamas venture on its October 7 mission to deter Israel when there was no match with the Jewish state in terms of power? If Hamas is empowered with an ideology and a cause it failed to calculate the lack of military, logistical and economic support from Arab neighbours, Iran and Hezbollah. When the Arab neighbours of Israel like Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia neither possess the will nor the determination to confront and deter Israel, how can one expect Hamas or Palestine Liberation Organization to deter Israel from its policy of genocide in Gaza? It means that the power of ideology, as claimed by Hamas, has not worked against Israel as a deterrent despite its international isolation and condemnation.

Second, the failure of deterrence on part of Hamas reflects the fragility of its myth that it can strike a heavy blow on Israel by launching colossal rocket attacks. But, the manner in which Hamas launched its unprecedented attacks has led to short-term deterrence and Israel countered it with massive retaliation killing 33,000 Palestinians, injuring several thousands and rendering millions homeless. With American backing Israel is able to shatter the myth of Hamas and reinforce its deterrence capability. The only Muslim country in the region having nuclear deterrence is Pakistan. For that matter Israel has long expressed its reservations of what it calls ‘Islamic bomb’ and has tried its best to target Pakistan’s nuclear installations in connivance with India, but failed to do so. So, how can Pakistan use its nuclear deterrence against Israel, particularly when it would face retaliation from India and the United States? It seems that Pakistan’s nuclear missiles can reach Israel; even a threat from Islamabad that Israel’s survival will be at stake if it continues to massacre Palestinians and occupied West Bank, may work. Had Pakistan been economically and technologically powerful it would be in a position to challenge the myth of Israel’s nuclear deterrence. Ironically, deterrence is not working against Israel due to a power vacuum in the Arab world, but it is working against Palestinians and the Arab states. Asymmetry in deterrence in the Middle East is a major cause of Israel’s brutalities against Palestinians.

Third, for strategic stability in the Middle East, two-way deterrence is the need of the hour. It should not be Israel that imposes its military might and create fear among the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, but the Jewish state should be equally deterred from the military, nuclear and technological power of the Arab states, provided it can happen at all.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2024.

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