Israel-Hamas fighting erupted just as negotiations advanced. What started it, and why does it matter?

Israel and Hamas again approached the brink of war this week. This latest conflagration began Sunday night when Israeli special forces carried out a covert operation into the Gaza Strip, Hamas fighters caught them, and a gunfight ensued. In the 25 hours that followed, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, and Israel pounded Gaza with airstrikes. By the time a truce took hold Tuesday, one Israeli and 14 Gazans had been killed, in addition to one West Bank Palestinian killed by a Hamas rocket in Israel.

The rapid pace of escalation leaves observers with many questions. Why did Israel carry out this military operation at a time when many were heralding novel progress in diplomatic steps toward alleviating tensions between Israel and Hamas?

Why is yet another Israel-Hamas flare-up puzzling?

Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel has imposed a suffocating blockade on Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants. Three wars since 2008 have taken a devastating human and material toll. Israeli gunfire on Gazans’ protests at the border has killed at least 210 Palestinians and wounded more than 18,000 since March. The south of Israel has also faced rocket attacks and incendiary kites and balloons.

Recent weeks, however, have yielded negotiated breakthroughs. Egyptian envoys have visited Gaza and Israel in an effort to seal a three-year cease-fire that would alleviate some of Gaza’s economic impoverishment. Since October, Israel has allowed Qatar to buy millions of dollars of fuel from Israel and deliver it to Gaza’s power plant, increasing the electricity supply from the prior few hours a day. Just last Thursday, Israel also permitted Qatar to deliver $15 million in cash to Gaza, the first of a planned series of payments to civil servants who have gone months without salaries. Indeed, just a few hours before the Gaza operation, Netanyahu declared that he was doing “everything” possible to prevent renewed war with Gaza.

That context explains why Sunday’s raid seems inconsistent. Such incursions, otherwise, are not uncommon. According to the United Nations, the Israeli army carried out 262 known operations inside the Gaza Strip from 2015 until late October 2018. But why would Israel carry out an incursion given the diplomatic and political imperative to avoid unnecessary provocations?

Sunday’s incursion, like other such operations, is characteristic of Israel’s long-standing propensity to prioritize tactical considerations in disregard — and often to the detriment — of long-term strategic interests. In other words, Israel has a history of pursuing short-term gains in military operations on the ground, even when they risk undermining the larger national goals claimed by its political leadership.

Our new book, “Triadic Coercion: Israel’s Targeting of States That Host Nonstate Actors,” explores how this propensity has deep roots in Israel’s strategic culture. Strategic culture is the system of beliefs, values and practices that guide a state’s behavior in security affairs. Examining Israel’s conduct vis-a-vis nonstate actors and their host states from 1949 until the present, we focus on two components of Israeli strategic culture: decision-making processes related to security policy and ideas about security threats and solutions. We see each of these elements at play in the current flare-up with Gaza.

Security decision-making processes

Israel’s army has developed modes of operation that prioritize “action” over cautious and deliberate thinking. The Israel Defense Forces has historically regarded grand concepts and abstract discussions as useless. They instead praised “no-nonsense” talk that is direct and to the point and being a “doer” rather than an armchair theorist.

This ethos may have served Israel well in the 1960s and ’70s, when it prided itself on daring commando operations or battlefield innovations in combat against Arab state armies. Yet this tendency to put the tactical cart before the strategic horse has run Israel into a strategic impasse with the Palestinians. The military establishment’s “anti-intellectualism” keeps it from reevaluating inherited assumptions and habits. Such critical self-reflection is necessary today, as a decade of recurrent wars shows that Israel’s conflict with Gaza cannot rest on military force.

Security ideas

Israel’s military approach has long been grounded in the conviction that, given its territorial and demographic vulnerability, Israel has “no choice” but to build military supremacy and prove that superiority to enemies. In our research, we trace how over time this belief has evolved into a valorization of the inherent, rather than the merely instrumental, utility of demonstrating military might. Increasingly, both the Israeli leadership and public seem to laud military prowess nearly as an end in itself, rather than a means to the end of other security goals. This equates a show of force with deterrence, regardless of whether that force actually prevents the enemy from taking actions that it intended to take.

This logic may have infused Sunday’s raid, as the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson told Al Jazeera on Monday. “There was an Israeli operation inside the Gaza strip,” he said, “in order to entrench Israel’s military superiority.” Yet pursuit of military superiority is different than pursuit of security, as the escalatory effects of the operation lay bare.

Counterproductive policies

From Israel’s perspective, incursions into Gaza might have their  own tactical rationales, be they to gather intelligence, expose a tunnel, destroy a Hamas position or, as the IDF spokesperson suggested, grow Israel’s military preeminence. Yet in winning these battles, Israel risks igniting a war that no one can win.

Such counterproductive outcomes are predictable when a strategic culture elevates short-term tactics over longer-term strategic thinking and conflates the inherent value of military actions with their actual effectiveness in enhancing security. To the degree that Israel resists reevaluating the ingrained assumptions and institutionalized practices that invite provocative moves, it is unlikely to achieve its own stated goals of making its citizens safer. Both Israelis and Palestinians will pay the price.

Boaz Atzili is associate professor and director of the doctoral studies program at the School of International Service in American University. Wendy Pearlman is the Martin and Patricia Koldyke outstanding teaching associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, where she specializes in Middle East politics.

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