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"The Three Dimensions of War"

Op-Ed, Daily Star

July 18, 2014

Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Middle East Initiative


What does Israel expect to achieve by attacking Gaza with a large land force, following ten days of attacking from the air and suffering Palestinian counter-attacks by far less effective small rockets? After every Israeli war and invasion that kills hundreds of Palestinians and destroys key elements of the civilian infrastructure, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other resistance groups regroup, replenish their military supplies, increase their technical capabilities and prepare for the next round of fighting with Israel. This reflects accurately the Israeli policy in Gaza of “mowing the lawn,” meaning Israel has to attack Gaza regularly to maintain the status quo, like a homeowner mowing the lawn every few weeks.

It suggests that Israel’s policy of using its military might to achieve permanent calm on its southern border is a failure. This is because Israelis and Palestinians are waging war in three dimensions, not only in military terms, and Israel’s short-term triumph in all three domains now seems to be tilting towards Palestinian advantages.

The three simultaneous battlefields in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the military battlefield, international legitimacy, and the durability and depth of their respective national identities. Israel has been successful in the past 65 years in the first two realms — in militarily establishing, defending and expanding its state, and securing widespread international political support. In both those realms, however, Israel’s advantages are fraying at the edges.

Hizbollah and Hamas have shown how determined resistance groups anchored in strong nationalist support can slowly close the gap in the military technology advantage that Israel has long enjoyed. This will not liberate all of Palestine or existentially threaten Israel, but it does seem to have achieved a deterrent balance of power that freezes the status quo on the ground. When Israel has to repeat its attacks on Gaza every few years without achieving permanent calm — as it used to do similarly in Lebanon against Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups — it means that its former military superiority has been transformed into a “lawn mowing” strategy in which neither the lawn nor the mower ever fully triumphs.

The deeper dilemma for Israel is that lawn mowing as a long-term strategy is not feasible (let alone morally defensible) because of the deterioration of Israel’s former advantageous position in the two other realms of this conflict. In the realm of international legitimacy, Israel’s repeated savage assaults on Palestinians — whether through occasional military attacks or more routine mass imprisonment, colonization, assassinations, sieges, water theft, and other collective punishments — have generated growing international condemnation of its excessive colonization policies, while maintaining strong support for Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders. Explicit sanctions against Israeli colonization policies by the European Union and many others add fuel to the fire that threatens to make Israel another South Africa in terms of global boycotts of Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

The third realm of this conflict — national identity — is the most complex and intangible, but probably has the most impact in the long run. It refers simply to the depth of feeling among both people about their identities as Israelis and Palestinians, and their will to continue battling for their rights and their security. The fundamental problem for Israel that it has never grasped is that the intensity of the individual and collective Palestinian will to resist permanent exile or oblivion, and to keep fighting for national reconstitution and justice, is exactly as strong as the will among Jews who fought Western Christian anti-Semitism for centuries and finally created their Zionist state in Palestine.

The 750,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 clashes that saw the birth of the state of Israel have now become 4.5 million Palestinians in exile or under Israeli occupation, with another nearly four million elsewhere. Every single one of them has one primary aim in life, which is to work in their own way to find their way back to a life of normalcy, dignity and national sovereignty, and to end the permanent vulnerability that is inherent in their refugeehood.

As happened throughout history with dispersed Jews in conditions of exile and communal fragmentation, some eight million Palestinians today wake up every morning battling the pain of their disenfranchisement and vulnerability — and then they get on with the task of fighting back against their Zionist foe by first of all asserting the inviolable nature of their Palestinian identity.

Israeli military assaults like the one in Gaza these days cause Israel to lose ground in all three domains of this war, because they ultimately enhance Palestinian military resistance, sharped global pressure against Israel’s disproportionate military savagery, and, most importantly, deepen the nationalist identity and will to struggle for justice among all Palestinians, especially those 5- and 10-year old kids in Gaza who will grow up with a single aim in life — vanquish colonial Zionism.


For more information about this publication please contact the Middle East Initiative at (617) 495-4087.

For Academic Citation:

Khouri, Rami. "The Three Dimensions of War." Daily Star, July 18, 2014.

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