Israel and the Psychology of Perpetual War
Israel's latest election shows the problem of maintaining civil society against the backdrop of a never-ending conflict.
The ongoing elections in Israel offer the perfect chance to see what a society looks like when it’s going off the rails.
Perhaps most notably, Netanyahu faces his first serious challenge of his tenure as Prime Minister. His competition in retired General Benny Gantz has proved popular with the general public, even if his platform remains unclear. While Gantz has touted himself as a centrist, this moderation largely focuses on particular issues, namely, economic ones. In regards to the issue that underlies the entire country’s existence - its relationship with the Palestinians - Gantz remains a staunch conservative.
In one recent advertisement, Gantz bragged that, during his time as general, he “bombed parts of Gaza back to the stone age” and killed “1,364 terrorists,” leading to “three and a half years of quiet.” Such claims refer to the 2014 Gaza War, in which the total death toll, including civilians, mounted to 1,364 on the Palestinian side. It’s a strikingly callous way to approach the subject of a war that worked disastrous effects on a sovereign territory.
In truth, Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip often kill fewer civilians than expected. The Hamas government operates in crowded areas, often using human shields. Studies of civilian deaths in combat rely on Civilian Casualty Ratios to gauge the effect on the civilian population, and while the ratio for the 2014 war remains unknown, the data shows that most of the dead were males between the ages of 18-35, which would imply largely fighters.
At the same time, the conditions in the Gaza Strip have consistently deteriorated as a result of Israel’s activities, starting with the imposition of a blockade in 2007. Gaza has suffered an ongoing humanitarian crisis in which most of the population has limited or no access to basic supplies such as food, clean water, electricity and medicine. This crisis began when Israel imposed a blockade in 2007, preventing most materials from entry.
Egypt followed suit; Israeli officials allow entry of certain types of materials, and keep tabs on the numbers to ensure that, in theory, Gazans have access to adequate food and water. At the same time, most of these materials wind up in increasingly fewer hands, and Israel continues its practices knowing that they’ve led to shortages. Gaza’s electricity crisis relates more to a dispute between the two Palestinian governing factions, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority; at one point in time, Israeli companies provided most of the power to the territory. This ceased following the war.
Conditions such as these drive the Palestinians further into the arms of Hamas and incite them to violence; in effect, Israel’s constant need to “strangle Gaza” - a phrase tossed around whenever tensions flare up - generates a perpetual escalation between the two parties. Given Israel’s strength relative to Gaza’s, these escalations always result in the sheer desolation of the Palestinian population.
Israel has behaved as a “rational actor,” so to speak, over the course of these events - but so have the Palestinians. Rather than constantly try to pummel the entire Palestinian population into submission, the Israelis would do better, both on a moral and political level, to engage with the population. Setting aside the morality of the situation - because political actors almost never behave morally - these actions endanger Israel’s security long-term by perpetuating the war footing and embittering the world against the Jewish State.
In theory, Israel could fashion itself as a benign power in this situation, arrayed against Hamas. They could view the Palestinians as victims of a dictatorship and act with a lighter hand. If the Israelis really wanted to have their cake and eat it, too - long-term security without international condemnation - they could treat the Palestinians in Gaza like the captive population of East Berlin. Yes, the Hamas government hordes the resources that get - imagine, though, the image of Israeli planes dropping foodstuffs instead of bombs. Going out of their way to avoid civilian areas, even if international law doesn’t demand it.
Instead, politicians like Gantz go out of their way to strike an aggressive posture, ensuring that the cycle continues. The more Israel tries to strangle Gaza, the more its population will resist. At the moment, no mainstream politician in Israel has a plan to tackle this issue. Short-term security, as maintained through the siege, reigns over long-term questions of survivability, for both parties.
It’s not Israel’s fault, alone, but Israel remains the only power strong enough to do something about it.
That’s not even the craziest thing happening in the election, though. In an effort to maintain power, Netanyahu’s party has increasingly drifted towards radical statements, with the Prime Minister starting a propaganda television station that blurs the lines of free press. At least that may sound familiar to Americans. One politician for the right-wing Likud party demonstrated the increasing fervor of extremist sentiment by inviting Elor Azaria, a soldier convicted of killing an unconscious terrorist, to campaign on his behalf.
Many hear the word “terrorist” and shrug at the question of his death - after all, he had initiated the incident by stabbing an Israeli soldier. What sticks out, however, is that Azaria violated Israel’s code of conduct, which the army often touts as a moral foundation that prevents acts of wanton violence from occurring. To ignore that code is to ignore the protocols Israel purports to follow in its conflicts, a protocol that prevents the IDF from indiscriminately targeting civilian areas. It sets a precedent that the wars to follow will become bloodier.
It also renewed calls to instate a death penalty for terrorism charges; Israel has never had a death penalty for anyone other than former Nazi officials; to expand capital punishment to terrorists is to create a new standard of laws that applies only to the Palestinian population, and to change the entire national myth. The enemy is no longer the historical specter of bigotry but the Palestinian people. It is for this same reason that Netanyahu has previously claimed that Hitler carried out the Holocaust at the behest of Palestinian leader Amin al-Husseini, a claim that has no basis in reality.
Most notably, however, Elor’s reasons for carrying out the shooting may, at first, appear sympathetic. He claimed that he thought the terrorist had moved, and that the terrorist had carried explosive charges; he further recalled that his training had stressed the dangers of similar circumstances. In effect, it came as an act of paranoia. The fervor in Israel surrounding terrorism has reached such a fever pitch that the entire population mobilizes in reaction to each event. Even though terrorist attacks have decreased over time, each one receives increasing amounts of attention, to the point that one victim of a stabbing in September received over 4,000 mourners at his funeral.
That’s what a constant war footing does. On a psychological level, it’s not healthy, and it lends itself to outbursts of anger from the population. Israel’s aggression now may buy some momentary “quiet,” but it does long-term damage. As The United States’ support becomes increasingly shaky, Israel continues to make itself enemies at home and abroad. The world’s only Jewish State has taken it upon itself to act in a manner that incites the Palestinian population as well as the broader Muslim world, all while having disastrous effects on the psychology of Israeli youth.
Thanks to the war footing, Israelis grow up like properties of the state, bred for combat. All of this lends itself to an atmosphere in which every individual’s life remains connected to a massive political fissure. Every facet of Israeli life is political, and every political issue in Israel is, in some way, related to the conflict. That’s not a sustainable model of statehood. Thus far, however, the political climate appears to be trending downward, not up.
At the very least, we should hope it doesn’t happen here.