Israel Is Making the Same Mistake America Made in Iraq

An aerial view of Palestinians in an empty lot surrounded by buildings damaged by bombs.
Damage at Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City.Credit…Mohamed Hajjar/EPA, via Shutterstock

David French
By David French

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As the war in Gaza reaches its six-month mark, I’m getting a disturbing sense of déjà vu. Israel is facing many of the same challenges that America faced in Iraq, and it is making many of the same mistakes.

When I read my colleagues Aaron Boxerman and Iyad Abuheweila’s outstanding report last week about Israel’s recent fight to take Al Shifa hospital after raiding it last year, this sentence caught my attention: “But as the war ground on, Israeli forces closed in on the hospital again in mid-March in an attempt to root out what they said was a renewed insurgency by Palestinian armed groups in northern Gaza.”

Think of those words: “renewed insurgency.” That means Israel was doing exactly what we did for much of the Iraq war — fighting again over ground we had presumably already seized. And the sad reality of those terrible battles reminded me of a seemingly counterintuitive truth: In the fight against terrorists, providing humanitarian aid isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a military necessity.

The terrible civilian toll and looming famine in Gaza are a human tragedy that should grieve us all; they are also directly relevant to the outcome of the war. A modern army like Israel’s can absolutely defeat Hamas in a direct confrontation, regardless of whether it provides aid to civilians. But as we’ve learned in our own wars abroad, it cannot preserve its victory unless it meets Gazans’ most basic needs.

So far most international attention has focused on Israel’s conduct at the tip of the spear. The question that dominates the discourse is whether Israel’s behavior as it battles Hamas complies with the laws of war and Israel’s own moral standards. That is a vital question — one worth answering in full when the fog of war clears — but the war may well be decided after the first phase of combat, when Israel faces a different set of legal and moral obligations, the obligations of an occupying power.

I want to be very precise and clear here. By “occupying power,” I do not mean that Israel should permanently conquer (much less settle) Gazan territory. I’m referring to the technical legal status of an invading army once it attains control of an invaded region. Think of the laws of war as operating in phases, with Phase 1 regulating the combat operations of the initial attack and Phase 2 regulating the way in which an attacking force governs the territory it controls — before the transition to permanent civilian control.

Decisive and effective military action can inflict immense losses on your enemies, but the initial strikes and even the initial invasion don’t just inflict losses; they create a vacuum. Hamas wasn’t just the dominant military force in Gaza; it was also the government. Removing Hamas from power can mean something very much like de-Baathification in Iraq. It destroys the civil service and removes the means of maintaining civil order.

Unless the same military that creates the vacuum fills that vacuum, either with its own effective administration or an allied administration, then the enemy maintains an opening. It has hope. That’s why words like “renewed insurgency” or “infiltrated back to the north” are so ominous. They’re a sign that the vacuum has not been filled and there is room for Hamas to revive.

But that vacuum has to be filled in a very specific way — with an eye toward the safety and security of the civilian population. It’s not simply a matter of control. It’s also a matter of justice and sustenance. The U.S. military’s Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Land Warfare, for example, is very clear: If the United States is the occupying power, it must provide food and clean water. It must provide law and order. It cannot leave the civilian population to fend for itself.

In fact, that was the central failure of the first phase of the Iraq war. Our forces — much like the Israeli military — proved remarkably lethal and effective in urban combat. But we were ineffective in maintaining civil society or the rule of law. Iraqis’ hunger and thirst didn’t make the news as much as the Gazan plight does today. They did experience anarchy, though, and that anarchy almost cost America the war. We went for the quick win, and we ended up embroiled in one of our longest conflicts.

Even worse, that anarchy might well have represented our most consequential violation of the laws of war during the entire conflict. While mistaken strikes, tragic accidents and scandals like the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib marred the American military effort, our combat operations as a whole were precise and targeted and often exceeded the requirements of the law of armed conflict.

Our initial occupation, however, was a disaster, and that disaster didn’t just lay the groundwork for the years of war that followed; it also represented a failure to uphold our legal obligations to the people who were temporarily under our jurisdiction and control.

The American military turned the tide during the surge by adopting a fundamentally different approach. Our mantra was “protect the population.” When we engaged in offensive operations, we didn’t strike and immediately move; we struck and stayed. We made sure that families were safe, that food supplies were secure and that markets could reopen. We put ourselves in the middle of cities and towns and rural communities until we were certain there was no power vacuum left to be filled. It was hard, dangerous and slow, but it worked.

To discuss the obligations of an occupying power, however, is to bring up an aspect of the Gaza war that no one wants to embrace. On the American right, too many people labor under the delusion that the war can and should be deadly, decisive and fast. Speaking to Hugh Hewitt on Thursday, Donald Trump complained that Israel is “losing the P.R. war.” And what was his solution? Israel has “got to finish what they started, and they’ve got to finish it fast, and we have to get on with life.”

The Republicans cheering this kind of talk are signaling that they’ve learned nothing. “Finish this fast,” and you don’t finish it at all. You leave behind bodies, you create mountains of rubble, and your enemy rejoices. All you’ve done with this “quick” victory is demonstrate to the local population both a lack of regard for their lives and a lack of will to truly defeat your foe. Hamas will crawl out of its tunnels and rule Gaza yet again.

To even begin to discuss the obligations of occupation is to raise an entirely different set of objections. Isn’t occupation the source of the conflict? Won’t direct Israeli control only serve to inflame the wounds that caused the conflict in the first place? But there is a difference between a power that complies with the law of war through temporary provision of humanitarian assistance and civil authority and a power that defies the law of war through conquest and settlement.

That’s why the Biden administration’s approach thus far is far superior to Trump’s. The latter approach, which emphasizes a fast fight and quick conclusion, is actually deeply harmful. It’s a formula for immense human suffering and eventual military defeat. Though I have some qualms with the details of the Biden administration’s approach, its directional thrust — providing military aid while exerting relentless pressure for increased humanitarian efforts — is superior. It’s much closer to matching the military, legal and moral needs of the moment.

In fact, Biden’s approach is getting results. After he reportedly threatened to condition future military aid on concrete Israeli steps to aid Palestinian civilians, Israel reopened a vital border crossing. That’s the path forward. Aid civilians as much as possible while giving Israel the weapons it needs to prevail against Hamas and deter a full-scale shooting war with Hezbollah and Iran.

Six months into the war, we cannot forget its immediate cause. Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians means that Israel possesses both the legal right and moral obligation to its people to end Hamas’s rule and destroy its effectiveness as a fighting force. Hamas continues to hold Israeli hostages and reportedly rejected a proposal as far back as February for a second cease-fire and release of hostages.

Excerpts: New York Times

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