As the year 2008 nears its end, the Middle East has again exploded.
Israel possesses the military might to overwhelm most powers in the Middle East, both state and non-state entities, though not invincible as the IDF’s operations in southern Lebanon in 2006 have shown.
The problem is that in midst of governments lacking in democratic credentials and legitimacy, or the ability to control the territory by monopolizing instruments of violence, groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah enjoy a relatively strong popular support and can count on it. These groups know the terrain, are well-trained and motivated, and able to adapt their method of fighting. Fashioning themselves and shunned by others as outcasts, they have little to lose by ignoring what is politically or diplomatically expedient.
The densely populated Gaza Strip is a very difficult terrain to fight, if the IDF were to avoid to civilian casualties, both in terms of aerial and ground operations. In terms of battles and wars to come, the IDF should be able to ‘win’. However it remains to be seen what Israel’s ‘grand strategy’ is. What will Israel do, if it (re-)occupies the Gaza Strip? Is Israel ready to occupy the territory again? Or is it going to be a win-and-withdraw operation? Occupation will be costly but withdrawal after victory would not solve the problem, as long as the grievances remain, there will be resistance and renewed attacks on Israel.
More important question is: how will Israel maintain its long-term security? The problem is that more and more non-state or quasi-state organizations will be in possession of stronger, longer-range and deadlier weaponry in the future. Rockets may become more portable and easier to launch. It will probably be impossible to stop all arms shipments to military organizations. Formal asymmetry in military equipment to Israel’s favour will not be as pronounced as it is today. How long could Israel defend itself effectively, relying on its hugely advantageous military prowess? Defence by attacking may become increasingly more difficult. There may be in the future some sort of defensive mechanism to shoot down incoming rockets but any such system is unlikely to be 100% effective: it may prevent 99 out of 100, but if hundreds of rockets are fired, that is little comfort. Options that gurantee near-total security for Israel will be impractical and unpalatable, such as creating a large occupied or semi-occupied buffer zone. Perhaps a situation where the military organizations have deadlier weapons will herald a period of calm because of MAD (mutually assured destruction), but that seems too precarious a foundation for (long-term) peace.
Added: 2 January 2009
The Times pubished an interesting article on the point of longer-range rockets with some disturbing potential: Gaza rockets put Israel’s nuclear plant in battle zone.