Operation Guardian of the Walls—the fourth war between Israel and Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other groups in Gaza—may be over, but the controversy over the war is only just beginning. Multiple news outlets already allege that the Israeli forces committed war crimes during the conflict. Several American lawmakers criticized Israel's “attack on Palestinian families.” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) even introduced a failed resolution disapproving of a $735 million American arms sale to Israel. A variety of states—including China and Russia—condemned the civilian death toll, despite their own dubious human rights records. Celebrities too have entered the fray. Stepping back for a moment, it is worth asking: Did Israel have another viable operational option vis-à-vis Gaza and could another advanced military have done any better under the same circumstances? The answer is probably not.
To start, some pundits suggested that Israel simply could have hunkered down, let its Iron Dome air defense system intercept incoming Hamas' missiles, and wait for international pressure to stop Hamas' bombardment. Such passivity, though, was likely a nonstarter. Hamas and its allies have an arsenal of upwards of 30,000 rockets and mortars and Iron Dome is at best only 90 percent effective—meaning that hundreds of Hamas' rockets still struck their targets. Moreover, given that Iron Dome's interceptors cost an estimated $40,000 or more each, Israel does not have an unlimited supply either. Above all, the international community may not have the will or leverage to stop Hamas and its fellow Palestinian groups, absent Israeli military pressure.
Unsurprisingly, few, if any, states have turned the other cheek when faced with similar situations. For example, the United States bombed Libya in response to an attack on a club visited by American servicemembers in West Germany in the 1980s. It struck Afghanistan and Sudan in response to American embassy bombings in the 1990s. And the United States launched a decades-long global war on terrorism after the 9/11 attacks. For better or worse, time and again, domestic politics—if not strategic need—push states to go on the offensive when their citizenry is attacked.
Secondly, an only moderately more kinetic approach might have involved the use of enough force to make a point, but not enough to inflict serious damage. Indeed, the United States tried this small-scale use of airpower repeatedly over the last three decades to accomplish a variety of ends from penalizing Saddam Hussein for interfering with Iraq's weapons inspections to punishing the Bashar al-Assad regime using chemical weapons in Syria. Unfortunately, this diplomacy-by-cruise-missile has rarely achieved its objectives and just as often backfires. Deterrence, as Thomas Schelling put it, revolves around the “power to hurt” and that requires demonstrating both the capability as well as the will to act.
Nor is it clear whether a more limited strike would have preserved Israel's global reputation either. Despite all the punditry, Guardian of the Walls may not have changed support for Israel as much as some have asserted. In annual Gallup polling, the percentage of Americans siding “more with the Israelis” in the conflict since 2019 remains almost constant at between 58 to 60 percent, while support for the Palestinians ticked upward slightly from 21 percent in 2019 to 25 percent in 2021 before this last round of fighting. While there has not been much polling on the topic over the last month, initial indications suggest that Guardian of the Walls did not actually change American perceptions of Israel dramatically. A Fox News poll taken between May 22–25, 2021, produced an almost identical result as Gallup, with 59 percent of Americans backing Israel in the most recent conflict and 24 percent backing the Palestinians.…
The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.
A former active-duty Army officer and Iraq war veteran, Raphael S. Cohen is the acting director of the strategy and doctrine program of Project Air Force at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation and the lead author of From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons from Israel's Wars in Gaza.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on June 21, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.