In reviewing more than six decades of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a cost/benefit analysis of the two sides’ reliance on violence produces a very mixed record. Whereas Israel has generally triumphed in its conventional wars against neighboring Arab states, success in fighting non-state actors–primarily the Palestinians but also Hizballah–has been much more difficult to achieve. The Palestinian record against Israel is no better.
Beginning at the end: observing the latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza-based terrorist organizations, we can only conclude that with regard to Gaza, violence does not represent a viable means to a strategic end for either Israel or the Palestinians.
Rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli civilian targets certainly does disrupt life in southern Israel. But it does not move Hamas or the Gaza-based jihadist organizations any closer to achieving recognizable strategic objectives such as the well-being of Palestinian civilians, exporting the Hamas cause to the West Bank or dismantling Israel as a Zionist state. On the contrary, it brings death, destruction and impoverishment upon the Gaza Strip.
On the other hand, Israel’s military response to rockets from Gaza–effective interception by the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile along with air attacks on military targets and, in the past, ground invasion of the Strip–appears to reflect little more than the tactical objective of minimizing Israeli losses and achieving short-term deterrence. It does not address the strategic lacuna since 2007 of a viable Israeli strategy for dealing with the Islamist threat from Gaza–such as coexisting with it by means of an effective ceasefire or, at the other end of the spectrum, destroying it through invasion and reoccupation.
Violence, then, serves neither side very effectively in and around Gaza.
Violence does seem to have served the Palestinian cause in two instances I can recall. The airplane hijackings and terrorist attacks on Israelis and Jews that were carried out during the early 1970s by Palestinians based in Arab countries succeeded–albeit at a heavy cost in the lives of Palestinian leaders targeted by Israel in response–in making the world more aware of the Palestinian cause. And the first intifada that began in late 1978, which in contrast consisted primarily of low-level violence, made Israelis aware that a growing body of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza desperately sought a genuine two-state solution.
In both cases, Israel fought back quite effectively and suffocated Palestinian violence. Yet the Palestinian strategy of violence worked. I testify to this as one who was involved in combating the terrorist wave in the 1970s and who was influenced by the first intifada in the late 1970s-early 1980s to begin serious strategic research, dialogue and writing on the two-state solution–activities that, I would like to think, eventually contributed to the evolution of a peace process.
In all other instances–the Palestinian role in the 1948 War of Independence/Nekba, cross-border terrorist attacks in the 1950s and 1970s, the second intifada and the suicide bombings–the use of violence has been disastrous for the Palestinian cause. In particular, the suicide bombings launched from the West Bank during the second intifada in the early years of this century traumatized Israelis in a manner that has clearly contributed to Israeli doubts about the credibility of the Palestinian goal of a two-state solution.
The question of the effectiveness of Israeli violence toward Palestinians would appear to be more complex. We mentioned two clear-cut instances above. But if we expand the definition of Israeli violence to include settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem–representing the confiscation by force of arms of land claimed by Palestinians–then it has clearly "failed" in the sense of exacerbating the conflict, rendering a two-state solution more difficult and catalyzing violence by both sides, from last week’s stabbing in the Jerusalem tram to "price tag" operations by anarchic settlers.
We began by noting that Israel’s record of combating Palestinian non-state violence by force is problematic. But, to be fair, Israel’s record of dealing with the Palestinian issue by non-violent means has proven equally spotty. Unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 did not seriously advance the cause of a two-state solution; instead, it set the stage for a Hamas takeover and rocket attacks on Israel. The Oslo formula did seemingly advance the two-state cause by creating the autonomous Palestinian Authority, but it too has failed to generate peace and a Palestinian state.
In other words, not only has violence generally failed both parties, with the few exceptions noted above–but so have other means. Accordingly, any attempt by both sides to reassess our failures and identify new strategies must focus not only on violence, but on diplomacy as well.