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MIDEAST: Gaza, and Israel’s Wars of Forced Regime Change

WASHINGTON, Jan 9 2009 (IPS) - The war that Israel launched on Gaza Dec. 27 is the seventh war of choice Israel has launched against its neighbours since 1973, the last year in which it fought a war that was forced upon it.

Of the seven wars one – in Lebanon, 1978 – had the goal of establishing an Israeli-controlled “security zone” running inside Lebanon’s border with Israel. The other six, including the present war on Gaza, all aimed at imposing a “forced regime change” on Arab communities neighbouring Israel through the violent physical dismantlement of politico-military structures then present in, or on occasion dominating, those societies.

The five earlier attempts at forced regime change all had interesting – and quite unintended – consequences that might have given Israel’s leaders serious pause before they launched the present war.

The first of those “forced regime change” (FRC) wars was the one Ariel Sharon, as defence minister, planned and launched against the PLO’s structures in Lebanon in 1982. The PLO mounted a spirited defence. But after seven weeks of terrible destruction, pressure from their Lebanese allies forced the PLO leaders to agree to an internationally mediated ceasefire that mandated the evacuation of the entire PLO security force to distant Arab lands.

From a military viewpoint, Sharon’s war had “worked”. But it had two intriguing political-strategic consequences. Regarding Palestine, Palestinians in the occupied territories who previously had waited to be “saved” by PLO forces from outside realised after 1982 that they needed to work for their own liberation.

They launched their first intifada against Israel in 1987. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the IDF was left as a badly over-stretched occupation force, unable to counter the emergence of a new, indigenous Islamist-nationalist organisation that hadn’t even existed before 1982: Hizbullah.

In 1992, Hizbullah’s political wing ran in Lebanon’s parliamentary election, winning four seats and considerable additional legitimacy in national politics. The next year the IDF launched another FRC war in Lebanon, this time against Hizbullah. That war, the IDF was unable to win. It ended in a fairly fragile – because unmonitored – ceasefire.

In 1996, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, worried about his chances in an impending Israeli election, ordered the IDF to try again. That FRC war was even less satisfactory for Israel. Hizbullah’s resilient military and mass-organisation structures withstood the IDF’s repeated attempts to bomb them into either annihilation or submission.

The IDF’s violence and the mass killings it inflicted proved politically counter-productive to Israel at both the Lebanese and international levels. After some weeks Peres had to agree to a ceasefire resolution in which the subsequent actions of both sides would be subject to international monitoring. The IDF returned to the “security zone” demoralised. (And Peres lost his election.)

Regarding Palestine, the first intifada had led to the Oslo Agreement which led to the establishment of a somewhat autonomous “Palestinian Authority” (PA) in the occupied Palestinian territories. Oslo also mandated that negotiations on a final-status Israeli-Palestinian peace would be finished by 1999. As Israel stalled on those key negotiations and continued to plant settlers in the Occupied Territories, Palestinian frustration grew. In September 2000, the second intifada erupted.

That eruption was sparked when Ariel Sharon very provocatively entered Jerusalem’s holiest Islamic space, the Haram al-Sharif, accompanied by more than 1,000 armed police. By then, Sharon was leader of the opposition Likud Party, despite his earlier exclusion from high office in line with the recommendation of the Kahan Commission regarding his actions in the 1982 war in Lebanon. Elections were getting ever closer in Israel. They were held in February 2001. Likud won, and Sharon became prime minister.

In 2002, he ordered Israel’s fourth FRC war of the modern era. This one was against the PA’s structures in the Occupied Territories – both the security forces and those delivering social and economic services.

Sharon largely succeeded in smashing the PA’s infrastructure, but once again the political-strategic consequences proved counter-productive. Hamas, a militant Islamist-national group that Israel had once incubated, had always criticised the PLO for giving away too much in its never-ending peace talks with Israel. Now, with the PLO both incapacitated and humiliated, Hamas saw considerable new growth. In January 2006 it ran for the first time in PA legislative elections – and won.

Sharon had recently suffered a stroke. He was replaced by Ehud Olmert, a much younger figure who seemingly needed to prove his military toughness. In June 2006, Olmert unleashed another FRC war, this one against Lebanon’s Hizbullah. Hizbullah withstood that one, too. It, and the whole of Lebanon, suffered badly in 2006. But by the middle of 2008 Hizbullah’s political position in Lebanon was stronger than ever.

For his part, Olmert was badly damaged politically by the strategic ineptitude he and the IDF displayed in 2006. He clung to office, his power much diminished. At the end of 2008, as foreign minister Tzipi Livni and defence minister Ehud Barak were squaring off to fight each other and Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu in the February 2009 election, the Israeli cabinet decided on Israel’s sixth FRC war: this one against Hamas in Gaza.

The history of Israel’s FRC wars deserves close study. All have been “wars of choice” in that the “unbearable” situations that Israeli leaders have cited, each time, as giving them “no alternative” but to fight can all be seen as having been very amenable to negotiation – should Israel have chosen that path instead.

Also, all these wars were planned in some detail in advance, with the Israeli government just waiting for – or even, on occasion, provoking – some action from the other side that they could use as a launch pretext. All have received strong financial, rearming, and political support from the U.S., not least because they were waged in the name of counter-terrorism.

But the outcomes are important, too. At a purely military level, the two FRC wars against the PLO were the ones that Israel was able to “win”, in terms of being largely able to dismantle the structures it targeted. But the longer term, political-strategic outcomes of both those wars were distinctly counter-productive for Israel since they paved the way for the emergence of much tougher minded and better organised movements.

By contrast, Israel was unable to win any of its three FRC wars against Hizbullah. In each, Hizbullah withstood Israel’s assault long enough to force it into a ceasefire. All these wars ended up strengthening Hizbullah’s position inside Lebanese politics.

So how will Israel’s current attempt to inflict forced regime change on the Gaza Palestinians work out? If history is a guide, as it is, then this war will bring about either Hamas’s dismantling or a ceasefire on terms that will lead to (or at least allow) Hamas’s continued political strengthening.

A dismantling is unlikely, since Hamas’s leadership is located outside Gaza and has links throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds that ensure that annihilation of Hamas in Gaza would have serious global consequences. But if Hamas is dismantled in Gaza, it is most likely to be replaced there – faster or slower – by groups that are even more militant and more Islamist than itself.

Meantime, the high human costs of the war continue to mount daily.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at

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