Monday, October 18, 2010

The MANPADS of October

In a speech to Likud MKs, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Hamas in Gaza had acquired anti-aircraft missiles, likely Russian Strella in either their vehicle mount or MANPADS configuration.  As one might expect, the hand wringing and recriminations around this announcement are extreme, with the concern and fear-mongering all out of proportion to the actual threat, per the standard response.

For me, I don't view this as a particularly worrisome development.  In fact, I can easily make the case that the introduction of this class of weapons into Gaza represents a positive step, for at least two reasons.  First, when nations find themselves at odds, and there is a real risk of conflict, a radical imbalance in military capabilities is inherently destabilizing.   The nation with the large qualitative and/or quantitative advantage in forces might be that much more willing to employ those forces, as the consequences seem less problematic, and the weaker nation is driven to unconventional or asymmetric methods such as terrorism or WMD.  Anything that can be done to bring the opposing forces into somewhat closer balance must, in the first instance, be considered to be a stabilizing action.  It is difficult to envision Israel as a viable partner for peace with the Palestinians when they regularly drop bombs on Palestinian land.  If they become more hesitant to fly their fighters over Palestinian territory, it only removes one more obstacle to peace.

The other reason is the specific nature of Israeli actions against the Palestinians.  As an instrument of policy, the Israeli Air Force is regularly used to assassinate not just Hamas fighters, but Hamas leadership including politicians and elected officials.  Air strikes are used to intimidate and threaten the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, and to regularly remind the Egyptian leadership, by bombing the suspected smuggling tunnels in the Norther Sinai, of what life is like when Israel is your enemy.

This is one of the under-discussed, and therefore under-learned, lessons of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  One of the primary incentives to make peace is the risk to your people and national infrastructure war represents.  When your adversary has no viable method for holding you at risk, there is much less incentive to end the conflict.  Israel firmly believes this, as demonstrated when they killed over a thousand civilians in Gaza in retaliation for the deaths of less than ten Israelis from indiscriminate rocket fire.  Israel's leadership, however, is not unaware of this dynamic, and fights bitterly to resist any small advance in the military capabilities of their adversaries.  The frantic diplomacy and political threats intended to keep Russia from delivering the S-300 anti-aircraft systems they had sold Iran was not widely covered in the US, but demonstrates the importance of every bit of military superiority to the Israeli government.  The only way this system could threaten even a single Israeli citizen is if that citizen was in an airplane dropping bombs on Iran, but even that made it unacceptable to the Israelis.

This premise is actually a stronger driver of Israeli intransigence than is typically noted.  Israel knows, for example, that unlike thirty years ago, if today the Saudis, Egyptians and Syrians presented a unified front in support of the Palestinians Israel would have to accept a peace agreement negotiated around fair, rather than entirely one-sided terms.  So they do what they can to keep the region unstable, encouraging, supporting and funding armed groups, secret police and intelligence agencies, various Islamic sects and groups to keep them at each other's throats.  They know that they cannot allow the region to become peaceful and prosperous, because then they would no longer be the vastly superior military and economic power, and something approximating a balance would lead to outcomes that would benefit someone other than Israelis exclusively.

The anti-aircraft missiles, if Hamas actually has them, give the Palestinians in Gaza a way to defend themselves against the ongoing, brutal imprisonment and collective punishment of their people, and a way to fight back against the Israeli military rather than civilians.  It's hard to see how this is anything but a small improvement in the status quo.

1 comment:

  1. I am generally grateful to the gangs in my town for being relatively scrupulous about only killing each other. My worry is that broken planes gotta crunch somewhere.