October 10, 2023acorninternational relationsforeign affairs

Some lessons from Hamas’s attack on Israel

Don't push the adversary to the wall, the enemy has a vote, walls are not a solution, cycles of violence make peace harder and pluralism is the answer

Welcome to Nitin Pai’s cyberspace. You are in the structured section of my domain where I have my blog posts, newspaper columns, updates on my teaching and research, and other things you had always been warned about.

There is an excellent analysis of the context of Hamas’s attack on Israel (called Toofan Al-Aqsa, or Al-Aqsa Flood) over at Lawrence Freedman’s substack. There is a lot of commentary, analysis and prognoses in the media, and I do not intend to add to it.

Rather, let me extract some basic and tentative lessons for strategy and statecraft:

1. The enemy has a vote

This phrase is commonly used in the US armed forces (Gen James Mattis is a well-known user). I have often heard my senior colleague Lt Gen (retd) Prakash Menon say the enemy has free will”. Just because the adversary is quiet, appears subdued or disinterested, it does not mean that it lacks the ability to act. Israel’s main mistake was that it believed Hamas was deterred and the Palestinians of Gaza too weak, isolated and forgotten.

2. Do not push the adversary to the wall

Putting the adversary in a corner with no escape route risks a fierce counter-attack by one with little to lose. Such an adversary has a relatively far higher threshold of pain and far lower threshold of risk. Palestinians in general, and especially the 2.4 million in Gaza have literally nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to and very little to lose. It is not a surprise that Hamas — an extremist and terrorist faction — ejected the relatively moderate Fatah in Gaza.

3. Walls are not a permanent solution

People will eventually find a way around, below, above or through a wall. Raising and strengthening a wall is merely a way to buy more time. The effect of a wall is temporary. The best use of a wall is to use the time to find more lasting solutions. But walls can fool you into believing that they’ve solved the problem, making you complacent. (Technology is a kind of wall too. It’s a matter of time before it is foiled.)

4. Every new cycle of violence worsens the situation

After Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response (or Israel’s attacks and the Palestinian response, depending on when you start counting) a resolution to the conflict has become much harder. Political leaders need non-existent levels of courage to face down demands for retribution. Violence brutalises people. The greater the level of violence the greater the acceptance of greater brutality. Nobody wins, even those who think they are winning.

5. Unsolvable problems allow others to play their own games

Once a conflict is declared unsolvable” by the parties concerned, external powers will see it primarily as a means to promote their own, often short-term interests.

6. Pluralism is the answer

As I wrote recently:

Well, national self-determination has run its course and is no longer a good principle to organize international politics. Its flip-side is ethnic majoritarianism. The consequence of majoritarianism is secessionism based on—you guessed it—the right to self-determination.

But there are many more people around the world struggling to break away from domination. And if they do get to form their own nation-state, the chances are that they too will first try to cleanse their country of troublesome minorities and then proceed to dominate them. The recursiveness and majoritarianism are not aberrations, only logical consequence of a world that accepts the right to national determination without any enforceable obligations to human liberty. (The Intersection)

To read about more things like this, you can check out my published raw notes and my massive archives.

If you would like to share or comment on this, please discuss it on my GitHub Previous
Championing pluralism will make India a vishwaguru
A techno-optimist rejoinder to Marc Andreessen’s manifesto

© Copyright 2003-2024. Nitin Pai. All Rights Reserved.