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What is the Mission in the Gaza Strip?

Ed. Note: Ha’aretz reported in early March that in light of ongoing aggression by Hamas, Israeli defense officials are considering asking for/working to create a multinational military force for Gaza. This report on the utility of such a force is based on the author’s previous work on the (now defunct) idea of putting U.S. forces on the Golan Heights and the (now defunct) idea of a multinational force for the West Bank.


Ed. Note: Ha’aretz reported in early March that in light of ongoing aggression by Hamas, Israeli defense officials are considering asking for/working to create a multinational military force for Gaza. This report on the utility of such a force is based on the author’s previous work on the (now defunct) idea of putting U.S. forces on the Golan Heights and the (now defunct) idea of a multinational force for the West Bank.

JINSA has proposed that Gaza become an international protectorate with the ultimate goal of the establishment of a Gaza city-state. (JINSA Report #741) This presumes that Israel and the international community cease to condone the anarchy inside Gaza and the naked aggression against UN members (Israel and Egypt) that characterize Hamas governance. Hamas must be removed. Whether that is done by the IDF or by an international coalition such as the one that contained violence in Bosnia is less relevant here than the fact that an end game for Gaza must be established.

If Israel determines instead that Hamas can stay in power, and that international efforts should be directed toward “convincing” Hamas to accept Israel and stop the war it has initiated, a multinational military force would simply muddy the picture, becoming either a hostage to violence or a party to the war.

The fact that the idea of a multinational force has been floated without knowing whether it will be either a fighting force, a peace-enforcement force or a peacekeeping force is an indication that Israel has not yet decided on an end-game for Gaza. According to Ha’aretz (7 March):

[Israeli] [d]efense officials… are undecided on whether they prefer such a unit to be deployed relatively soon or only after a major ground operation by the Israel Defense Forces… A major offensive could include reoccupying parts of northern Gaza and occupying or imposing a closure on the area around the city of Rafah in the south of the enclave. This reoccupation would be expected to last about a month, after which the army would round up fugitives and seize weapons and materiel over six or seven months. IDF sources say such an operation would gradually reduce the rocket fire and could delay the increase in Hamas’ military power…

The deployment of a multinational force in Gaza is part of the defense establishment’s “exit plan” after a big operation. The idea was raised in unofficial talks with leaders of Arab and Muslim countries, some of whom viewed the issue favorably. Israeli officials believe that the participation of Arab states in a multinational force would help to legitimize it in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

But members of the General Staff said it was better to try less-drastic moves than a major ground operation before deciding to occupy parts of the Strip. One of the proposals discussed was integrating Egyptian troops in a small multinational force that would operate at the border crossings in the hope of sparing Israel a major military operation.

The frequent changes in Israel’s moves in the Gaza Strip this week raised tensions in the cabinet and between the government and IDF. Chief of Staff Gabi Asheknazi decided to take Givati Brigade troops out of the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday night, deciding that the operation had achieved all it could. This led to a curt exchange between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who protested the discrepancy between the decision to continue the operation on Sunday and ending it that night.

There appears to be no agreement within the General Staff or the Israeli government about the mission of Israeli troops in Gaza (and whether they had completed it, or simply been withdrawn until the next time), much less is there agreement about what the mission of multinational troops (including or excluding U.S. forces) would be. Absent that, no military undertaking can be successful.

Strategy in Gaza

Hamas has a strategy borrowed from Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War – “don’t lose.” As long as Hamas remains in control of the levers of power in Gaza, all it has to do is declare “victory” every time Israel finishes a mission and withdraws its forces. In the long run, Hamas is assuming Israel will be politically unwilling to sustain either the military operations or the civilian casualties (including Palestinian civilian casualties) and sue for a ceasefire. Indeed, there are those pushing Israel to do exactly that – talk to Hamas directly or indirectly to arrange a ceasefire.

To date, Israel has pursued limited military goals in Gaza, i.e., targeted hits on Hamas leadership or sweeps in areas likely to house rocket facilities or smuggling tunnels. The result is that Hamas remains in control and “victorious.” It doesn’t matter if the victory is pyrrhic; it corresponds to Hamas’s strategy.

Israel is discussing large-scale military operations for Gaza, including the possibility of reoccupying the area entirely, but there appears to be no consensus in the Israeli government or the military about Israel’s goal for Gaza. What is it that Israel intends to accomplish there?

Under the circumstances, talk of multinational forces is entirely premature because it will be impossible to define a military mission for the force.

Is it:

  • To defeat Hamas militarily?
  • To fight with Israel for control of Gaza?
  • To enter Gaza after Israel defeats Hamas?
  • Is Israel going to leave before a convincing defeat of Hamas? After?
  • Will the IDF stay along with the multinationals?
  • Will a military governor and occupation authority be reinstated?
  • Will the multinational force report to the military governor or to a multinational occupation force?

Just to ask some of the questions makes it clear that U.S. forces would have problems in any such arrangement. Problems for American forces (and political leaders) go beyond those of other countries in part because of our relationship with Israel and because the U.S. is the prime mover in Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” and is thus presumed by the Palestinians, to be at least partly on “their side.”

U.S. Troops in a Multinational Force a Bad Idea

U.S. troops in an international monitoring force may serve neither American nor Israeli interests in the long term and should be approached skeptically.

The United States previously vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution calling for an international monitoring force that would have been deployed between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank over Israel’s objections. Our acting UN Ambassador said at the time, “[We] opposed this resolution because it is unbalanced and unworkable, and hence unwise. It is more responsive to political favor than political reality.” More recent suggestions of international monitoring, including the use of Americans, have been met with a more tempered official American response.

Real security is a function of the nature of long-term relations, i.e., the United States and Canada or Mexico; the Netherlands and Belgium; or even France and Germany 55 years after World War II. Otherwise, nothing substitutes for a viable national security apparatus – the means and political will to deter aggression and, if necessary, to combat that aggression.

U.S. military assets available for deployment abroad are extremely limited, and the public attitude toward peacekeeping missions, never enthusiastic, is unlikely to embrace the idea of Americans in Gaza. The physical proximity of potential combatants makes the proposition inherently dangerous for the American forces, particularly since Hamas and its allies have an announced hostility to the United States as well as Israel.

In the worst-case scenario, American/multinational monitors would be targets simply for being Americans in a hostile place. In addition, they would be targeted if they report accurately on Palestinian violations, and they would lend (inadvertent) sanction to violence if they failed to report violations under threat. In this regard, there is at least a theoretical case to be made for the introduction of “troops” as opposed to “peacekeepers” or “monitors” – troops at least being fully armed, battle ready and able to defend themselves and their position.

Even in the best case under the circumstances, American/multinational monitors are less likely to provide security for Israel than Israel’s own military capability and political will. The presence of foreign forces would limit Israel’s ability to gather intelligence and launch preemptive and defensive attacks that may be deemed necessary by the Israeli government. Substituting American/multinational judgment about Palestinian behavior and an “acceptable level of quiet” for Israel’s judgment would erode Israel’s sovereignty and likely induce a rift between the United States and Israel.

The United States should not put Israel in that position and should not put American forces in that position. And, were Israel to propose a plan for international monitors, the United States would be wise to decline.

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