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The Containment Controversy

June 28, 2022

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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Remains of a public bus after a suicide bomber

Security threats are a certainty in Israel. Every area of society is impacted by the ongoing existence of very real enemies—both inside and outside the nation’s borders—who make no secret of their intention to use whatever means necessary to de-Judaize the Jewish state and rid the neighborhood of Jews. Some say this has, by necessity, created an aggressive, imperialistic society whose political, defense and social branches are overtly militaristic in their worldview.

In practice, however, it seems the opposite is true. Although in matters of national security, military considerations are sometimes prioritized over political, economic or ideological concerns, Israel has actually demonstrated significant and ongoing restraint over the last several decades. Even right-wing leaders such as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was famous for his hardline rhetoric, preferred the use of foreign policy tools such as economic carrots and sticks, diplomacy and international pressure, with military intervention only as a very last resort and most often as a deterrent. Such policies have coalesced into what many call “containment,” an approach much like that of the United States in dealing with the post-World War II Soviet Union. It was believed that communism contained within itself the seeds of its own decay and would eventually crumble on its own if it could be contained, kept from expansion and held under the steady pressure of these “measures short of all-out war.” 

The Israeli Context

Opponents of Israel’s strategy of containment are quick to point out that the issues Israel faces in 2022 are essentially different than those faced by the United States in the 1950s. Although the long-term threats posed by the Soviet Union included expansionism and the upending of the international balance of power, it was recognized that the post-World War II Soviet Union had neither the will nor the ability to launch any kind of military attack on America. Israel, on the other hand, deals with armed insurgency, violence against civilians and the threat of terrorism on literally a daily basis.

Intifada is an Arabic word which literally means “to shudder” or “to shake off” as a dog shakes off water or as desert dwellers shake the dust from their sandals. It was first used in its current context in what is known as the Iraqi Intifada of 1952. Today, it is a key concept in Arabic usage referring to a rebellion or a resistance movement. The Soviet Union posed no such threat to America, but Israel has faced two such uprisings in its comparatively short life.

The First Intifada began in 1987. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “This uprising or intifada was violent from the start. During the first four years of the uprising, more than 3,600 Molotov cocktail attacks, 100 hand grenade attacks and 600 assaults with guns or explosives were reported by the Israel Defense Forces [IDF]. The violence was directed at soldiers and civilians alike. During this period, 16 Israeli civilians and 11 soldiers were killed by Palestinians in the territories; more than 1,400 Israeli civilians and 1,700 Israeli soldiers were injured. Approximately 1,100 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. Jews were not the only victims of the violence. In fact, as the intifada waned around the time of the Gulf War in 1991, the number of Arabs killed for political and other reasons by Palestinian death squads in what amounted to an “intrafada” exceeded the number killed in clashes with Israeli troops.”

The violence ended in 1993 with thousands of dead and injured on both sides.

The Second Intifada—sometimes called the Al-Aqsa Intifada—began in 2002 and “ended” in 2005. It was much more violent than the first, with hundreds of suicide bombings and thousands of victims. The Jewish Virtual Library explains: “According to the rules of engagement for Israeli troops in the territories, the use of weapons is authorized solely in life-threatening situations or in the exercise of the arrest of an individual suspected of having committed a grave security offense. In all cases, IDF activities have been governed by an overriding policy of restraint, the requirement of proportionality and the necessity to take all possible measures to prevent harm to innocent civilians. Meanwhile, the Palestinians escalated their violent attacks against Israelis by using mortars and anti-tank missiles illegally smuggled into the Gaza Strip. Palestinians fired mortar shells into Jewish communities in Gaza and Israel proper and IDF reports indicate that anti-tank missiles were fired at Israeli forces.”

It has been suggested that the monikers “first” and “second” are not presenting an accurate picture of the Palestinians’ strategy in terms of this conflict. Some say Israel has been in a constant state of intifada since the beginning of the uprising in 1987 or perhaps as far back as the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Scarcely a month has passed in the ensuing years without a terrorist attack of some sort somewhere in Israel or aimed at Israelis in other parts of the world. Thousands have been killed or maimed in an ongoing conflict that continues to this day. Samaria experiences attacks daily, most of which do not attract media attention because no one is killed or injured. Weapons of choice have evolved from rocks and Molotov cocktails to knives, guns, rockets, axes, scissors, incendiary balloons or even bulldozers. But the violence never really ceases. At the writing of this article, Israeli leaders are expecting a very difficult summer with a dramatic uptick in numbers and intensity of attacks.

The aftermath of a suicide explosion at Disengoff Center

Reaping the Fruit

For the US, containment brought about decades of Cold War. But in December of 1991, the Soviet Union breathed its last—without a shot being fired. Some say containment did, in fact, have the desired effect.

For Israel, however, there is no cold war, only a very long and deadly daily conflict with no end in sight. But proponents of containment say that it is working. The face of the Middle East is changing. Israel is building a network of strong relationships in Africa, Eastern Europe and even with its Arab neighbors. As Israel and those neighbors unite against their common enemy Iran, the plight of the Palestinians seems to be less important than military and political alliances. The Jewish state is in the best position it has been in since its inception, proponents say. Israel has recently concluded the largest and most comprehensive war games in the nation’s history and has seen the economy recover from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in a matter of months. So, is Israel’s strategy of containment working? All the above factors point to a resounding yes. But then again, this is the Middle East, one of the most unpredictable and volatile neighborhoods on earth. Here, even one tiny seemingly insignificant spark is enough to set everything ablaze and turn decades of containment to ashes. Perhaps the most accurate answer is that only time will tell.

Photo Credit: Click on photo to see photo credit

Photo License: Dizengoff Center

Photo License: Bus Remains

Photo License: Intifada Stencil

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