If military power is all it would take to finish the menace of an awful terrorist organisation like Hamas, how come five Israeli wars in Gaza since 2003 have failed to do so? asks Shekhar Gupta.

If we asked a question like, ‘How important are the armies to building and projecting a nation’s power,’ we would be laughed at as though we were idiots.

We have no intention of going there.

That the military is central to a nation’s Gross National Power (GNP) is beyond any doubt.

Unless, of course, you are still an idealistic and uncorrupted teenager at your school’s Model UN debate.

That’s why defence budgets are going up for all major nations.

Even Japan has dumped its pacifism and released a comprehensive military upgrade plan to double its defence budget by 2027.

If we, however, posit this question differently, a debate is possible.

Critical and essential though the armies are for overall power, can they achieve their nation’s political objectives by themselves?

Our answer won’t be an unequivocal yes.

But that would be the impression if you watch much of the debate in the country, especially on our television channels that seem to be raring for the invasion.

The logic is, Israel has among the world’s best armies, intelligence, and once these are unleashed, Hamas will be history.

Here’s a spoiler: If military power is all it would take to finish the menace of an awful terrorist organisation like Hamas, how come five Israeli wars in Gaza since 2003 have failed to do so? And where did ISIS come from?

If quick military invasion is all that was needed to finish Hamas, how come the Israelis still haven’t done so?

Are they hedging, hesitant or regrouping after the first flush of anger has passed?

Israel’s own experience shows better than any other nation, besides the US’s, that relying on military power, however overwhelming, is a very dodgy approach to achieving a larger political and strategic objective.

It mostly guarantees failure, not success.

Specifically for Israel, its armies have played a critical role in protecting it.

But it had to make an expensive peace deal with the Egyptians, returning all territories captured in 1967.

All its other enemies, including non-State actors, such as Hamas or Hezbollah, are still in the ring for a fight, and on their feet.

History of the past eight decades (post-World War II) teaches us that a pure military approach is almost always guaranteed to fail.

There might be a couple of exceptions here and there, like India in 1971 and Britain in the Falklands War, but those are also qualified by other important factors.

On the record though, Israeli leaders, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have spoken repeatedly of destroying Hamas with a finality.

For that to happen, it is presumed — and widely accepted — that a ground invasion is absolutely necessary.

Since the atrocity of October 7, the only question over the ground invasion has been when.

The why, how, and to what end, have mostly been missing from the debate.

Of course, there are two clear sides to the larger question for the Israelis/Jews and for Hamas/Palestinians.

A ground invasion is taken as an inevitability by both, never mind the caution that US President Joe Biden sounded on his way out of Israel.

Those who believe that Mr Netanyahu is absolutely committed to the idea think that he is only waiting for the new equipment from the US to be in place, and its Western allies to build up strength in the Mediterranean to deter Iran and its proxies.

Either way, since he has some breathing and thinking room now, a bit of rethinking might not be out of place.

It is possible that the conclusion will still ultimately be to ‘go inside’, but there is no harm doing a bit more war-gaming and also history-gazing.

Because, while almost nobody has achieved its primary national objective through military means since 1945, many have ended up suffering unlikely defeats and enfeebling themselves in the course of time.

Think Soviet Union in Afghanistan, America in Afghanistan and Iraq. And before that, Vietnam and Korea. Similarly, the French military power lost all of Africa.

Now, we watch a retreat of the remains of French power from several countries in Africa as the new juntas backed by the Chinese and Russian proxies take over. Niger being only the more prominent example.

The remarkable success of Israel’s military lies in the fact that Israel exists.

Or a tiny strip of a nation between the ‘river and the sea’ would’ve been overrun many times over.

As for what the military has added territorially, questions remain.

The annexation of Golan Heights may appear somewhat more widely accepted, but serious questions will always remain on the West Bank.

Again, regardless of the outcome of an invasion in Gaza, the global clamour for a two-State solution, an independent Palestine, will only get stronger.

This will include Israel’s closest friends, from the US to India. Europe has traditionally had even stronger views on this.

The Chinese have taken a stronger position, especially with their deepening relationship with Iran and Russia.

Israel’s latest and most critical friends in the region, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will also advocate for the Palestinian state, even as they go the extra mile to preserve Israel.

You want to see the complexity? Check out how history was made when the Saudis used top-of-the-line US supplied anti-missile systems to shoot down a Houthi missile en route to Israel.

The Saudis will become new and valuable friends because they see their strategic interests as often conflicting with Iran’s and aligned with the US and Israel.

But they will not run against overwhelming Arab and Muslim opinion on Palestine.

The last eight decades have repeatedly underlined the futility of settling any chronic issues using purely military means.

If that were possible, India would have likely finished the Kashmir problem by now.

Military shock-and-awe works initially, but its effect is somewhat akin to that of steroid therapy.

It puts down the problem in the immediate term, gives you a bit of relief, and satisfies the urge for revenge.

The problem within festers, even gets stronger like a germ under steroid therapy. Israelis know it better than any other.

In a war, one side may win every battle, as the Americans did in Afghanistan and Iran.

But in the absence of diplomacy, politics, compromise and give-and-take going hand-in-hand, the final result is defeat.

Israel’s challenge is complicated by the fact that they do not face a hostile, sovereign power.

Whatever the Iranians may do behind the scenes, they are not about to participate directly in this war.

Gaza itself is really a little urban sprawl.

Think of it as a territory the size of Greater Noida on the outskirts of Delhi. Or about one-and-a-half times the size of Noida.

It is merely 351 square km, 41 km long and between 5 and 12 km wide.

You can unleash the strongest military in the region and declare victory. But there will be costs.

As any practitioner of urban warfare will tell you — what modern armies call FIBUA, or Fighting In Built-Up Areas — cities suck in and trap troops and give a determined defender as much advantage as high ground in the mountains.

Does Israel want to risk that, along with civilian casualties, destruction and global censure?

It may kill all of Hamas’s current leaders and most of its manpower, but the supremely evil idea and ideology won’t just survive, it will return stronger.

Would it be better off fighting a more patient, Israel-like long war, using its legendary intelligence, targeted attacks, targeting terrorist leaders and avoid its own casualties as well as international opprobrium?

This delayed ground invasion is Mr Netanyahu’s moment to rethink.

By special arrangement with The Print

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Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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