Lying is what many powerful states routinely do, particularly in wartime. But at some point, reality will intrude, the war will end and Israel will have to start coming to terms with a very different security environment, one that can be resolved only by talking to the Palestinians.

By Paul Rogers

he on-the-ground situation in Gaza is increasingly difficult to reconcile with the persistent claims from the Israeli government that its defence forces are prioritising the minimising of civilian casualties.

More than 27,000 Palestinians – mostly women and children – have been killed and several thousand are missing according to the Gazan Health Ministry, with many more buried under rubble. More than 66,000 have been wounded, with many thousands more traumatised.

For those who survive this prolonged, horrific attack, there will be life-long impacts on health and life expectancy caused by the malnutrition and spread of infectious diseases being reported by UN bodies such as the UN Relief and Works Agency, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme.

Israel president Binyamin Netanyahu’s claims may now seem beyond farcical, but they make a kind of sense if seen as the claims of a government following two different policies at the same time, with messages intended for different audiences.

Given the impact that the mass killing of Palestinians is now having on Israel’s few remaining allies – especially the US and UK, where protests in support of Palestinians regularly draw large crowds – Israel must maintain the pretence of an orderly war with few civilians killed.

Netanyahu’s government is lying, but it would be naive to expect otherwise. Lying is what many powerful states routinely do, particularly in wartime.

The classic example, after all, is on nuclear strategy. Most governments publicly take the stance that nuclear weapons are solely weapons of last resort, the ultimate deterrent to be used when all else has failed. That may be reassuring, but it isn’t true.

In reality, all the nuclear powers – the US, the UK, France, China, Russia and the rest – can see value in nuclear forces that could be used in circumstances of limited war.

Right from the start of Britain’s nuclear age in the late 1950s, consideration was given to using nuclear weapons in all conflicts short of world wars. Some of the earliest nuclear weapons were actually free-fall bombs for use by Scimitar and Buccaneer strike aircraft operating from the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers in distant waters from early in the 1960s. Nuclear weapons were carried on task force ships during the Falklands/Malvinas war more than 40 years ago. There were even threats of nuclear use from senior politicians during the Iraq war 20 years ago.

US nuclear plans have also existed in myriad different forms. In NATO for example, nuclear options extended from ‘demonstration’ shots to show the Soviets the US meant business, to limited ‘packets’ of nuclear weapons that might include nuclear artillery shells, short-range missiles, to powerful weapons.

The numbers in a package might vary from a handful to 50 or more, always with the idea that a limited nuclear war could be ‘won’, and the opponent defeated.

In both the UK and the US, this reality was a very far cry from the public idea of stable deterrence – but that was only ever the declaratory policy. What we are witnessing in Gaza is something akin to this, an implementation policy that differs from what is said in public – the declaratory policy. Israel has repeatedly failed to minimise civilian casualties and the current Gaza war is no exception apart, of course, from the sheer size of the Palestinian death toll.

From early in Israel’s current attack on Gaza, I have argued the Netanyahu government fell into Hamas’s trap by declaring that nothing less than the group’s total destruction would suffice. This remained the aim even when Israel’s Western allies were getting uneasy at the sheer number of Palestinian civilian casualties.

We are now at the end of the fourth month of the war. Palestinian casualties are massive but Netanyahu and the IDF persist, combining large-scale bombing with attempts to dislodge Hamas paramilitaries.

In areas like northern Gaza, where the IDF has claimed full control for over a month, Hamas continues to fight and fire rockets into Israel, and there are even reports that the group “is rebuilding a system of governance”. Meanwhile, the IDF and intelligence agencies clearly do not know where Hamas is holding a hundred or more hostages.

The really damaging outcome for Israel is that right across the region and beyond, it has lost its reputation for being in control of its security. For a state that puts such a huge stake on being secure, 7 October was a disaster of historic proportions, but the response of this particular government is proving to be an even greater disaster as the Palestinian death toll heads beyond 30,000 and Israel’s reputation plummets as never before.

In short, it is proving extremely difficult to destroy Hamas, the Palestinian death toll rises by the day, half the houses in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged and many thousands of Palestinians are facing the winter in tents. Meanwhile, hard-line Israeli politicians in Netanyahu’s government talk openly of the need to replace Palestinians in Gaza with Israeli settlers and the national security minister, Itmar Ben-Gvir, argues that aid convoys into Gaza should cease.

At some point, reality will intrude, the war will end and Israel will have to start coming to terms with a very different security environment, one that can be resolved only by talking to the Palestinians and working towards a mutually acceptable long-term peace deal.

The US could speed that up, as the only state that has anyt like a veto on Israel due to its massive military support. So far there is not much sign of that, but Joe Biden is facing increasing domestic opposition and that may, before long, make a difference.

Paul Rogers is Emeritus Professor of Peace Studies in the Department of Peace Studies and International Relations at Bradford University, and an Honorary Fellow at the Joint Service Command and Staff College. He is openDemocracy’s international security correspondent. He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

Image:, Public Domain

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