Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Israeli, Gazan: Whose life is least valuable?
On the surface, November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, the eight-day Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, was a success. A ground incursion was averted, Israel projected a measure of deterrence toward the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the performance of the Iron Dome anti-missile system proved impressive, and the clash ended with an unsigned memorandum of understanding among Israel, Egypt, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, brokered by Egypt and the United States. Israel killed about 160 Palestinians while losing only six Israelis. However, the operation exposed some of Israel’s military constraints, namely what I call the “hierarchy of death”—the extent to which the state values the lives of its soldiers, compared to its civilians and enemy noncombatants.
Until the 1980s, Israel generally chose to place in jeopardy soldiers from the privileged—mostly Ashkenazi—middle class, more than civilians and other soldiers. However, the 1980s brought about a growing sensitivity to casualties in Israel, as in other Western societies, causing the state to gradually shift its approach. It began putting at risk more soldiers drawn from lower classes (such as Mizrahi and religious communities, and, later, immigrants from the former Soviet Union), who increasingly staffed the combat units.
With elites more reluctant to be sacrificed, and society more sensitive to casualties generally, Israel’s strategy changed further: The military became willing to risk civilian lives while protecting soldiers. The unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 under pressure from antiwar movements such as Four Mothers, a group founded by middle-class mothers of soldiers, was an example: The withdrawal occurred despite the threat seemingly posed to the civilian communities in the Galilee. So powerful was this urge to protect soldiers that later, in the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the government and the military were unwilling to launch a ground incursion to clear out Hezbollah rocket launchers that targeted Israeli civilians—because it would put soldiers at too much risk.
Boxed in by conflicting duties to the two groups it wanted most urgently to protect—Israeli civilians and soldiers—the state turned to another option, the use of excessive lethality in conflict. This provides protection to Israeli civilians and soldiers but may claim more civilian casualties from the other side. As the Gaza offensive of 2009 (Operation Cast Lead) demonstrated, Israel began to place Gazan civilians at the bottom of the death hierarchy, shifting more risk away from soldiers and Israeli civilians.
Most recently, in 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel confronted a genuine dilemma (setting aside whether one accepts, as I do not, the wisdom of initiating this operation). Even if Israel’s missile-blocking defense system, Iron Dome, provided protection, the government could not subject civilians to a prolonged threat and to the disruption of daily life. Aerial attacks, though effective, did not produce the expected effect of driving Hamas to beg for a ceasefire. Some might have interpreted the next step to be a massive ground operation aimed at taking operational control over strategic areas in Gaza to stop the smuggling of weapons into the strip. But a ground operation would have meant endangering reservists—an intolerable risk, especially on the eve of elections.
Three years after Operation Cast Lead, Israel could no longer shift the risk to the Gazan noncombatants—that is, it could not reduce the soldiers’ exposure to danger by using a liberal fire policy that could potentially claim more Gazan civilian casualties. The international community has grown more vocal in its opposition to ground operations, and Israel more sensitive to a changing post-revolution Egypt. No less important, Israel learned to exercise some caution after the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report accused it (along with Hamas) of war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.
In sum, Israel could not, and cannot, easily resolve the inherent tension in its death hierarchy. Iron Dome partly eases the dilemma by mitigating the risk to large civilian communities, but this is only a short-term solution. As in the past—at the end of the second Lebanon war, for instance—the dilemma could be resolved only by opting for an informal ceasefire agreement with Hamas. In hindsight, it is reasonable to conclude that, restricted by its priorities, Israel gained no real advantage by resorting to the use of force.
In the likely event of another round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Israel will be left with only two options. One is to find ways to cooperate with Hamas, in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of future hostilities. Another is to further emulate the Powell Doctrine, which says that force should be used only as a last resort if there is a clear risk to national security. Such a determination should legitimize (externally and internally) the use of overwhelming force that risks soldiers and/or should justify shifting the risk to enemy noncombatants. As this option is less probable, one long-term legacy of Operation Pillar of Defense may be that Israel will be restrained from using force in future conflicts.
Yagil Levy, associate professor of sociology at the Open University of Israel, is the author of six books, most recently, Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy.