On the surface at least, it's pretty clear that Israel invaded the Gaza Strip on Thursday to destroy tunnels used by the militant group Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets out of Gaza into Israel and which relies on those tunnels to access Israel and Egypt. But, surely, this won't destroy Hamas outright. The group will be able to dig more tunnels or will find other ways to resupply themselves. And Israel knows that — its stated objectives, notably, don't include ending Hamas's rule in Gaza. Meanwhile, more Israeli soldiers have died during the ground offensive than in any war since 2006. And many, many more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed. So what's the point of all this suffering? Why did Israel launch an invasion that will cost Israeli lives but likely only have a near-term impact on Hamas?
Answering that requires understanding how Israel thinks about military threats. For a long time, Israel has believed that it can't ever fully eliminate the threats to its survival: it can only manage them. That means using military power to deter attacks on Israel and, sometimes, going to war to punish and weaken enemies that Israel thinks pose a real threat.
This approach served Israel well for a time, or at least has worked enough to stave off total defeat. But the emphasis on managing problems over solving them can lead to short-term thinking, and it's not clear that the way this strategy has been applied to Hamas — euphemistically called "mowing the grass" — is really working. Here's a rundown of the past, present, and future of Israel's strategy, and how it helps explain the current Gaza offensive.
Israel's strategy grew out of Israel's war with Arab states
For most of Israel's existence, conventional Arab militaries, of countries such as Egypt and Syria, were its greatest threats. Think the three wars Israel fought against its Arab neighbors in 1948, 1967, and 1973.
During that period, Israel believed that Arab states wouldn't willingly accept Israel's continued existence, making an immediate peace deal impossible. Israel also knew it couldn't coerce its neighbors into signing a peace treaty by force. So the country developed an alternative approach to managing a threat it believed could not be immediately solved. Israel would have to live with a certain level of threat, it believed, but would use its military to occasionally weaken those threats and ensure they didn't ever reach truly existential proportions. The point of Israel's strategy was to ameliorate its security problems until a political solution to the threat from Arab states could be found.
'Hamas, like any of these other previous threats, needs to be managed'
"Israel's military doctrine has long been to cause damage to its enemies, without being able to take them over completely," Brent Sasley, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies Israeli politics, says. "Because it never could."
Israel applied this strategy to militant groups as well. "Israel has suffered from a terrorism problem since 1948," Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown, writes in an exhaustive study of Israeli counterterrorism's successes and failures. In Byman's assessment, Israel's approach to individual wars has "border[ed] on brilliant." Yet it "often blunders from crisis to crisis without a long-term plan for how to solve the problem once and for all." That's because, in Israeli strategic thought, many of these problems just can't be fully solved by military force.
The applies today. "Israelis see themselves as being under siege," Sasley says. "Hamas, like any of these other previous threats, needs to be managed. You can't defeat them completely. They need to be managed."
The Gaza invasion is about 'mowing the grass'
Obviously, Israel recognizes that the threats from groups like the Gaza-based militant group Hamas aren't the same as the Cold War-era threats it faced from Arab invasions. So it's developed a new version of its long-held threat management strategy, which is often called "mowing the grass." It's a pretty creepy term, as it implies that periodically killing people is the same as keeping your lawn groomed. But that's the basic analogy: Hamas, like grass, can't disappear, but it can be regularly cut down to size. And, like mowing the grass, it's implied that this is a routine that will be continued forever.