Israel Should Adopt Barack Obama’s Counter-Terror Strategy

Smoke billows from a targeted neighbourhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave
Smoke billows from a targeted neighborhood in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on the Hamas-run Palestinian enclave / Getty Images

You are not mistaken if it feels like the headlines today are the same as the headlines a few months ago, which were the same as the headlines a year ago, five years ago, seven years ago, a decade ago.

Ever since Hamas expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza by force in 2007, Israel has maintained a policy toward Hamas of deterrence, not regime change. Despite the often tough rhetoric from Israeli leaders, the IDF has never been ordered to topple Hamas or kill the group's leaders. In every outbreak of fighting, Hamas leaders hide away in the basement of Shifa Hospital knowing they are safe from attack as they send young and brainwashed Palestinians off to fight the IDF.

The Israeli security establishment is guided by two major beliefs: first, that Israel, above all else, must not become responsible once again for governing Gaza, and second, that the Palestinians who supplant Hamas could be even worse—such as the leaders of Islamic Jihad, a de facto Iranian client terror group, or an ISIS affiliate. Or there could be anarchy leading to a massive humanitarian catastrophe that Israel would be drawn into. Based on these tenets, Israel is stuck trying to manage, but not defeat, Hamas—and so the only thing that can be done is "mow the grass" every few years and wait for something to change.

The problem for Israel is that the deterrence strategy is unraveling. Hamas appears to have given up attempting any semblance of governance, and now simply tries to use humanitarian catastrophe and outbursts of terror to blackmail donor countries into handing over money to the group.

Today's barrage of more than 600 rockets, killing several Israeli civilians and sending large parts of the country running for bomb shelters, suggests that a new approach is necessary. To state the obvious, the deterrence strategy only works so long as Hamas is deterred, and it appears that Hamas is no longer deterred. Israel's fighting of numerous Gaza half-wars over the past decade, never attacking the Hamas leadership, is starting to make the IDF look brutal but ineffective. Israel suffers all the international calumny and outrage of fighting a real war, but without the benefit of victory over an enemy.

A counter-terror model Israeli leaders may wish to consider is one employed by President Obama against al Qaeda, and one that Israel itself employed during the Second Intifada: targeted killings of terror leaders. President Obama parked drones over Afghanistan and the tribal provinces of Pakistan and mercilessly killed off al Qaeda leaders whenever and wherever they appeared. When one commander was eliminated and the next one was promoted, he was killed. And the next, and the next. Israel has extraordinary intelligence visibility into Gaza. This approach is well within the IDF's capability.

Terrorist groups, like any organization, have a limited pool of talent to draw from. As senior leaders are killed off and replaced by inferior and inexperienced underlings, the cohesiveness and potency of a terror group is degraded. As is its morale: despite their claims to the contrary, few people wish to take a job that carries an almost certain death sentence.

With targeted killings, Israel can likely deter Hamas without re-occupying Gaza. It can degrade the group's ability to fight, sow suspicion and paranoia, drive commanders underground, and force them to spend the rest of their short lives more worried about their own security than they are about threatening Israel's security.

President Obama's drone strikes worked. Over the course of several years they eliminated much of al Qaeda's leadership and made membership in it an unappealing career choice for innumerable would-be jihadists. It's probably time for the IDF to adopt this approach.

Israel may discover that real deterrence will in fact be established only when Hamas's corrupt and cynical leaders realize that the price of rocket attacks is their own lives, rather than the lives of the foot soldiers they send to die as they cower in Shifa Hospital.