On Friday, May 21, a ceasefire brought a halt to eleven days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the de facto government of the Gaza Strip. Over 4,300 rockets had been lobbed at targets in Israel, while precision-guided bombs rained down on Gaza, toppling high-rise buildings and burying miles of underground tunnels.
Prior to the ceasefire, sources inside the Israeli government indicated that Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to prolong the assault as long as possible—seeing every day of continued bombardment as an opportunity to further devastate the administrative and military infrastructure built by Hamas since the last devastating Israel-Hamas war in 2014.
As Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir first approvingly put it in a 2014 article for the Jerusalem Post, Israeli strategists see the wars as “mowing the grass” in a lengthy struggle of attrition in which a political solution is unlikely.
Hamas’ rocket barrage, launched in response to distant but provocative events in Jerusalem, effectively gave the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) an opening to decimate the group’s rank-and-file and leadership, and destroy its assets and physical infrastructure, just as the IDF had in wars in 2014 and 2008.
Underlying this view is a grim sense that perpetual war is the only answer to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.
Three Wars in Thirteen Years
Though the majority of Hamas rockets fell short or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, rocket, and mortar fire still killed twelve civilians in Israel and caused scattered damage to Israeli infrastructure. An IDF soldier was also killed outside Gaza by an anti-tank missile fired at his jeep.
Meanwhile, precision bombs dropped by F-16 and F-35 jets buried large stretches of Hamas’s underground tunnel network, destroyed naval commandoes forces and their boats, and Hamas’s interior ministry. However, it is less clear how large a dent the IDF put into the 14,000 rockets Hamas is believed to have stockpiled.
Guided missiles also smashed into the homes of Hamas leaders, killing them and many of their family members. And Gaza’s only Covid testing vaccination center was also destroyed, as was a critical desalinization planet, the sewer system, and a number of hospitals. In all, at least 243 Gazans were killed, including over 100 women and children.
Depending on how you count, the 2021 conflict is Israel’s third major war with Hamas in twelve years, or its fifth with Palestinian groups since the Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000 following the collapse of the Oslo Accord peace process.
In 2006–2007 Hamas, recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, consolidated control over the Gaza Strip first by winning an election and then expelling the more moderate Fateh party in a power struggle.
The small coastal enclave is the world’s third most densely populated polity with its population of over 2 million Palestinians—70 percent of them refugees from other parts of Israel. Israel has implemented a blockade of Gaza with walls, fences, checkpoints, and even robotic sentry guns. Though this has reduced attacks and kidnappings targeting neighboring Jewish communities, it denies Gazans access to jobs and healthcare outside the territory, resulting in poverty and deteriorating living conditions.
In the winter of 2008–2009, the IDF began an aerial bombardment campaign and limited ground invasion of Gaza in response to rocket fire and the expansion of Hamas’s smuggling tunnels. In three weeks of fighting, around 1,100 to 1,400 Gazans (around half civilians) and thirteen Israelis (including three civilians) were killed.
In July 2014, the IDF again bombarded and then invaded Gaza due to rocket attacks and the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. This time, Hamas tunnel infiltration tactics led to heavier Israeli military casualties (67 killed). But in turn, 2,100 to 2,300 Gazans were killed, between one- and two-thirds of them civilians. Meanwhile, Israel’s Iron Dome defense system mitigated the lethality of the 1,700 rockets launched by Hamas, which killed six Israeli civilians.
The human cost of IDF lawn-mowing is generally defended on the basis of a country’s right self-defense (against Hamas rocket attacks, suicide bombings, kidnappings) and the objectionable nature of Hamas’s fundamentalism, history of terrorist violence, and hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But these do not give a free pass to dodge ethical issues inherent to the conflict. For example, Hamas’s indiscriminate barrages directed at Israeli civilians are deplorable. But why is that not also true of IDF precision bombing of the family homes of Hamas leaders, which kill far more civilians than Hamas’s rockets do?
Practically speaking, urban-based insurgents avoid conveniently grouping themselves separately from civilian areas to present ‘clean targets’ for opposing militaries—not if they want to survive. And the IDF rarely can retaliate against incoming fire without putting civilian lives at risk.
The IDF’s confidence that it could go on indefinitely “mowing the lawn” in wars with Hamas or other groups without seeking a political solution may seem accurate. But the mowing may not merely be perpetual, but self-perpetuating.
Consider the over 58,000 Gazans reportedly made homeless by the May 2021 war. That experience seems likely to deepen their experience of persecution by Israel and reinforce the sentiment that Hamas’s violent tactics are justified—fertile grounds for raising a new generation of Hamas fighters seeking retribution.
Arguably it is also a mistake to rely forever on the capacity for superior violence given the ever-evolving nature of warfare. The IDF’s adversaries have proven capable of adapting, and inflicted setbacks on the IDF of varying severity in wars in 1973, 1982–1985, 2006, and 2014.
Furthermore, recurring wars have destabilizing secondary effects. In the backdrop of the current conflict Israel’s Arab citizens, who have integrated more closely into Israeli society, have protested, rioted, and fought in the streets with right-wing Israelis, resulting in two deaths and the burning of three synagogues in Lodi. The favoring of nationalist interests and reliance on the use of force has thus caused a breakdown in a formerly more peaceful part of Israeli society.
Israel’s foreign relations are also harmed by recurring wars. Yes, Israel’s diplomatic posture, in theory, has improved greatly due to peace treaties with Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates which opened economic opportunities and removed Palestinian leverage. However, this turnaround was enabled by these states’ shared animus towards Iran, and bribes offered by the Trump administration in the form of advanced weapons and diplomatic gifts.
In reality, the peace treaties are fragile elite projects opposed by the majority of Arabs in their respective countries. That means they may not last or expand if Israel’s actions make the normalized relations politically unpalatable for Arab rulers.
Beyond the Two-State Solution?
There has been no real “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians in the last decade. Israeli politicians prefer to cater to their nationalist base by supporting settlers expanding into Palestinian territory. The Palestinians remain divided, with moderates like Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas marginalized by their inability to deliver political goods, while extremists like Hamas win ‘street cred’ for fighting the Israelis, however futilely.
That makes it perversely easier to resort to war after war rather than accept the risks and political costs of engaging with one’s adversaries.
Perhaps it time to consider alternatives to the two-state solution, which some experts consider to be increasingly unviable due to the expansion of Israeli settlements and the weakness of Palestinian institutions. Other concepts include reinventing Israel as a multi-ethnic state in which Palestinians have citizenship and voting rights, or exploring confederal government.
Such arrangements may seem fantastical given the depth of the animus between Israelis and Palestinians, but that’s because of the prevailing attitude that compromise and coexistence are impossible and not worth trying. That means for now the default strategy is more lawn-mowing—and a future of perpetual war.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.