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Gaza war: will Israel respond to US pressure to tread carefully in Rafah? There is a precedent

Paul Rogers, University of Bradford

As the deadline for Israel’s ground assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah approaches on March 10 – the beginning of Ramadan – world leaders are urging its government to rethink its strategy. Casualties from such an assault may even dwarf the huge human losses so far of close to 30,000 Palestinians killed and 70,000 wounded.

US president, Joe Biden, has repeatedly urged his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu – in private and public – to hold off on the assault and to come up with a plan to protect civilians. What Biden may or may not do to influence Netanyahu’s decision is unclear – and will, in part at least, be calibrated by Biden’s domestic political requirements in an election year.

But there is an important precedent which shows that Israel has been known to heed US pressure in similar situations. In 1982 Israeli jets bombed west Beirut, where fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) were embedded during Israel’s war with Lebanon.

Ronald Reagan, who was then US president, phoned his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and ordered him to to stop the bombardment, reportedly using the words: “Menachem, this is a holocaust.”

A White House statement at the time reflected that Reagan’s approach got immediate results:

The President made clear that it is imperative that the ceasefire in place be observed absolutely in order for negotiations to proceed. We understand the Israeli cabinet has approved a new ceasefire, which is in effect. It must hold.

Special relationship

One factor that will lend weight to any pressure from Biden is the singularly close and cooperative relationship between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Pentagon.

When Israel won its war of independence in 1948, the US support came primarily from American Jews. But that changed rapidly through the 1950s as the cold war hardened, Arab nationalism emerged and Israel became America’s key ally in the region.

While not supporting Israel’s role in the Franco-British Suez Canal disaster in 1956, in just about every other respect military relations with Israel became steadily closer. It is thought to be highly unlikely that Israel could have succeeded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War without US backing.

Through the 1980s and 1990s the two armed forces maintained close relations. Just as important, though, were the ever closer links between US and Israeli arms corporations, not just in joint research and development but even in weapons production.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and his daughter Matt Milo in the White House, Setpember 1981.
Friends in high places: Ronald and Nancy Reagan hosting a state dinner for Menachem Begin and his daughter Matti Milo in September 1981. White House Photographic Collection

Even so, the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet system in the early 1990s changed the calculus of interests. For Washington, with the threat from the Soviet Union a thing of the past, the strategic significance of Israel in the Middle East was diminished. This was a matter of serious concern to Israeli governments at the time.

After 9/11

That all changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the start of the “war on terror”. Israel suddenly gained a much greater significance – and this came to a head in late 2003, six months into the war to terminate Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq.

The first few weeks of that war, in March and April, seemed to be remarkably successful, but within a couple of months it had gone badly wrong as US troops found themselves faced with a growing urban insurgency with most of their troops inadequately trained or equipped to respond.

By October 2003, the position was getting dire – and one Pentagon response was to turn to Israel with its of experience of urban warfare. In early December, the head of Israel’s ground forces, Major-General Yiftah Ron-Tal, hosted a series of meetings with a visiting senior US team headed by General Kevin Byrnes, commander of the US army’s training and doctrine command (Tradoc), to strengthen cooperation and to look at ways the US could benefit from Israeli experience in urban combat.

The Pentagon was particularly interested in how the IDF had operated during the first three years of the second Palestinian Intifada – especially across the occupied West Bank – and went on to use Israeli equipment and tactics in Iraq.

It may have been useful to the US – but it also presented a valuable propaganda opportunity to the militias fighting the US forces. They were now able to characterise the war as a Zionist/Christian “crusade”.

Cooperation and collective punishment

In the event, there were many ways in which US-Israeli military cooperation hardened in the wake of the war. A groundbreaking development was the decision to station US army personnel permanently in Israel, running an advanced X-Band Radar facility that provided early warning of long-distance missile attacks.

Another was the US Army Corps of Engineers building a complete Arab town, Baladia, in the Negev Desert, used by the US, Israel and others for urban warfare training.

With all this cooperation, Israel might well have been strengthened in its ability to control urban insurgencies. But even while the war in Iraq continued, it found that a ground force operation against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006 was going badly wrong, leading to unexpected casualties and recourse to mass aerial bombardment.

Much of this was focused on the Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiya district south of Beirut, and that gave its name to the IDF’s current Dahiya doctrine in which a costly urban insurgency is met with collective punishment against whole communities, not just the insurgents.

Biden has spoken out against this approach and has insisted in conversations with Netanyahu that “a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan” for protecting and supporting the Palestinians sheltering there.

Whether or not Israeli will heed this message remains unclear. But the White House will be hoping that – in a society where the armed forces have effectively been a breeding ground for political leaders and where all Israeli Jews are required to do army service – the close military links between the two countries can be a factor in Israel’s decision-making.

Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies, University of Bradford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.