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Kiwi – Snake - Stick

Kiwi – Snake - Stick

by Simon O’Neill
July 30, 2014

Many years ago, the nice Army sent me to Singapore for two years. Much of our time was in the jungles of Malaysia, rich in many forms of less than hospitable wild life and on occasion, a young Kiwi would run afoul of a snake. In such cases, a general rule was that such incidents required three components. These were a Kiwi, a snake, and almost invariably, a stick: on military parlance it might be known as ‘stick, wooden (the military loves redundancy), snake, for the poking of’.

Most times, the snake would be minding its own business until the second component stumbled across it and introduced a stick to the mix. The inevitable would occur, the snake would slither off in the confusion, the stick would be (conveniently) forgotten, and the Kiwi would require the services of one or more ‘medics, rash soldiers, for the treatment of’.

The Kiwi-snake-stick analogy applies to the interminable spatting between Israel and its irregular adversaries in Gaza. The difference is that there, both parties have sticks with which to provoke each other into brutal reaction. This strategy of mutual provocation hasn’t worked for either player and struck in the middle are the Palestinians who, like most of us, just want to get on with their lives. The solution is not, sadly, as simple as hoping both parties will hang up their prodding sticks and retire to neutral corners.

There are three core strategies to counter irregular campaigns such as that between Hamas and Israel. The overhyped ‘hearts and minds’ approach builds wells and schoolhouses regardless of whether anyone actually wants wells and schoolhouses. Build enough of them and the people will expel the bad guys as a cat clears a fur ball. An enemy-centric style targets and kills only (touch wood) the bad guys: no more bad guys, problem solved. And a coercive style inflicts enough unpleasantness on the general population to discourage any support to the bad guys. No one would disagree that Israel is the master of the latter two strategies, regardless of how effective they may be.

In Gaza, Israel is applying disproportionate and indiscriminate levels of violence against a civilian population: firing medium artillery into populated urban areas is far removed from the precise bludgeon employed by the US in its contemporary conflicts. It is a blatant and brutal attempt to coerce the people of Gaza, the water in which Hamas swims, to withdraw their support and leave Hamas gasping for survival. This, of course, assumes that the Gazan Joe Public actually supports Hamas.

The problem with both the enemy-centric and coercive styles is that they only really work when applied with absolute and total ruthlessness against a less ruthless adversary. For all the ham-fisted violence inflicted by the Israeli war machine, it is not the most brutal or ruthless kid on the Gazan block, not even close. It remains bound by national and international law, and awareness that too much deviation from the accepted behaviour of a nation state will jeopardise what support it enjoys in the West. Much as some Israelis may desire it, Israel cannot level Gaza and drive its people out – eventually, as it has before, it must withdraw and allow the pus to refill the boil.

Hamas remains unfettered by such niceties. Its Middle East backers could care less how many Hamas, Palestinians or Israelis die in these spats – only that they continue to die. The last thing that they want is a stable and peaceful Palestine that no longer distracts Israel from closer interest in broader Middle Eastern affairs. Nor do they want a Palestinian diaspora that could disrupt their own comfortable lifestyles. So long as Hamas and its backers can inflict more terror on Gaza than Israel, the carnage will continue.

Hamas will not change. Like most such groups, it is made up of hereditary haters who know nothing else. It lacks collectiveness in its identity and process. Israel, on the other hand, is a nation state, paying the same lip service to democracy and international norms as most Western nations. It is the player whose survival, to 1948 borders anyway, is guaranteed by the US and its own nuclear arsenal. It is Israel’s role and responsibility as a nation state to be the big kid and try another way.

When coercion and killing have failed, perhaps it is time for wells and school houses, medical centres instead of checkpoints, and building not destroying homes? The soldiers would still be there. They will be necessary: Hamas will go to extraordinary means to disrupt any initiative that will so grossly undermine its presence in Gaza. It won’t cost any more than the bombs and it would be a start. The question will be whether Israel can step back from the brink, or whether it too has regressed beyond the point of rational recovery…


Simon O’Neill has contributed to national and international forums on subjects as diverse as irregular warfare, unmanned aircraft, and organisational learning. In previous lives he reviewed and contributed to the development of contemporary counter-insurgency procedures in Australia, Canada, the US, the UK and with NATO.

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