Israel's so-called policy of defending itself against Gaza by imposing collective punishment constitutes a serious and unpredictable threat to Israeli national security: stimulating the rise of a desperate and inventive self-organized network of enemies is not rational behavior for a traditional status-quo military power.
Foreign policy is traditionally seen as “top-down:” leaders confer with leaders, regimes sign treaties and start wars; policy is made between states, not a couple of guys in an alley. But the world has recently seen some disconcerting examples of “bottom-up” foreign policy, where individuals have acted in classic complex-adaptive systems mode to self-organize new forms of behavior.
Perhaps the two most obvious current examples are: 1) the rise of the highly heterogeneous anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq following the U.S. conquest in 2003 that included interethnic violence, al Qua’ida, and the Shi’ite militia of Moqtada al Sadr, and 2) the stimulation by American intervention in Afghanistan of a broad array of self-organized and frequently local resistance groups that can with varying degrees of accuracy be grouped under the heading of “The Taliban” but which in many cases might more accurately simply be called “village defense forces.”
For Americans, at least, Gaza is unfortunately a less well understood, albeit increasingly important, example. The Gaza Ghetto, with its encircling ring of Israeli military “guards” is of course a good example of top-down control, but within the 1.5-million-person society of Gaza, Israel’s writ extends only to influencing rather than controlling. Hamas runs the local government, but even Hamas apparently does not control either the formation of political factions or the use of force—either internally or against the Israeli enemy. Whether Israel exerts its influence through the murder of politicians, military attack, or—as recently revealed—the cynical manipulation of finances to impose the collective punishment of semi-starvation on the whole population, Israel’s actions come down to an insertion of energy that keeps the social pot boiling without controlling the outcome. The outcome is the result not of Israeli decision-making but of highly complex local self-organization.
Israel might choose to support the development of normal self-government in Gaza, but it does not so choose. Rather, Israel subverts Hamas’ efforts to govern. Since Israel also does not offer a socio-political solution of its own that the population can live with—human rights, a viable economy, security, an educational system, or even a sewage system, Israel does not manage the society in the way any normal government would; rather, it simply provokes the population of Gaza to self-organize even as it prevents the only government Gaza has (that of Hamas) from performing effectively.
The effect of Israel’s negative-sum policy of preventing good self-government while refusing to offer its own governance (good or bad) is to stimulate experimentation by raising the level of desperation without offering any solution. Israel is thus creating a highly efficient laboratory for breeding new forms of self-organization. The highly predictable outcome is surprise: made desperate and goaded endlessly, the Palestinians will in response invent an endless series of new responses. One day it may be a violent Hamas takeover of domestic administration from a corrupt and servile Fatah, another day it may be a bulldozer attack on the Egyptian border, another day a series of import-export tunnels, another day an international campaign to ship in desperately needed medicine, another day the rise of new self-organized fundamentalist militias that make Hamas look like Gaza’s last best chance for democracy.
In brief, Israel’s policy in Gaza is a direct threat to Israeli national security. It sets a conservative, hierarchical modern military backed by a government with a foreign policy fixed in the concrete of military superiority as the road to peace against an increasingly inventive, flexible, motivated population finding foreign support from a broadening array of state and non-state actors. It is only a matter of time before some form of behavior with truly serious consequences for Israeli society and, by inevitable extension, for the U.S., emerges from the Gaza laboratory.