At that time, Israeli warplanes had already dumped hundreds of tons of bombs on targets in the Gaza Strip. The ongoing campaign in the month since has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the besieged territory, including those of more than 4,000 children. It’s triggered a humanitarian crisis, displacing the bulk of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and driving tens of thousands into a desperate search for food, safety and water. Hunger and disease stalk Gaza’s blasted neighborhoods. Aid agencies place little hope in Israel’s latest decision to offer four-hour “pauses” in its operations so that residents in north Gaza can trek southward.
There are reams of commentary on what Israel’s strategy and endgame may be as it seeks to nullify the long-standing threat posed by Hamas and purge the Islamist militant faction from its Gaza redoubts. But looming behind it — and implicit in Hagari’s “emphasis” on damage over accuracy — is a long-standing Israeli military doctrine that appears to be in play now.
The so-called “Dahiya Doctrine” took shape in the wake of the bruising 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Dahiya refers to the southern Beirut suburbs where Hezbollah maintained its strongholds and which were pummeled by Israeli jets after hostilities began when Hezbollah fighters abducted two Israeli soldiers. The onslaught then took Hezbollah by surprise, whose senior leadership had not expected to see their headquarters turned into rubble nor had planned for such a relentless bombardment. “I said that we shouldn’t exaggerate, that Israel will just retaliate a bit, bomb a couple of targets and that would be the end of it,” a Hezbollah operative told former Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid in 2006.
The doctrine that emerged out of the conflict was most famously articulated by IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot. “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases,” he told an Israeli newspaper in 2008. “This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.”
Around the same time, former Israeli colonel Gabriel Siboni wrote a report under the aegis of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies that argued the necessary response to militant provocations from Lebanon, Syria or Gaza were “disproportionate” strikes that aim only secondarily to hit the enemy’s capacity to launch rockets or other attacks. Rather, the goal should be to inflict lasting damage, no matter the civilian consequences, as a future deterrent.
“With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses,” he wrote. “Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”
The doctrine appeared to be in operation during a round of hostilities between Hamas in Gaza and Israel at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. A U.N.-commissioned report regarding that conflict, which saw the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and Israelis, determined that Israel’s campaign was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability.”
The doctrine endured in the years since. “Israeli military correspondents and security analysts repeatedly reported that the Dahiya doctrine was Israel’s strategy throughout the war in Gaza this past summer,” observed Palestinian American scholar Rashid Khalidi in the fall of 2014, after another Israeli campaign left more than 1,460 civilians dead, including almost 500 children. “Let us be frank: this is actually less of a strategic doctrine than it is an explicit outline of collective punishment and probable war crimes.”
He added: “Not surprisingly, one found little mention of the Dahiya doctrine whether in statements by U.S. politicians, or in the reporting of the war by most of the mainstream American media, which dwelt on the description of Israel’s actions as ‘self-defense.’”
In the present environment, Israel’s right to self-defense has indeed been championed by lawmakers and commentators across the West. Given the unprecedented scale and horror of the Oct. 7 attack, there appears to be a hardened consensus in Israel that its military should do whatever it takes to neutralize Hamas. To that end, a host of Israeli politicians have called for the wholesale destruction of Gaza, the depopulation of the territory and even its resettlement by Israel.
Eisenkot is now a member of Israel’s unity “war cabinet.” No Israeli politician or security official has explicitly invoked the “Dahiya doctrine” as a template for the destruction unleashed in Gaza.
“I don’t think this doctrine applies today,” Siboni, now of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told French newspaper Le Monde last month, arguing that everything Israel is targeting are explicitly military targets.
Siboni added that Israel’s efforts to coax Palestinians in northern Gaza to flee to the south was a sign of its humanitarian approach. “As for those who remain, too bad,” he told Le Monde. “They choose to put their lives on the line.”