Savage Fighting

The recent fighting between Hamas and Israel has been appalling.  Civilian casualties, the destruction of infrastructure, and the lack of an exit strategy have rightfully horrified the international community.  The level of savage fighting, disregard for humanity, and the suffering of innocents cannot be ignored.  Spillover into Lebanon and Syria resulted in an attack by Iran against Israeli targets. While this attack was not successful from a military standpoint, Iran was able to project power to its citizens, alleviating the concern about weakness from an Israeli strike against high-ranking Iranian military officials in Syria.  So far, Israel has not responded overtly, likely accepting that the elimination of the Iranian leadership was successful, even though Iran did eventually respond.  Iran released a statement acknowledging that its response was over, and hopefully, tensions will cool.

Hamas Not Willing To Stop the Violence

On the other hand, Hamas has not shown any signs of willingness to stop the violence. Unilateral withdrawals from parts of the Gaza Strip by Israel have not stopped Hamas sleeper cells from operating behind Israeli lines, and fighting on the front lines has continued.  The overwhelming amount of military force that Israel has positioned in the Gaza Strip has not forced Hamas to surrender, even though Hamas’s goal of defeating Israel and reaching Jerusalem seems impossible at this point.  While many commentators view Israel’s deterrence against Hamas as a failure, this is a misunderstood conception.  Hamas cannot be deterred due to its suicidal nature and the ability of its leaders to hide in foreign nations.  Iranian leaders do not have the luxury of hiding from conflict and are thus able to be dissuaded from conflict by paying with their lives should hostilities increase.

Israel Not Recognized by Iran

The Iranian government does not acknowledge Israel as a nation.  It views Israel as an occupying power, temporally maintaining its grip on its territory until an adequate resistance can eliminate it. Iran funds many groups dedicated to this resistance, like Hezbollah, Hamas, and various Syrian and Iraqi militias. This gives the Iranian government some deniability when it comes to military actions undertaken by these groups against Israel.  However, these groups sometimes cross the de facto line, causing too much damage to Israeli infrastructure or killing or wounding Israeli soldiers and civilians, thus provoking a response, either as a reaction or preemptively from Israel.

Iran does not have total control over these groups, and they sometimes act independently of Iranian direction, causing an escalation that Iran does not necessarily want.  Israel has shown the willingness and capability to strike back, killing Iranian scientists working on Iran’s nuclear program, bombing Iranian targets in Lebanon and Syria, and threatening to strike deep within Iran itself.  This mutual deterrence between Iran and its proxies and Israel has so far kept the large-scale peace between the two nations, and this pattern will likely continue as neither side desires a large-scale and high-cost war that could result.


Hamas is different because its leadership is untouchable in other nations, safe far away from the fighting.  Hamas operatives on the ground are suicidal, partaking in suicide bombings and attacks without hope of success or withdrawal.  This creates a paradox: while Israel enjoys military supremacy over Hamas, it cannot eliminate its senior command and cannot threaten suicidal attackers with death.  Unless Israel can find a way to threaten or eliminate the senior leaders of Hamas living out in the open in a variety of regional nations, then Israel can eliminate every Hamas operative on the ground, only for Hamas to rebuild once Israel withdraws and continues its campaign of terror.  Hamas was aware of this and still launched its attack on October 7th, willing to suffer tactical after tactical defeat while never offering a strategic battle.  

Deterrence has seen massive success in preventing large-scale warfare since the end of World War II.  It has not seen success in deterring nonstate terrorist acts. Terrorists who are willing to die, like the hijackers of 9/11 or the suicide bombers of Hamas, cannot be threatened with death because they willingly seek it out to complete their missions.  The leadership of these groups goes underground or protects itself behind international law to guide or rebuild the group during times of conflict. Nation states cannot follow this policy. The leadership of Iran cannot go into exile, waiting out conflict indefinitely.  Therefore, the Iranian leadership seeks to avoid war to avoid death and destruction.  Deterrence did not fail against Hamas; it was just misapplied.  Deterrence will likely work against Iran, preventing a costly war between two Middle Eastern nations with capable militaries, if accidents and unintended escalations are avoided.  Deterrence has a place in international security against nation-states but not against nonstate terrorist actors. 

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Headshot Christopher Gettel