I am no specialist in the Israel-Gaza conflict, but I read with great interest Marc Lynch’s recent post at the Monkey Cage about political science and the current conflict in Gaza. One topic that seems to have been overlooked in that particular discussion is what we know about the role of violence as a tool of insurgent and counterinsurgent warfare.
Here’s what I think we know: indiscriminate violence does not generate compliance. And this is absolutely fundamental to understanding the conflict right now and what its likely implications are going to be.
The most topical recent work on this is Anna Getmansky and Thomas Zeitzof’s forthcoming APSR piece, which finds that exposure to rocket attacks in Israel is associated with greater support for right-wing parties among Israelis. The core feature of the rockets fired from Gaza is that they cannot effectively target people or installations. They fall almost randomly. Looking back in history to an earlier insurgent war, Matthew Kocher, Stathis Kalyvas, and I find that South Vietnamese villages exposed to aerial bombing from the United States and Republic of Vietnam forces were more likely to shift towards NLF (Viet Cong) control. Our argument also relies on the indiscriminate nature of this violence, which was simply incapable of separating true NLF supporters from neutrals or even RVN partisans within Vietnamese villages.
Taken together, these studies show that indiscriminate violence—whether used by insurgents or counterinsurgents—does not generate compliance. In fact, it does the opposite. It loses the hearts and minds that are necessary for either side to prevail in asymmetric warfare.
As Matt noted in the introduction to our Vietnam paper, quoting Hannah Arendt, “violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it” (see here [PDF] for the quote in context). If the goal of the violence produced in the Israel-Gaza conflict is to sow death and destruction on both sides, then violence will work. If the goal is to compel civilians and non-combatants to change their minds about the conflict, to create a new kind of politics, then it will not. Most worryingly, if our findings are true, then this dynamic creates incentives for each side to make it harder for its opponent to discriminate between its own combatants and non-combatants. This is sad, and frightening.