Debunking claims of failure in Gaza
Analysis: The recent Gaza conflict has already been called World War III: an asymmetric battle between western democracies and guerrilla warfare and terrorism. They can always claim to have won. But we can beat them, and we’re on the right track – it just takes time. The disappointment and even humiliation felt by large portions of the Israeli public after each round of fighting in Gaza (and Lebanon) has repeated itself.
It’s been said that the public is suffering from manic-depression; it swings pendulum-like between expressions of strength, solidarity and intense elation, and depression the day after. This time, it seems that this phenomenon has only intensified.
According to surveys, the majority of Israelis assume that what happened after previous rounds will be repeated. There are many who wonder if we and our children have a future in this country, in this region. The sense of security among residents of southern communities along the Gaza border fence is close to zero, with many refusing to return to their homes. Perhaps this is a transient thing, but this has never happened before in the 66 years of Israel’s existence, and is therefore worrying.
It is evidently not hard to figure out what’s behind this feeling. Any civilian looking at the casualties on our side, at the 50 days of the war and especially the emotional and material damage suffered by the home front, will ask what we have achieved: a ceasefire without an expiration date?
Our political and military masters tell us that Hamas was badly beaten, both militarily and politically, lost more than 1,000 soldiers and almost all of its military capabilities; nor does it have the ability to replenish its rockets and missiles or recreate its assault tunnels, that we and the Egyptians are sitting on the border crossings.
Fine, we say, but will that benefit us? Hamas did not stop firing rockets and mortar shells at a murderous rate and number until the very last minute; the population in Gaza did not rise up against them, and the terrorist leaders who climbed out of their holes are declaring that they will be back to fight us. In effect, the Israeli deterrence has not been reinforced – the next round is only a matter of time.
At the same time we’re told that we could topple Hamas if only we had a determined prime minister and defense minister and a courageous and creative chief of staff, who would devise the right strategy and give the right commands to the IDF.
They simply prevented the biggest and mightiest army in the region from winning and eliminating once and for all what is a wretched local militia which is inferior in equipment, technology and fighting spirit.
This is, in essence, the rational basis for the sour atmosphere prevalent among many. It utilizes the facts, but, I believe, hastily and therefore incorrectly interprets what our eyes are seeing and especially what our ears are hearing right now.
Too many of us demand immediate emotional satisfaction – a “picture of victory” or at least a declaration of surrender by the terrorist leaders. We do not have the patience to wait and judge the outcome of the fighting and the subsequent political campaign over the medium and long term. But the main reason for the deep plunge in morale could be a misunderstanding of the characteristics of the asymmetrical war against fanatical Islam which we are currently waging, alongside almost all Western democracies. Some are calling it World War III.
This war takes the form of violent clashes between the regular armies of nations and military organizations and activist militias using guerilla and terrorist tactics.
States have an obligation to provide physical security for their citizens, entire territory to protect and often a commitment to humanitarian values and international law; militias and terrorist and guerrilla groups have only one mission – to physically and mentally exhaust the democratic population through death and destruction until we surrender to the terrorists’ demands.
A secondary mission of these groups is to create for themselves a solid base of operations within a population that is helping them either forcibly or voluntarily.They have almost no safety or welfare obligations toward the civilian population from whose territory they are operating. On the contrary; the population used as human shields.
Their only obligations are to the religious or political ideal (or both) in whose name they act and to the leaders they obey without question, whether through the charisma and myth associated with those leaders, the military and religious authority they project, or the fear they instill in their subordinates. The main comparative military advantage that fanatical terrorists have is the motivation of their people. The asymmetry is also reflected in the methods of warfare and chosen weaponry. Militia fighters are assimilated among non-combatant civilians and “evaporate” when they encounter the superior firepower, movement, protection and fighting skills of regular army units.
But they reappear to tail the national army when it enters their territory, particularly if that area is densely built and if it has static positions. At the same time they keep up the strategic attacks, including suicide bombings and use of high-trajectory weapons.
Because they have a fanatical motivation that is extremely difficult to undermine, as well as foreign sponsors, and a submissive non-combatant population to provide shelter and sustenance, terrorism has the ability to regroup after a hard blow.
Global experience proves this almost without exception. Terrorists are like chronic cancer waiting for an opportunity to return, revitalized and even more destructive. It is possible, therefore, for it to go on for years undefeated; in the same way, there is no picture of victory.
It is unlikely that Hamas or Hezbollah will emerge humiliated from their holes and waving a white flag, even they are dealt a decisive blow.
In fact, quite the reverse takes place: terrorist leaders, who are in hiding during and after the fighting, come out of their bunkers immediately after the fighting ends to put on an impressive “victory performance” using the best tools that public relations technology can offer.
I will never forget the huge, red banners hanging in Beirut at the end of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, proclaiming in three languages the “divine victory” of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
This was while the ruins of Dahiya were still smoldering in front of me and Bint Jbeil and Maroun al-Ras, like so many villages in southern Lebanon, were completely destroyed.
There is no connection between the performance and the bleak reality, but firing rockets after a truce has been declared, belligerent claims of achievement against a “cowardly enemy” and the triumphant displays allow Nasrallah, and Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashal of Hamas to survive as leaders of their organizations, preserve the loyalty of their people and maintain some popular and regional legitimacy. Does this mean that an army cannot defeat guerrillas and terrorism? Is the sword eternally triumphant? The unequivocal answer is that one can win against guerrillas and terrorism, and democracies or quasi-democratic states have indeed done so in this century.
For instance, the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka were brought to surrender in 2009, Russia has managed to almost completely quell the Chechen Muslim fanatics, and Israel managed to defeat suicide terrorism in the Second Intifada.
It would take too long to explain why and how the asymmetric victories were achieved, as well as in another half dozen or so recent cases. But here are the most prominent components that enabled these countries to prevail:
1. A constant presence in the area from which the guerrillas and terrorists are operating, including among the civilian population, allows the army to conduct effective counterterrorism operations and hold on to its achievements.
2. Superiority intelligence and freedom to conduct military operations to fight terrorism in that territory (like the IDF in the West Bank and the Americans in Iraq in recent years, until Obama decided to get out).
3. Controlling the perimeter, in other words, close monitoring and maintaining the boundaries of terrorists’ living and operational area thwarts smuggling and thereby prevents the buildup of weapons and munitions.
4. The primary factor: Time. It takes years to perform all of the above.
We have time
Operation Defensive Shield of 2002 did not in itself lead to the victory against suicide terrorism. It was just an indication of the turnaround in intelligence superiority and operational freedom that the IDF and Shin Bet still enjoy until today. Israel endured at least four hard years after the start of Defensive Shield. It was the same in Chechnya and Sri Lanka. The problem is that remaining and controlling an area and its population demands an unbearable price in blood and in money. In the case of terrorism that was rooted out in Judea and Samaria, the heart of Israel and the settlements were in real and immediate danger, which justified the risk.
Israel maintains a presence in this area to this day because of the settlements, and especially because the price demanded in human lives and economic cost is not high. This is not the situation in Gaza or in Lebanon, where there is a religious fanatical enemy who is not ready to give up its armed struggle and negotiate.
Keeping a hold on these areas and controlling the population for years under these conditions exacted a heavy price that became unbearable. So, after pointless and bloody wars of attrition, the State of Israel withdrew from both areas.
As a strategic alternative to a presence in the field, the Israeli government is utilizing a system of short bursts of fighting, during each of which the IDF deploys some of its capabilities with high intensity, thereby restoring the deterrence that had eroded since the previous round. The strategic assumption is that the cumulative effect of these rounds of fighting will eventually lead to a turnaround – that is long-term calm and perhaps even acceptance of Israel’s existence. One might also call this thrifty method of fighting “steadfastness and a frustrated enemy.”
This is not a new invention. David Ben-Gurion conceived of it, claiming that if we won enough times in combat, we would frustrate the enemy. The deterrence that was achieved would cause them to understand after a certain number of years the futility in trying to throw us into the sea. Indeed, this is what happened with Egypt and Jordan, and with Mahmoud Abbas.
History teaches us that eventually even violent Islamic extremism will gradually fade, and give way to a more enlightened and less bloodthirsty ideology.
In the past, this evolution has taken decades or even hundreds of years – in our era, the timeframe will be much smaller. But one must understand that in any event, winning and obtaining that image of victory in Gaza would exact a price in blood, in Israel’s economy stability and in diplomatic isolation far in excess of any temporary emotional satisfaction we would receive.
The entry of an IDF armored column into central Gaza City was accompanied by an aerial bombardment and massive shelling to avoid heavy losses to the troops.
The mission would have been carried out, however, even had thousands of people, perhaps tens of thousands, including children and the elderly, being killed, wounded and left homeless.
What happened in Saja’iyya was just a small sample. And all for the dubious pleasure of sinking into the swamp of terrorism after six months, and fleeing two years later with our tails between our legs.
No, I am not pessimistic. To put it simply, I’ve been in this movie before, here and in other parts of the world; I have seen this scenario played out several times.
It’s not a game
My conclusion is that we need patience and endurance; we need to stop seeing Arab terrorists as an enemy easily scared into submission by the sight of an oncoming Merkava tank. There were mistakes and failures during Operation Protective Edge of all kinds and types – tactical and strategic, political and military, before the war and in its wake.
We need to investigate these deeply and produce the correct conclusions. For the meanwhile we can cautiously say that Protective Edge was managed carefully and responsibly by the political and military hierarchy according to the “strategy of rounds.”
The political, legal, and humanitarian constraints were what limited the IDF from reaching its full operational capabilities. And it was the long-term strategic thinking that prevented an unnecessary and costly occupation of the Gaza Strip.
It’s doubtful whether such a move would have been the final blow to Hamas, but it would have crippled Israel’s economy and its international standing.
This is why the complaints against the hesitation and apprehension of Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gantz were silly.
Mainly, we must remember that the actual results of a campaign or a war in the 21st century are not measured like a soccer game – by the number of goals scored by each side or how entertained the fans were by the performance.
Success and failure, at this time, are measured by the endurance of the ceasefire agreement and by the ability to reinforce and maintain deterrence for years to come.
Debunking claims of failure in Gaza