Israel’s long-term strategy against Hamas will not bring clear, satisfying victories, but attrition is its only viable option.
fter nearly two months of fighting, Israel and Gaza have agreed to an open-ended ceasefire, and for the third time in six years, Israel finds itself looking back at its attempt to stop the barrage of rockets fired at its citizens from the Hamas-controlled enclave of Gaza. Ever since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel has sought to prevent the smuggling of weaponry into the coastal territory and to deter militants from firing rocketry by exacting significant tolls on Hamas and other terrorist organizations operating in the Strip. While many have highlighted Protective Edge’s technological innovations and the calls for radical changes to the status quo—be it in the reoccupation of Gaza, the international demilitarization of Hamas, or a jump-start to a true peace negotiation—in the end, most of the operation’s tactical and strategic lessons were quite traditional. For all the attempts to find technological quick fixes or enforce a permanent settlement, Operation Protective Edge has highlighted that a war of attrition, known as a “long war”, remains the only viable strategy in the current environment.
Protective Edge did display remarkable advances in military technology. As a result of its investment in a national advance warning system and Iron Dome, its missile defense system, Israel withstood a Hamas-led barrage of 4,450 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza. Most impressively, rocket fire only caused 7 civilian casualties, a 652:1 ratio that is unparalleled in any other conflict. For comparison, the ratio during Pillar of Defense in 2012 was 301:1, and in Cast Lead in 2008–09 was 187:1. Moreover, while Hamas’s bombardment managed briefly to scare some Western airlines into suspending flights to Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s strategic infrastructure remained unharmed. Finally, effective air defenses gave the Israeli government the breathing room to control the pace of its military operations to maximum effect. Sustained popular support allowed Israel to focus on destroying the assault tunnels it had discovered during the ground phase, rather than exclusively targeting the rocket threat.
The operation also underscored other less visible, yet no less impressive demonstrations of technology and intelligence. The successful targeted killings of several senior Hamas commanders highlighted the impressive nexus between intelligence-gathering and military action. The Israel Defense Forces’ practice of calling, text-messaging, and “roof knocking” (or dropping empty shells) to warn Palestinian civilians of a military operation were all made possible by technological advances and high quality intelligence. Additionally, rather than send troops deep into Hamas’s vast tunnel architecture, the IDF employed new and advanced robotics, saving soldiers’ lives. Similarly, the repeated interdictions of Hamas frogmen before they could cause civilian casualties further demonstrate the IDF’s ability to identify and interdict targets quickly.
Despite Israel’s clear technological edge and notable intelligence capacity, it could not accomplish all of its objectives through air power alone. Even by the most optimistic Israeli military estimates, the air campaign neutralized very few of the estimated 20,000 Gaza-based fighters in Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades. Additionally, for all of Iron Dome’s successes, neither it nor the air campaign actually stopped Hamas from firing rockets. Nor did it destroy Hamas’s extensive tunnel network. Moreover, despite all the Israeli intelligence assets devoted to Gaza prior to the incursion, even the IDF was surprised by the extent of the tunnel network. In short, even the most sophisticated surveillance systems and weaponry have limitations.
Consequently, the air phase gave way to a ground phase, which predictably was grueling, incremental, and bloody. Although still reliant on aerial reconnaissance and airstrikes, the ground campaign of Protective Edge featured more traditional tactics of urban warfare. As Israeli Major General Sami Turgeman, commander of the IDF Southern Command, aptly reflected in the midst of the fighting, “This is no Iron Dome, but a Sisyphean task, gathering technology and intelligence along with forces on the ground.” Israeli technological prowess, while certainly decisive, is not a panacea.
Hamas also underwent a tactical and operational revolution, although one grounded in traditional insurgencies rather than sophisticated weaponry. Like Israel, Hamas found that technology has its limits. The organizational emphasis on importing, producing, and firing even more advanced rockets and missiles neither caused substantial Israeli casualties nor independently compelled the Israeli government to make concessions. If anything, the continuous yet ineffective barrage increased the Israeli populace’s support for the operation, acting as a boost rather than a brake on the government’s response. More broadly, Hamas rocket attacks also complicated the international response to the crisis. Even European countries—not often favorably disposed to Israel—acknowledge its right to self-defense. Instead, Hamas’s achievements came from its return to tradition, beginning with improved soldier discipline. CNN correspondent Ben Wederman remarked,
The last serious street fighting I saw in Gaza was in early 2008, and it was almost like it was ‘amateur hour,’ with fighters in Gaza parading around with their weapons but not really able to stop the Israeli forces. Now it appears they’ve learned they must keep a much lower profile. They’ve developed what could be called commando tactics, and are taking full advantage of their knowledge of their turf.
Others have made similar observations.
Likewise, Hamas seems to have studied the tactics of previous insurgencies to great effect. Its sophisticated and multi-purposed tunnel network—serving for arms smuggling, quick ambushes, hasty retreats, and booby-traps—echoes Hezbollah tactics in Lebanon, as well as current insurgent operations in Iraq. One of Hamas’s deadliest attacks, the destruction an M113 armored personnel carrier that left seven Israeli soldiers dead, parallels techniques used by Iraqi insurgents. Moreover, its practice of disguising combatants in Israeli military uniforms has analogs in Afghanistan and Iraq, but is almost as old as warfare itself. Similarly, in the later stages of the war, Hamas seemed to fire more mortar shells and short-range rockets at Israeli border communities and far fewer mid- and long-range rockets that can reach major Israeli cities, perhaps as a low-tech means of avoiding Iron Dome.
“Commando” raids, sniper fire, ambushes, and mortar fire are neither particularly high-tech nor innovative, but, as Hamas learned, they are effective. By grasping these basics and with added discipline, Hamas succeeded in what its rocket campaign failed to do: extract a toll in Israeli blood and treasure (64 soldiers were killed) that was greater than all Israeli losses in the past eight years combined.
Protective Edge began with the notion that precision airstrikes based on quality intelligence could achieve victory while avoiding mass bloodshed. It was but the latest iteration of what Eliot Cohen once termed the “mystique of airpower”: “gratification without commitment.” Adherents suggest that air power not only can win wars, but also can do so cheaply and cleanly As Protective Edge proved, however, aerial warfare is still quite messy on its own. In a candid moment, Secretary of State John Kerry said sarcastically of Israel’s aerial campaign, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”
Kerry had a point: even as Israel tried to avoid civilian casualties, it failed for two reasons. First, Hamas purposefully embeds itself among the civilian population in order to protect itself and to maximize the media and international outcry over Israeli actions. As its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri stated, “The fact that people are willing to sacrifice themselves against Israeli warplanes in order to protect their homes, I believe this strategy is proving itself.” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon condemned Hamas for “turning schools into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children, UN employees working in such facilities and anyone using the UN schools as shelter.”
Second, accidents in war happen. Rounds misfire, targets move, intelligence fails, and secondary explosions occur. In Gaza, the intermingling of civilians and military targets, even when not deliberate, prevents aerial warfare from ever being truly clean. One of the operation’s tragedies was the deaths of four Gazan children playing on the beach, which Israel later admitted was targeted based on a faulty intelligence assessment. Sadly, this tragedy is likely not the last.
As messy as air wars are, ground wars remain even messier. After a week-long air campaign, the second phase of Protective Edge, the ground campaign, was bloodier still. Tight quarters, fluid environments, and intensive combat all contributed to a higher casualty count. As Israeli forces moved into Shejaiya to clear tunnel entrances, they encountered stiff resistance—including small arms fire, booby-trapped buildings and passages, and anti-tank missiles—and responded with ample firepower. The net result was Israel’s largest loss of soldiers in eight years and sixty Palestinian deaths, one of the bloodiest battles of the entire campaign.
While the death tolls in today’s conflicts pale in comparison to those of World War II, Korea, or Vietnam, no military, no matter how careful to avoid collateral damage, can guarantee civilian safety, especially when fighting occurs in densely populated areas. Operation Protective Edge resulted in the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians, of whom at least 47 percent were combatants, according to Israeli authorities; UN sources put the civilian casualty number at close to 70 percent.
No party, then, is satisfied with the outcome of Protective Edge. Halfway through the conflict, 69 percent of Israelis wanted the operation to continue until Hamas was toppled, according to a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 10. According to another poll, Netanyahu’s approval ratings sunk from a high of 82 percent on July 23, at the start of the ground phase, to just 38 percent by August 25. Israelis are understandably frustrated at their government’s seeming inability or unwillingness to deal Hamas a true death blow, one that would release Israel’s citizens from the constant threat of rocket fire and tunnel assaults. For their part, Gaza’s civilians are unlikely to receive any long-term relief from either the Hamas regime or the Israeli blockade. Meanwhile, the United States will be blamed for not giving Israel enough support to defeat Hamas (indeed, at one point the White House reportedly froze a shipment of Hellfire missiles) as well as for giving it too much support as the civilian casualty count rose.
Nevertheless, the “long war” remains the only viable option for responding to the Hamas threat. As Nobel Prize-winning scholar Thomas Schelling explained in his seminal work Arms and Influence (1966), long-term deterrence would require credibly establishing the “power to hurt”, likely a politically untenable and morally dubious endeavor. Alternatively, the military, political, and human costs of even a partial reoccupation of Gaza in order to physically control the launch and tunnel entrance sites would be exorbitant, as Israelis learned during their brief ground campaign. Finally, a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive.
Viewed through this lens, Operation Protective Edge marked a solid Israeli victory. A war of attrition is by definition a protracted process, a wearing down of resistance until the enemy is militarily exhausted. It is the kind of war that ends not with a victory parade but merely an absence of violence. According to the Israeli government, previous operations in Gaza produced an immediate 90 percent reduction in rocket fire, but only for a year or two. The IDF estimates that Protective Edge killed at least 900 Hamas militants, likely insufficient to destroy it as an organization but perhaps a blow serious enough to buy a couple years of calm. Likewise, it destroyed several dozen assault tunnels and dealt Hamas’s infrastructure a severe setback. While quick fixes, whether through policies of deterrence or disruption, appear seductive, the course ahead will likely be drawn-out, bloody, and continuously evolving. The nature of war—nasty, messy, and often unsatisfactory—remains unchanged over time.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The American Interest