Modern warfare evolves as Israel takes the short view

A NYT piece about the conflict in Gaza shows how Israel’s insistence on retaliating civilian casualties places them ever further behind the curve:

A Gaza War Full of Traps and Trickery
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: January 10, 2009

Tom Barnett takes a realist perspective and asserts that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is simply doing what it must in Gaza. He seems to view the civilian casualties as an either-or: They will occur either in Israel or Gaza, and it’s up to the IDF to decide which.

It’s true that the ongoing military campaign in Gaza may cause Israel’s civilian casualties to subside (although not disappear altogether), but only in the short term. Israel’s myopic use of force in Palestine has plenty of precedent, but I’m a bit perplexed that Barnett has forfeited his usually long-term outlook to support the Gaza campaign. Contrary to his assertion, the ongoing war in Gaza places Israeli citizens in continued danger.

“Hamas, with training from Iran and Hezbollah, has used the last two years to turn Gaza into a deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs.”

Gaza (and the other Palestinian territories) know they will suffer occasional IDF incursions. Trapped in tiny parcels of land, their only options are to submit or resist-they cannot flee as refugees or withdraw militarily. As such, they understand themselves to be always fighting or preparing for the latest attack. Hamas’ small militia is no match for the IDF, but once Hamas is defeated there’s little else for the IDF to do except withdraw. Once that happens Hamas (or whoever replaces them) simply rebuilds for the next round of fighting. Hamas’ recent preparations (more on this below) in light of Gaza’s isolation from outside resources suggest that this can continue ad infinitum.

The IDF expends many times more resources than the Palestinians in every incursion. Meanwhile, Hamas’ networked nature makes it much more tactically adaptable than the IDF (even though the IDF itself seems to be very tactically adaptable as militaries go):

“Unwilling to take Israel’s bait and come into the open, Hamas militants are fighting in civilian clothes; even the police have been ordered to take off their uniforms. The militants emerge from tunnels to shoot automatic weapons or antitank missiles, then disappear back inside, hoping to lure the Israeli soldiers with their fire.

In one apartment building in Zeitoun, in northern Gaza, Hamas set an inventive, deadly trap. According to an Israeli journalist embedded with Israeli troops, the militants placed a mannequin in a hallway off the building’s main entrance. They hoped to draw fire from Israeli soldiers who might, through the blur of night vision goggles and split-second decisions, mistake the figure for a fighter. The mannequin was rigged to explode and bring down the building. “

It seems that every time Israel attacks one of its nonstate enemies and fails to completely erase them from existence it merely teaches all of its enemies how to fight even smarter.

The IDF’s disproportional force ensures popular opposition in Palestine, which is why every subsequent incursion ensures Hamas’ (or some similar groups) survival. This is not the first time Israel has suffered attacks long after a brutal military campaign supposedly brought its enemies to their knees.

Furthermore, the IDF’s strength makes Israel’s international position untenable.
The article states paradoxically that Israel is trying to minimize collateral damage (and has developed some clever technology to do so) and is using cruelty and overwhelming firepower as a tactic. America’s experience in Iraq makes clear that one cannot simultaneously refuse to “balk at any means to protect the lives of our soldiers” and minimize collateral damage – deliberate or not. As a result, protests are occurring all over the world [Substantial protests by other than professional victims-there is always a latent amount of “background noise” pro-Palestinian protest in the West].

Israel claims that their attempts to minimize civilian casualties are hampered by Hamas’ use of civilian shields and noncombatant structures for fighting positions. They’re telling the truth, but the implied message, “we have to kill civilians because otherwise we can’t fight Hamas,” is an attempt to substitute tactics for strategy. Yes, Hamas is fighting unfairly, but refusing to fight fair is simply good military doctrine. Israel can tactically defeat Hamas with high civilian casualties if they want to, but they’re only guaranteeing more rocket attacks. Most of the attacks will probably come long after the current “war” is over-although some are occurring even as I write this.

From such a mature, seasoned military, protests of Hamas’ civilian shields come off as little more than whining. If the IDF truly wants to protect the state of Israel they have got to come up with another answer, no matter how difficult it may be. The conclusion of the NYT piece hits the nail on the head:

“The backlash from the school attack is another potent example of the risks in an urban-war strategy: Israel may in fact be able to dismantle Hamas’s military structure even while losing the battle for world opinion and leaving Hamas politically still in charge of Gaza.”

Tactically, Israel will defeat its enemies in the short term while teaching them how to fight better in the long term. Strategically, Israel loses more every minute the fight continues. The situation Israel faces under its current Palestine policy is vexatious. The IDF would best serve Israel by exercising extreme, better-than-England discipline, but even this military function alone will not defeat Hamas. Perhaps Israel should foster a relationship with Iran that forces the latter to dry up its support for Israel’s nonstate opponents. Their ability to attack Israel may continue but their political situation would worsen, making attacks more difficult over time. Israel would also have the strategic esteem of having tried a more nuanced approach. From the comfort of this Brazilian oceanview balcony, all I can say for sure is that overwhelming force simply will not end the threat to Israel; it only perpetuates that threat.

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