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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Is Israel Poised For Strategic Defeat in Gaza



From amongst the numerous Israel-Palestine skirmishes,clashes and wars, the ongoing conflict seems the worst one yet. Body count and infrastructure damage may have been much higher in previous escalations,but this time both actors have long term agenda in mind and domestic political pressure . Further, it is not a case of provocation by one actor leading to a escalation that neither side can avoid, as is usually in the case of India and Pakistan or China and one of its neighbour. In this case, both Israel and Hamas have all along had the option of de-escalating it but neither actor is willing, as they see opportunity to gain advantage by the time a ceasefire becomes imminent. This is after all a very unconventional conflict, fourth generation warfare is fought on a very different level, in this instance, the objective is not to capture the flag first but create conditions that can help develop better strategy until the next conflict. As opposed to other conflicts, war does not erupt between Israeli and Palestinian militants, it's been in a state of war since two decades, it is peace that occasionally breaks out.

From the beginning violence has played a key role in the establishment of the Israeli State. Terrorist groups such as Haganah, Betar, Irgun were the earliest terrorists in modern sense of the word, killing Palestinian and  British in  the British Mandate of Palestine. It did play a role in creation of Israel even if a less important one. After the Arabs-Israeli war had concluded, Israel had occupied more territory . After 1964, more than half  of Palestinian territories were occupied by the Israeli army. The  following map, represents  the  Israeli occupation in Palestinian  territories.

 Territory occupied since 1967 are illegal according to International community, several UN resolutions against it have been vetoed by US. Israel has continued settlements ignoring even US advice on freezing construction.
One of the first reports coming out after IDF launched ground assault in Gaza was "Hamas equipment and tactics are just like Hezbollah's"! (In 2006 a similar communique had said Hezbollah militants were "not like Hamas")  Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 was a rude surprise for most of the strategists as a militia with about 5000 fighters humbled Israel to concede a strategic defeat. Hezbollah combined elements of  fourth generation warfare with traditional guerilla warfare in a classic David Versus Goliath contest except that the foot was in the other shoe. It remains to be seen if Hamas has learned from Hezbollah or its mindless violence is going to be a failure as the second Intifada. Or as US Secretary of State, John Kerry warned, lead to the third Intifada ? The answer can only be known in the future but we can speculate if Hamas has learnt from its failure,can it fight and succeed in a war like the Hezbollah did and if it truly understands why the first Intifada succeeded ?

The conflict between militarily superior Israeli Defence Force and a stateless Palestinian people in the period between 1967 to 1993 can be called  asymmetric warfare in the truest sense. Throughout the period of relative peace, Israeli continued to roll its war machine and take over Palestinian land, pushing the local population further back even though International community continually denounced it. The terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants did little to deter Israel. The first victory for Palestinian came in form of Oslo Accords and it was result of one of the first asymmetric contest in modern times and it started with the First Intifada("Uprising") in 1987. For the first time since the occupation, Palestinians arose as a nation and resorted to Israeli aggression by mass protests, strikes, boycotts, throwing stones and petrol bombs and in few cases bomb attacks.

Israeli forces killed 1200 Palestinians which included 241 children, 120000 were arrested while 160 Israelis were killed. Israel tried to suppress the movement with iron hand but the Palestinians proved remarkably resilient. Gruesome images of IDF soldiers crackdown caused global outrage. It ended in 1993 when Oslo Accord I was signed but the real outcome was PLO and Israel recognizing each other as legitimate representatives when Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo II Accord giving PLO right to form self-government - Palestinian Authority

However the Second Intifada returned limited results such as Israeli army withdrawal from Gaza and dismantling settlements from Gaza as well as four settlements from West Bank which was very unpopular in Israel. Violence including suicide bombing targeting Israeli civilians by Hamas and other Jihadist groups overshadowed  Israeli army's atrocities in the eyes of global community. Hamas made some political gains but Palestinian statehood process suffered a severe setback. Following Fatah-Hamas war and Hamas taking control of Gaza, much of the momentum was lost. Around the same time, Hezbollah was fighting a war with IDF in Lebanon  which can be used as a case-study of fourth generation warfare

As this time, the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 was being planned by both sides months before, the immediate cause was Hezbollah attack on Israeli patrol, killing three soldiers, injuring two and abducting two Israeli soldiers with the objective of swapping them for Lebanese held in Israeli prisons. Israel responded by disproportionate and indiscriminate airstrikes, using white phosphorus shell and cluster bombs mostly killing Lebanese civilians and destroying infrastructure. The well-trained and well-equipped Hezbollah militants made good use of the labyrinth of underground tunnels and trenches they had created along the border, to attack IDF soldiers. Though the conflict claimed lives of around 1200 Lebanese and 121 IDF soldiers and 47 Israeli civilians were killed a UNSC resolution calling for ceasefire was only passed after it began to emerge that Hezbollah would not be easily defeated.

Though both Israel and Hezbollah claimed victory immediately, subsequent events determined whom history would record as victor. Israel's covert objective was to

  • Turn Lebanese elite against Hezbollah by passing the blame to it for destruction of Lebanon which it sought to bring. 
  • Turn Lebanese Sunni and non-Shia groups against the Shiite militia (As a matter of fact Sunni Arab countries blamed Hezbollah for the escalation) 

 However, what really happened is that Hezbollah became more powerful inside Lebanon, its chief Nasrallah became a hero in Arab streets for humbling the mighty Israelis. With majority of Israelis believing it to be a defeat and asking for PM Olmert's resignation, Chief of Staffs resigning (on a different charge), criticism on the handling of the war and general political turmoil that followed one can conclude who won. In 4GW, being able to create distrust between the people and the government, weakening social cohesion and achieving moral high ground  is a decisive victory.
 
The  Hamas, seems to have learnt from past mistakes and is now fighting fourth generation warfare (which is fought more in the moral sphere) using guerilla tactics as well as lessons of the Intifada. From the strategic point of view,Hamas refraining from taking action out of fear of civilian deaths did not make a point when most Palestinians in Gaza as well as West Bank faced the risk of being killed any moment the IDF felt like it. With a population of 1.8 million in a 360 km2  area, the Gaza Strip is densely populated. A military campaign of shock and awe would undoubtedly kill civilians, especially women, children and older people who are not physically fit enough to flee. Fourth generation warfare may be a fairly new concept but Palestinians are not ignorant of the fact  that in asymmetric warfare, weakness can be the weaker actor's greatest strength if applied in the right way. After all, it is not the body count but the socio-political impact in the long term, that determines the outcome.

 Israel has tried hard to portray massacre of civilians as Hamas' ploy, including sending text messages to civilians before bombing the area. It is not clear why Hamas militants would remain there after receiving information,unless it believes the global community would buy it or worse, if it believes the people there would side with the aggressor instead of their own people, however bigoted they may be. After living under siege for 7 years and having witnessed friends, family members killed for no reason, very few people in Gaza are likely to side with such a malevolent benefactor. Besides in an asymmetric war, the belligerents strength can also become its weakness. Israel is a developed state, the standard of living of its population is higher (85 times more than average Palestinian) which means every citizen/soldier's life is valued much more than those of under developed states.  We have seen how disproportionate the value of an Israeli life is to that of a Palestinian. For example, when Netanyahu  released 1027 prisoners in order to secure release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit , it was clear he valued one Israeli life over scores of Palestinians'. It is one of the privileges citizens of developed nations can enjoy and a weak spot that the weak adversary can exploit.

The objective of Hamas attacks are consistent with 4GW doctrine, its rockets are being fired to physically harm Israelis but also to weaken resolve of the Israeli civilians by pointing out they are still vulnerable. This idea may not be as threatening but by attrition it seeks to erode cohesion within the society and  gradually create distrust between the people and the state. Land assault especially becomes risky affair for Israel because there are more chances of its soldiers getting killed or captured. As opposed to Palestinians who are used to watch their family members dying in random air attacks, body of a single Israeli soldier killed in action can rouse extreme sentiments. This is something Netanyahu would like to avoid with his eyes on the next election. Already the horrible images of children being killed in Gaza doing the rounds and nearly every country except the US have denounced it.

This has also brought out a more independent nationhood claim by Palestine since it is not only Arabs and Iran that are supporting it in UN but countries like China, India, South American countries. Beyond all doubts, Israel has lost the moral high ground, worse than ever, but it also has the unique opportunity in Hamas mellowing down its tone. It has all but recognized Israel, accepts two-states solution and gained recognition as a political organization even by the US, it seems. Protests in support of Gaza  across major cities of the world indicate that the Hamas rockets, easily intercepted and neutralized by Israel have been far more effective than Israeli air-strikes.  


Here is a timeline of recent asymmetric conflict between Israel and Palestine which proves how even after losing militarily, Palestinians have been able to gain political mileage at the expense of Israel

First Intifada (1987-1993)
Cause
Displaced since 1967, Israeli excesses
Methods
General strikes, civil disobedience, economic boycott, stone throwing, petrol bombs, stabbing
Response
Beating, tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets and even live rounds. Additional action included confiscation of properties, house demolition, mass arrests, cutting off supplies of water, food, electricity, deportation.
Casualties
2162 Palestinians; 160 Israelis
Result



Second Intifada (2000-2005)
Cause
Derailment of peace process; Sparked by Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount
Methods
Involvement of Islamist militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad etc led to terrorist attacks including car bombing, suicide bombing, rocket attacks and firefight with IDF. Fatah was involved in firefights too but was more restrained.
IDF retaliated with disproportionate force. Both sides are accused of war crimes
Casualties
3000 Palestinian and 1000 Israeli lives; 64 foreign citizens were also killed
Result



Gaza War (2007 – continues)
The Gaza War continues since the imposition of the blockade. Hamas continues  to fire Qassam rockets into Israel, IDF employs its entire war machine – airstrikes, naval attacks, artillery and ground forces -  intermittently paused after a ceasefire deal is agreed upon.
Despite enormous loss of lives and infrastructure, Palestinians have been able to garner support for themselves from across the world.


Further Reading 
How Hamas Won The War
Debunking Israel's 11 Main Myths About Gaza, Hamas and War Crimes


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