It’s a tragedy that the 61 years of Israel’s existence have been marked by almost continuous war. In fact, someone said that the history of Israel consists of one long war, varying in intensity, for more or less the last 100 years.
There are several possible flare-ups on the horizon today. Iran is unlikely to halt its progress towards becoming a nuclear power, and the international establishment doesn’t seem prepared to stop it. Israel sees acquisition of the bomb by Iran as an existential threat, and an Israeli attack would mean war with Iran and its surrogates.
Even if the US suddenly gets some backbone — and the latest threat of sanctions if Iran doesn’t respond in yet another three months doesn’t impress me (or the Iranians) too much — there is the problem of Hezbollah, which I can’t see going away peacefully. Something has to happen to those 40,000 rockets. And Hamas.
Although it would be wonderful if we could expect peace to break out in the region, Israeli leaders have to be thinking hard about what happens if it doesn’t.
One thing they need to think about is how Israel must fight in an environment where the actions of outside powers are as important as those of the combatants.
In 1973, the fate of Israel was in the hands of the US. Israel was struggling when Nixon and Kissinger decided that the American interest — reducing Soviet influence in the Mideast — justified an airlift to resupply the IDF, which then turned the tide and came close to crushing Soviet-armed Egypt and Syria. ‘Came close’, I said, because as Yehuda Avner points out in the article linked at the beginning of this paragraph, the US also slammed the brakes onto the IDF while the Egyptians still had a Third Army and Damascus was still intact.
Of course, similar stories can be told about the last few wars, which all ended in similar ways: the 1982 Lebanon war, in which Arafat’s PLO was allowed to escape; the 2006 war with Hezbollah, ended by the worthless Security Council resolution 1701; and the recent Operation Cast Lead, terminated early with Hamas still firmly in control of Gaza.
There’s no question that one of the biggest questions discussed by the Security Cabinet and the General Staff is always: what will the US do? How will Russia respond? Management of these outside players is as important as planning the deployment of fighting forces.
One of the factors which supposedly affects their behavior is the perception of such things as civilian casualties, proportionality, etc. The 2006 war, in which Hezbollah effectively manipulated the media, was a PR disaster for Israel. It’s been suggested that Hezbollah propaganda about the ‘Kfar Kana massacre’ actually caused Condoleezza Rice to end US support for an Israeli victory in Lebanon in 2006.
So in 2008-9, the IDF took unprecedented steps to hold down the number of civilian casualties in Gaza, as well as to try to respond quickly to fabricated atrocity stories. Unfortunately, although the amount of collateral damage was remarkably low for urban warfare — especially against an enemy which made a point of using the population as a shield — and although the IDF did do a much better job of responding to propaganda than in 2006, the result was the same: worldwide fury against ‘Israeli war crimes’, and a US-imposed end to the fighting before Hamas was defeated.
One thing that we can learn from this is that regardless of how Israel fights, it will be accused of war crimes and atrocities. What matters is not what is, but what people think.
Another is that it isn’t enough to convince the leadership of the great powers. Nations like the US or Russia act in their own interests. With all due respect, they don’t care about dead Arabs (or Israelis). When they hear about ‘massacres’ they are not interested in whether they happened or not. They are interested in how their own response to Israel’s actions looks to someone who believes that the massacres happened. And this leadership is particularly sensitive to opinion in the Middle East.
Therefore, even if Israel fights the most moral war in history, and even if US, Russian and European leadership knows this, they still may intervene against Israel. Israeli anti-propaganda efforts can only be useful if they effect overall and especially Mid-Eastern opinion, which is nearly impossible.
But not only does trying to avoid collateral damage have little effect on outside actors, it can be a direct impediment to victory. For example, it’s said that the Hamas headquarters was located in the basement of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital. Hamas knew that Israel would never bomb it, and they were right.
It also has indirect effects: Western democracies like Israel can’t accept a high level of their own casualties, especially if they are seen as avoidable. So for example, NATO bombed Serbian forces in Yugoslavia from high altitude, and suffered zero casualties to their own troops. But this conflicts with the imperative to avoid civilian casualties. NATO chose to protect its own soldiers and pilots at the expense of the people on the ground.
Israel made the opposite choice in 2003’s Operation Defensive Shield, and lost 23 soldiers in Jenin. The use of air bombardment or artillery could have prevented that loss, at the cost of many more Palestinian dead. Interestingly, despite this almost every non-Israeli in the Middle East and most Europeans still believe that Israel perpetrated a murderous ‘Jenin massacre’.
The effort to reduce collateral damage gives rise to casualties among one’s own troops, which in turn is a powerful deterrent to fighting in today’s West (and Israel). This is perhaps one of the reasons — along with American intervention — that Israel never executed phase III of Operation Cast Lead — the entry into the Gaza City center that might have finished off Hamas.
Anthony Cordesman has suggested that today’s conflicts — like Gaza and Afghanistan — call for an entirely different way of fighting, one in which as much attention is paid to not hurting civilians as to killing the enemy. He may be right about Afghanistan, but I think he’s wrong about Israel’s wars. America may have an image problem in the Middle East, but it does not have the same consequences as Israel’s.
What does all of this imply about how Israel must fight?
I am not suggesting that Israel ignore possible civilian casualties or even fight in a way which increases them, like the strategic bombing policy of the Allies in WWII, or NATO’s high-altitude bombing of Yugoslavia, or the way the Arabs have embraced terrorism against the Israeli population.
I do think that the primary aim of any operation should be to achieve its objective as quickly as possible, and that the amount of force used should be proportional to this goal. Insofar as avoidance of non-combatant casualties interferes with this, it should give way to whatever is needed to defeat the enemy.
The way to prevent intervention by outside powers is not to try to convince them that one’s cause is just and is being pursued in the safest way possible, but to achieve the objective as quickly and completely as possible, and thus to preclude intervention. The 1967 war is an example of this.
Paradoxically, Israel’s attempt in Cast Lead to prevent intervention before it reached its goals may have actually prevented it from reaching them before the US intervened.
War is a fundamentally irrational enterprise, which violates the rules of all constructive human endeavors. It is not constructive, it is destructive. Morality is upside down. Concepts like safety and even justice, on some level, are contradicted in a state of war.
Because of this, there is no greater evil than making war for political goals. There is only one moral reason for war, and that is self-defense. But once in war, the only rational behavior is to do whatever is necessary for victory.
In the long run, this may even result in less suffering for civilians and soldiers alike, because unfinished wars are fought over, and over, and over.