How Israel must fight

IDF soldier in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead

IDF soldier in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead

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.

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3 Responses to “How Israel must fight”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    Once again FresnoZionism demonstrates why it is among the interesting and original of sites which deal with Israel affairs. This piece thinks through a central question regarding Israel’s security , shows how misdirected much of our Hasbarah has been, indicates what we need to do in the future. It traces the evolution of prejudice against Israel which works to make narrower and narrower our room for maneuver in war. I would recommend this piece to all those directly involved in ensuring the security of Israel.

  2. Mike Packer says:

    I agree with Shalom Freedman and with the article but I would go one further. Israel has, throughout its history been damned for what it did and damned for what it didn’t and the Goldstone report is just another example. I have been in Israel for 35 years (this time around) and until the Gaza disengagement I was a left wing supporter of the Labor Party (like all good kibbutz members). That all ended with the first Qassam missile after the disengagement. Now I am a proponent of being damned for what we do, it’s going to happen no matter what so we should make it worthwhile. If that means high altitude bombing…so be it.

  3. Robman says:

    I will start with a quote:

    “I have only three rules for you to worry about: First, bring every American home alive; second, don’t kill any more Iraqi civilians than necessary to get the job done; and, third, by no means are you to let rule number two to get in the way of rule number one.”

    The above quote is taken from “Vipers in the Storn, Diary of a Gulf War Fighter Pilot”, by Keith Rosenkranz, published by McGraw-Hill, copyright 2002 (originally published in 1999).

    The words were spoken by then Brigadier General “Buster” Glosson, who, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, was serving as the CENTAF Director of Campaign Plans. The audience were the F-16 pilots of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, which, during Operation Desert Storm, operated out of Al Minhad Air Base, in the United Arab Emirates. This unit flew 3,879 combat sorties over the course of the war – the most of any wing deployed in theater – all of which were surface attack missions of one sort or another, without losing a single pilot.

    I keep the above quote handy for anyone who pisses and moans about an alleged “cavalier” attitude on the part of Israel with respect to civilian casualties. All readers here should feel free to do the same.

    Now, on to the subject at hand….

    According to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime to: hide among civilians with the expectation that enemy action will cause the death of said civilians, to disguise combatants as noncombatants so as to confuse an adversary regarding the same, and of course, to deliberately attack civilian targets. It is well-documented that Israel’s immediate terrorist adversaries – Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc. – routinely engage in these tactics. What is more, American and other coalition forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan have also encountered similar tactics on the part of Al Queda and Taliban terrorist armies.

    According to one Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, per a recent speech given by the same this past June in Israel, during the recent Gaza war, the IDF had done more THAN ANY ARMED FORCE IN HISTORY to avoid civilian casualties (his words).

    The real problem with Israeli Hasbara is that it needs to do a better job of just getting the basic facts referenced about out. Every Israeli IDF or government spokesman or spokeswoman, every supporter of Israel generally, who has access to the media, who has a microphone shoved in their face, needs to:

    -Quote Colonel Kemp (and others who have made similar observations).

    -Point out that by shielding themselves with civilians, it is Hamas (or Hezbollah, etc.) who are committing the war crimes, NOT Israel, and this is per international law.

    -Further point out that Western forces operating in Afghanistan fight precisely the same sort of enemy, with the same results.

    Finally, whoever is in a position to do so needs to take some investigative “gloves” off, if you will, and uncover the outright bribery and corruption that is going on in the media, the UN, etc., with respect to all of these condemnations of Israel. We now know for a fact that this had been happenning at HRW, and I’m as sure as the day is long that HRW is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not saying that EVERY case of outrageous criticism of Israel is rooted in this phenomenon, but I’m sure that a good deal of it is.

    After all, I’d bet that many readers here have had the experience of engaging in endless debates with Israel bashers in the local media, trying to get letters to the editor published, and finding out how hard that is in the first place (we are being “muzzled” constantly). And even when we do manage to get our voices heard in a general public venue, in the aftermath, as far as the media outlet in question is concerned, it is as though we’ve said nothing. The editorial slant remains the same, no matter what facts or logic we bring to bear.

    Stand back and look at this phenomenon: Have any of you ever seen an issue that is SOOO resistant to the voices of reason or logic? How can it possibly be in the interests of so many major media outlets to continue this onslought? Does it help their ratings? No; the most pro-Israel (or at least the ‘least anti-Israel’ national level media outlet, FOX, has by far the highest ratings!

    To the extent that such bribery/corruption on the part of anti-Israel NGOs, institutions (e.g., the UN), academic venues, politicians, and media outlets perpetuates anti-Israel hysteria, these need to be found out and exposed to the maximum extent possible. For as they are, the credibility of this point of view will collapse like a house of cards. How can take HRW seriously now, besides those who want to no matter what? Most can now see that they are nothing but paid Saudi stooges. I am as sure as anything that the illustrious Mr. Goldstone has a very handsome “reward” for his “efforts” sitting in a numbered Swiss bank account.

    Beyond the bribery/corruption issue, the article above I am commenting on treats war as most people are accostomed to treating war: as a two-dimensional chess game, with soldiers, bullets, bombs, etc., as the main deciding factors for victory or defeat. However, in touching on the public opinion aspects, this article alludes to the three-dimensional nature of this war, to include the realm of “thought control” well beyond the battlefield.

    This is of vital, central importance here.

    The Vietnamese communists pioneered this type of warfare just as the Nazi German war machine pioneered the “blitzkrieg”. We did not lose a single major battle in the field, we gave a hell of a lot better than we got every time, whenever they confronted us in a major way (e.g., Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive), we delivered a crushing defeat upon them. Still, they won the war!

    So successful were they in the “war of perceptions” that Yasser Arafat himself traveled to Hanoi during the late 1960s in order to glean tactics for defeating a materially superior foe. Everything we’ve seen the Arabs do to Israel, were done against us in Vietnam. They too employed child warriors: I had a Vietnam vet coworker, an alcoholic, who could not get over the guilt he felt over shooting a 12-year-old boy on a bicycle who approached his unit with a sachel charge. Against the South Vietnamese, they carried out a vicious terror campaign. They deliberately hid among civilians so as to give us a black eye in pubilc opinion if we struck back at them in the wake of their attacks. . They very effectively manipulated the media to their advantage.

    So, how do we fight in this “extra” dimension of warfare”? We have seen that the enemy, through mind-numbing repetition and unity on their part, has inserted a number of key “cliches” that have dominated discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, such as “the occupation”, “land for peace”, “disproportionate force”, etc., so as to convince the general public that 2+2 =5. Our task, in theory, is far simpler: We need only to remind people that 2+2=4. We need to come up with our own standard arguments/phrases to counter those of our adversaries. In addition to the one I list above – namely, that per international law, it is the Arabs – not the Israelis – who are committing the war crimes, I’d offer the following list:

    1. For Israel, Afghanistan is right next door.

    2. Israel is to the War on Islamist Terror what West Berlin was to the Cold War.

    3. The idea that outside actors with an interest in a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict should be “even-handed” in their approach is a fallacy, as this implies that both sides are “morally comparable”. Rather, the phrase “even-handed” needs to be replaced with “objective”.

    4. Following from #3 above, an objective approach means that the actions and policies of both sides are held to a common moral standard. Israel and her supporters must absolutely insist on this at all times.

    5. It is as much, if not even more, in the interests of the Palestinian people, and not only the Israelis, that the current presumed standard bearers of Palestinian national aspirations, the PA, should be completely discredited and delegitimized in this role.

    No matter who has been in control of the PA – Arafat or Abbas, Hamas or Fatah – they have done nothing except effectively advocate for the destruction of the sovereign state of Israel as the only acceptable outcome for the Palestinians. When they have not been applying whatever resources they have to this end, they have otherwise only been lining their own pockets and oppressing their own people. As long as the PA exists, as we have known it since it’s inception, the Palestinians will continue to suffer, and strife and bloodshed between Palestinians and Israelis will continue indefinitely.

    6. Following from #5 above, Jordan is Palestine. By any reasonable historical standard, this is the only just solution to the problem of Palestinian national self-determination. This does not have to be the “end” of the discussion of Palestinian national self-determination*, but absent the PA, it has to be the beginning. The rest (i.e., status of the West Bank, Gaza) is mere detail.