Cracks in Israel’s Armor

By James Gundun – Washington

America and Israel are fond of comparing similarities. Religious persecution, the desire to found new worlds, democracy, high technology – they seem to share all their strengths. They share a few critical weaknesses too.

Stubbornness is one of them. The Israeli press claims a fierce internal debate remains undecided on outside examination into Operation Lead Cast, but this may not be relevant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly favors independent investigations from the military as recommended by the Justice and Foreign ministries.

Except he’s is trying to clear Israel’s name in the West, hardly to understand and rectify its failings during the Gaza War. 

Netanyahu’s inner position likely corresponds with Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, who by the nature of his position must resist vetting from civilians or foreigners. Israel’s recent 52-page update to the UN came with Barak’s personal opinion that, “All of the soldiers and officers whom we sent to battle need to know that the state of Israel stands behind them even on the day after. The Goldstone Report is a distorted, false, and irresponsible report."

This latest reply perpetuates a creeping reality that Israel’s strategic foresight doesn’t reach its lofty tactical ability.

Consciously or not, Israel has mimicked the American style of warfare. A premium is placed on military technology while the international community is leveraged for every penny – then cast away at the slightest inconvenience. American thinking, evolving but still dominated by the military battlefield, often fails to grasp the totality of warfare at the political and social levels.

The US military is notorious for equating superior firepower and technology to dominance in warfare. Riding high on its mechanized army after victory in World War II and a successful defense of South Korea, America ultimately succumbed to Vietnam’s jungle insurgency. No amount fire power could overcome poor strategy and political scandal.

Desert Storm’s triumph ushered in a new aura of invincibility as the US military assimilated the digital revolution and raised the pinnacle of warfare. Then came counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, which put technology to work but ground the sweeping motions of tank divisions, Apache attack groups, and F-16 Fighting Falcons to a halt. With large targets disappearing, programmed computers lost relative value in protecting the population.

Iraq did not fall again in 100 hours. Now America must out-think its opponents the old fashioned way to escape from Afghanistan.

Israel too overemphasizes tactical success to mask strategic stalemate or defeat. The parallels between the two states are an uncanny product of the history they so often reference. “Victory” in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars brought Israel enough military glory to coast on for the next 40 years – and shaped the presently intractable political situation.

First the bulky Egyptian and Jordan armies went up in smoke. Israel spent the next two decades in protracted warfare inside Lebanon, mistaking advanced military hardware for excellence. The July War proved once wasn’t enough to learn. Gaza similarly demonstrates multiple times, vividly in 2009, that dominance on the military battlefield isn’t synonymous with victory.

No state, however superior and advanced, can defeat an insurgency through military force alone. The battlefield often ends in status quo ante bellum, with the dominate force on the sore end.

Though Israel brings to bear military operations supported by political, economic, cultural, and psychological warfare, the results have not caused the Palestinians to submit to its demands. Its use of many dimensions is one-dimensional. A full-spectrum counterinsurgency – employing those same elements – seeks to fight less war, not more. Political reform and diplomatic progress are multiplied by economics and finally reinforced with security operations.

Israel’s response to the UN highlights its single-mindedness. The crux of its argument rests on three points: that it didn’t indiscriminately target civilians or civilian infrastructure, that its military investigated “every specific complaint of alleged violations,” and that its military judicial system is comparable to the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia.

Therefore, “in complex combat situations, errors of judgment, even with tragic results, do not necessarily mean that violations of the Law of Armed Conflict have occurred.”

After a lengthy defense of Israel’s legal process, the report ultimately argues that the deaths of Palestinian civilians rests on Hamas’s conscience. “The deliberate Hamas entrenchment in civilian areas which made combat so complex and challenging,” never made Israel stop and question whether such a large-scale attack in an urban environment was strategically advantageous.

The focus zeroed in on numbers, and this first letter is only an appetizer. The IDF’s official rebuttal is expected to top 1,000 pages and answer point-by-point every allegations in the Goldstone Report.

"To date," the Israeli letter repeats, "the IDF has launched investigations into 150 separate incidents arising from the Gaza Operation. Of the 150 incidents, so far 36 have been referred for criminal investigation. Criminal investigators have taken statements from almost 100 Palestinian complainants and witnesses, along with approximately 500 IDF soldiers and commanders."

But the stats aren’t good for Israel and the trend doesn’t stop at Gaza.

Its invasion of Lebanon in 1978 and occupation from 1982-2000 left between nearly 2,000 Hezbollah fighters dead and countless civilians. After managing to kill 500 IDF soldiers of its own, Hezbollah ultimately triumphed upon Israel’s withdrawal. The July War repeated a futile process, leaving over 1,000 Lebanese civilians dead compared to 47 Israelis. Hundreds of Hezbollah soldiers were killed while the IDF’s 131 casualties, though unusually high, gave the overwhelming military edge to Israel.

Result: an embarrassing withdrawal masked by a feeble UN resolution orchestrated by America. Hezbollah is now a permanent political and military entity in the Middle East.

So too is Hamas despite Israel’s best military efforts. The Gaza War alone left 1,400 Palestinians dead, according to the Palestinian Healthy Ministry, including 300 children and 100 women.

Some 2,000 civilians were killed in the Lebanon and Gaza combined, about 1,000 fighters. Israel lost 140 soldiers and 50 civilians – and achieved nothing from these ratios. 

Furthermore, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs concluded, “between 2005 and 2008, 116 Israelis were killed in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories in ‘direct conflict related incidents’ and 1,509 were injured. During this time, 1,735 Palestinians, including civilians and militants from various groups, were killed and 8,308 wounded in ‘direct conflict related incidents.’”

And these numbers must expand again. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese were rendered homeless or displaced by recent war alone, millions in need of food, especially Gaza. Their misery is completely omitted in Israel’s report. Referring to the many attacks on factories and food production centers, Israel argues it never intentionally target civilians or engage in collective punishment.

Yet the blockade itself is collective punishment and far more destructive than Operation Lead Cast.

Even President Obama was forced to admit in Cairo, "If the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can’t even get clean water, if the border closures are so tight that it is impossible for reconstruction… then that is not going to be a recipe for Israel’s long-term security.”

Israel cannot see past its latest defense projects, low military casualties, and high hit ratio in its assessment of the Middle East. Military dominance it has in spades, but its technological superiority masks ineptitude of 21st century warfare. The battle is as likely to take place in urban streets as the UN, Hague, British streets, and Al Jazeera – and Israel hasn’t been ready.

At this point it actually seems to be going backwards strategically and diplomatically. At odds with Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria, irritating Saudi Arabia, leaning hard on Egypt, preparing for Iran, and testing the breaking point of US-Israeli relations. World opinion of Israel is falling without progress on a Palestinian state, and it feels like peace can only be known through stalemate or ceasefire.

To reverse this trend Israel must break out of its military cage. Over 100 rockets were fired after the Gaza War; now bomb barrels are washing up on Israel’s beaches. The certainty with which Israel will invade cannot silence Hamas’ capabilities. The only permanent peace lies at the heart of a fair two-state solution.

Hamas didn’t stop firing rockets out of fear – it’s targeting where Israel is weakest. Hamas is utilizing diplomatic and legal warfare in conjunction with the Palestinian nation and Arab world to keep Israel on the defensive. Six months have quickly passed since UN Judge Richard Goldstone released his report and the firestorm will stay lit for years if not put out properly.

Meanwhile government officials, such as opposition leader Tzipi livni, can no longer safely travel to Britain because of its “universal jurisdiction” allowing for prosecution of international war criminals. They’ve denounce “lawfare” as warfare through distortion of laws and conventions, though how they do so with a straight face remains a mystery.

Israel also tends to repeat its pounding in the Arab and international media, having failed to capture the advantage in July or January. Recently two IDF commanders were slapped for white phosphorus use. Aside from how insignificant this PR move is, Israel maintains the legality of phosphorus when used properly. Its argument is nullified by one infamous picture of fleeing Palestinians showered in white sparks.

Israel routinely fails to predict the world’s reaction or realize disproportionate military operations in a civilian population causes this reaction. Perhaps if Israel weren’t so dominate it might stand a higher chance of victory. Less force is apparently not so simple.

Yet nowhere is Israel’s lack of depth more evident than at the political level. Demanding unconditional negotiations while imposing conditions himself, Netanyahu smothers every piece of US goodwill to the Palestinians with an insult or war beat. His attitude alone brought the peace process to a freeze.

Consider how little he can’t do. Recently PA President Mahmoud Abbas told The Guardian that he’s, “prepared to resume full face-to-face peace negotiations if Israel froze all settlement construction for three months and accepted its June 1967 borders as the basis for land swaps.”

Three measly months is all it takes now to resume full scale negotiations even though Israel is still grandstanding the international community. Netanyahu is busy hinting at new operations in Gaza and green-lit a Mossad assassination, now he says “realistic” peace talks are weeks away – but still without preconditions.

Abbas states the obvious: "If they [Israel] are not prepared to do that, it means they don’t want a political solution."

Israel will never find a military solution to its long-term security. If it can’t see past this truth and sincerely engage in a political solution then Palestinians and their allies are left with no other choice. They must continue assaulting Israel’s fragility in the political and media arenas, in the court of global opinion. Unilateral pursuit of statehood remains a powerful bluff and is growing into a realistic option.

Non-military warfare, backed by the threat of resistance, has countered Israel’s war machine. It can also aid in the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. Contact him in The Trench, a realist newsletter, at

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