The "Long War" Strategy: Israel's War of Attrition against Hamas

"Over time, by achieving modest gains, at an acceptable cost, and with wide international support, Israel can hope to exhaust Hamas."

In the provocative documentary The Gatekeepers, Avraham Shalom, former director of Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, articulated the common critique of Israeli security policy: “there was no strategy, just tactics.” He is not alone. For the Obama administration and much of the Israeli political left, the absence of a two-state solution constitutes a lack of strategic foresight. As Secretary of State John Kerry derisively warned, “the alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. . . .I mean does Israel want a third Intifada?” Likewise, outspoken Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman bemoaned, “every minister in the government has a strategy, but the Israeli government has no strategy.” For him, as well as many on the Israeli right, a true strategy consists of Israel “go[ing] all the way” and “eradicat[ing] the Hamas regime in Gaza.” Superficially, the fact that Operation Protective Edge is Israel’s fourth in nine years against Hamas reinforces the “tactics, but no strategy” assessment.

While it may frustrate many, “mowing the grass,” as Israelis call it, is a strategy, just one for a different kind of war—a Long War. These conflicts are protracted and grueling battles of attrition. There are no quick political solutions. There are no big decisive battles. There are no victory parades. With this perspective, Israel’s ongoing operation is shaping up to be a solid victory in its extended campaign against Hamas on three counts.

1. Modest Operational Gains

An Israeli military operation to “eliminate thousands of small, mobile, hidden and easily resupplied rockets” is a strategy “based more on hope than on experience” and a “wild throw of the dice.” So said Philip Gordon, President Obama’s Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region on the NSC, in the midst of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Ironically, for the supposed lack of military solutions, Israel has enjoyed remarkable success at using hard power to provide short-term relief.

Since its 2005 Disengagement, Israel has previously conducted three limited military campaigns in the Gaza Strip in order to quell rocket fire: Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Each operation led to an immediate and precipitous decline in rocket fire. According to the Israeli government, 3,716 rockets and mortars were launched at Israel in 2008 while “only” 858 were launched in 2009 and 369 in 2010—a 90 percent reduction in fire. Similarly, after Operation Pillar of Defense, attacks dropped from 2,557 rockets and mortars in 2012 to 74 in 2013, a 93 percent reduction nearly overnight. In fact, in the three months after that operation, only three projectiles were launched, the lowest three-month total to date.

A similar script played out along Israel’s northern border. According to the International Crisis Group, in the two years after its 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Israel averaged a border clash every six to eight weeks with Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah fighters. By 2006, the situation spiraled into Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, a large-scale rocket barrage, and a full-on ground war. Although widely considered a bungled operation, the war produced a mostly quiet border, with the exception of several contained incidents in 2010 and 2013.

If anything, Israel is in an even more advantageous position during the current conflict. The Israeli Air Force, according to its commander, is now “capable of striking in less than 24 hours what once took 33 days to hit” in the 2006 Lebanon War, marking a 400 percent increase in firepower in just two years. Israel’s proverbial dice roll may appear “wild,” but it is, in fact, loaded: if history serves as any guide, Protective Edge will likely buy a dramatic, although temporary, reduction in rocket fire.

2. At Minimal Cost to the Home Front