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
Iron Dome has revolutionized Israel’s security environment in ways that awe even its biggest proponents. First, it has saved countless Israeli lives since its deployment in March 2011. In the recent conflict, as of July 15, Hamas has fired over 1,200 rockets and Iron Dome has intercepted over two hundred of them, all bound for populated areas. As a result, Israel has, so far, suffered only one fatality and fifteen injuries.
Second, Iron Dome batteries have prevented damage to Israel’s critical infrastructure. Despite the firing of numerous missiles towards Tel Aviv, flights in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport have continued. Rockets have similarly been fired at the port of Ashdod, the Haifa oil refineries, and the Dimona nuclear reactor without significant effects. While a full damage report will surely be tallied after the hostilities conclude, the toll would have been far worse without Iron Dome.
Third, Iron Dome’s effectiveness has given the Israeli government the breathing room to act strategically and methodically. Rather than be rushed into a ground campaign out of popular anger to stem the rocket fire, Israel can now dictate the pace and scale of its’ operations, rather than be pressed into short-term and shortsighted initiatives. If it so chooses, it can wait out Hamas, rather than stumble in and overreact.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Israel, widely presumed to have a lower pain tolerance than Hamas, may now be able to win a war of attrition. To be sure, continued rocket fire still imposes a psychological, economic and human cost on the Israeli population. That said, by minimizing civilian casualties and limiting infrastructure damage, Iron Dome has leveled the battlefield.
3. With Wide International Support
Unlike past conflicts, Operation Protective Edge has actually garnered international support, even in unanticipated places. Unsurprisingly, the United States, as well as Canada and Australia, has backed the operation. British Prime Minister David Cameron “reiterated the UK's staunch support for Israel in the face of such attacks, and underlined Israel's right to defend itself from them,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel “condemned without reservation rocket fire on Israel,” and French President Francois Hollande said that Israel should “take all measures to protect its population in the face of threats.” Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose foreign minister just seven months ago called for Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza, told a rabbinical delegation, “I support the struggle of Israel as it attempts to protect its citizens.” As Ukraine, the South China Sea, the Mexican border, and the World Cup vie for the front pages, the problems of the Middle East appear simply less important.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Arab world has largely shrugged at, if not tacitly supported, Israeli actions. Egypt closed its border with Gaza, even to ambulances, intercepted twenty Grad rockets bound for Hamas, and sponsored a ceasefire resolution that tacked closely to stated Israeli war aims. With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declaring war on the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia and the UAE following suit, Israel and leading Arab states find themselves de facto brothers in arms on two fronts: against the Muslim Brotherhood and against Iran. With the Syrian death toll approaching 200,000, Iraq imploding, and the Iranian nuclear threat alarming everyone, “resistance” simply doesn’t have the same cache as it used to.
International permissiveness has produced tangible benefits. First, it has given Israel time and operational flexibility. Second, previous calls to end the blockade from Egyptian, European and American legislators are noticeably absent this time around. Finally, Congress, already jittery about the Obama administration’s rush to recognize the Hamas-backed Palestinian unity government, is increasingly considering suspending aid for the Palestinian Authority. In an international climate that traditionally punishes Israel for any large-scale military action, these gains, albeit limited, are striking.
A Step Forward in the Long War
To date, Protective Edge can claim a modest series of victories, with the potential to achieve even more. Looking beyond the Palestinian arena, the operation serves as a deterrent to other terrorist groups poised along Israel’s northern and southern borders and Iron Dome’s effectiveness may cause Iran and Hezbollah to reevaluate their missile-centric strategies. Protective Edge may also cause the death-knell of the Palestinian unity government. These are solid, yet fragile, steps forward in a long war. It is easy to imagine how these gains can be reversed if Israel overplays its hand.
“Mowing the grass” will not produce singular, stunning victories, but it is a mistake not to recognize it as a distinct strategy—namely, attrition. Over time, by achieving modest gains, at an acceptable cost, and with wide international support, Israel can hope to exhaust Hamas. Attrition may not be crowd-pleasing, but it has kept Israel safe, successively neutralizing the airline hijacking, the suicide bomb, and perhaps one day soon, the rocket. As the unstated takeaway from Israel’s counterterrorism experience makes clear, tactics alone have actually served Israel pretty well.
Raphael Cohen just completed his doctorate on counterinsurgency at Georgetown University. Gabriel Scheinmann is the Director of Policy at The Jewish Policy Center.
Image: Flickr/Israeli Defense Forces/CC by-nc 2.0