Protective Edge: A Change in Israel’s Security Doctrine?

The principle of taking the offensive still has merit for Israel.

An Israeli tank in Gaza, July 31
An Israeli tank in Gaza, July 31 (IDF)

Although it may be premature to judge whether Israel or its enemies in Gaza have gained the most from the recent fighting there, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn as the conflict appears to be winding down.

These conclusion pertain mainly to the military aspects of the operation and more specifically as to how the principles upon which the Israeli army has operated in the current operation diverge from its established (although rarely formally declared) and hitherto successful security doctrine. This divergence is especially important to note since both Israel and its enemies usually draw their lessons for future fighting from the last round of hostilities. It is therefore safe to assume that the operative principles currently at play will guide the parties’ behavior in the future.

As a country that faced severe security challenges even before its inception, Israel was quick to formulate and adopt a comprehensive security doctrine. The doctrine’s principles have successfully led Israel to victory in all six major wars it fought against enemy Arab states and are based on a sober assessment of Israel’s geostrategic realities.

The basic assumption guiding those military and political thinkers who shaped Israel’s strategic thinking was that because of Israel’s small size and geographical conditions, any war fought for too long and within Israel’s borders would have devastating social and economic consequences which could severely inhibit its ability to withstand a future attack (and to attract Jewish immigrant from around the world).

Therefore, any conflict would have to be fought based on two strategic principles. First, since Israel’s standing army was too small compared to the armies its enemies could field, it became necessary that any conflagration would have to be as short as possible. Any Israeli victory would have to be achieved before Israel’s enemies had a chance to mobilize their full potential in terms of equipment and manpower.

Second, because of the natural devastation caused by war, any fighting could not take place on Israel’s densely populated soil but would have to be fought on Arab land — especially if the impression that Israel was in fact winning was to be created.

Despite Israel’s general strategic defensive posture, these realities led to a clear emphasis on operational offensiveness. The famous preemptive strike of the 1967 war, in which Israel destroyed the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies and doubled its combined territory by taking over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River in a mere six days, demonstrated the utility of this principle.

These principles have been successfully pursued in all of Israel’s military engagement since the state was declared in 1948.

However, Israel’s main enemies today are no longer the major Arab states. It has signed peace treaties with two (Egypt and Jordan) while a third (Syria) is in the process of imploding as a result of a protracted civil war.

Instead, Israel’s main enemies are the Palestinian and Islamic terror groups Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad which, while no less committed to the cause of destroying Israel, differ greatly in their modes of operation and fighting tactics. Because these organizations are too weak to directly engage Israel’s army on the battlefield, they have adopted strategies that try to bypass their inherent weaknesses. Their main attempt is to attack the Israeli population in the hope that it will become wary and either demand the government make concessions to the Palestinian cause or even cause the Jewish state to collapse. In addition to terror attacks, the main tool to achieve this effect is using rockets and missiles. In the recent round of fighting, Hamas has fired more than 2500 rockets at Israel.

So how does Israel’s performance Operation Protective Edge figure in this context?

First, the operation, which was launched almost a month ago, threatens to become one of Israel’s longest and most protracted military endeavors. It is already longer than the two previous operations. Cast Lead in 2008-2009 took twenty days, Pillar of Defense in 2012 a week. This is especially striking when one considers that the current operation has surpassed some of Israel’s most difficult wars. For instance, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Israel had to overcome a massive Egyptian-Syrian invasion that saw Egyptian army tanks stationed less than fifty kilometers from Tel Aviv and nearly brought the Israeli Defense Forces to the brink of collapse, lasted only eighteen days.

Protective Edge also threatens to overtake the Second Lebanon War of 2006 which was fought against the much bigger, better trained Iranian-backed and entrenched Hezbollah organization but lasted just over a month.

This prolongation of the conflict is the result of a deviation from Israel’s second longstanding doctrinal principle — its emphasis on initiating attacks following the need to transfer the fighting to the enemy’s territory. While like most Israeli operation in the past two decades, the current operation began with a massive air attack which wrought considerable devastation on the Gaza Strip, Israel’s government showed a clear reluctance to take the initiative offensively.

Indeed, the current round of fighting was initiated by an increasingly frustrated Hamas desperate to wriggle out of a physical and political blockade and not from any Israeli intention to target the organization — in contrast to the previous operation, Pillar of Defense, which began with the targeted killing of Hamas’ top military commander. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hesitated to widen the offensive to include a ground incursion of Gaza, despite considerable political and public pressure on him to do so. His initial hesitation was aided by the overwhelming success of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in intercepting rockets from Gaza. Consequently, the home front sustained only minimal damage and almost no injuries and deaths.

This relative protection allowed Israel to accept no less than six ceasefire proposals from various international actors. It finally decided on a very limited land incursion into Gaza only eighteen days after the beginning of the operation, designed to expose and destroy underground tunnels used by Hamas operatives to infiltrate Israeli territory. The only reason why the decision to enter Gaza was made was because Hamas repeatedly refused to accept ceasefire offers, forcing Israel to increase the pressure on the organization in the hope that it would cause it to adopt a more flexible position.

What does this mean for the future?

No doubt, the first lesson is that, notwithstanding the great achievements of Israel’s air defense systems, which seemingly allow it to sustain a prolonged conflict relatively unharmed, the principle of taking the offensive still has merit. Both previous operations against Gaza were fought, and ended, on much better terms. Cast Lead brought four years of relative calm to the south of the country which had until then been victimized by relentless rocket strikes. Operation Pillar of Defense similarly saw Hamas quickly request and subsequently agree to a ceasefire, including an understanding to completely cease all rocket attacks against Israel.

Similarly, the Second Lebanon War, in which a ground invasion was also taken, albeit reluctantly, ended with Hezbollah acknowledging that if it had known about the Israeli response in advance, it would never have sought to initiate hostilities.

The devastation in Gaza has yet to convince Hamas to make similar concessions. Insofar as successive Israeli governments continue to fear the high death toll associated with fighting on the ground, future operations will likely continue to be lengthy, costly and ultimately even more politically and militarily frustrating.

Secondly, despite accusations made in the international press, the most recent operation clearly demonstrated Israel’s inherent disinterest in controlling or occupying Arab populations around it. Despite Hamas’ political isolation, hostility between it and Egypt’s new regime, economic difficulties and especially Israeli public support which make this point of time almost ideal for a comprehensive military offensive that would see its control over Gaza completely terminated, Israel has gone to painstaking lengths to avoid toppling Hamas. This unwillingness primarily stems from Israel’s disinterest in once again ruling over nearly three million Arabs and proves Israel has no secret designs to regain or retain control over Palestinian territories.

Thirdly, depending on the terms of the eventual agreement between the parties to cease the fighting, Hamas has made some significant gains. It rehabilitated its ties with its former patron Iran, much to the chagrin of Syrian president Bashar Assad, and proved its ability to exact a high price on the most powerful army in the region.

However, it suffered many losses as well. Not only did it sacrifice its population and showed that it cares very little about its welfare; it exposed its two primarily weapons to strike at Israel — above ground, via rockets launchings, and especially underground, via tunnels. While Israel has a pretty effective answer to the first challenge, it will have to develop a more suitable solution for the second. Hamas may very well find that its current success has merely motivated Israel to develop methods to deprive it of its two most important weapons, rendering the organization virtually defenseless in the future.

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