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Israel and Hamas: Every War Must End

November 23, 2012 1:23 pm 1 comment

IDF forces exit the Gaza Strip as part of Operation Last Dawn, the final stage of the Gaza Disengagement, which occurred in the summer of 2005. Photo: wiki commons.

At a time when the political discourse in Israel is focusing on how the current operation in Gaza should have come to an end, it is useful to look at a classic book on international affairs called “Every War Must End.” The author of this study is Fred Ikle, who was not only an undersecretary of defense in the Reagan administration, but also a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the head of the prestigious RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

The book really is about what perpetuates wars unnecessarily. Ikle’s analysis was written with the Vietnam War in mind, but he has revised it since then. He appears to have been mainly concerned with how states handle guerrilla wars. Some of its principles are useful to review in the Israeli context, if mistakes that many other countries have made are to be avoided.

Ikle’s first principle is that the purpose of the use of force is to defeat the military forces of the enemy. This is not as obvious as it seems. Many states locked into difficult guerrilla wars eventually turn to “punishment” strategies that are used to break the will of their adversaries, or what he calls “peace through escalation.” When a state is stuck in what appears to be a stalemate, there will always be people who look for more extreme solutions, hoping that the use of more force will change the situation fundamentally.

Ikle reminds his readers that the use of force against the civilian population will not work. Despotic rulers will not seek peace simply because his soldiers and civilians are suffering from the war. The U.S. tried punishment strategies in the Korean War against Kim Il-sung and in the Vietnam War against Ho Chi Minh and failed to get either leader to seek a peaceful outcome. The Iranians tried to punish Iraq’s allies in the Iran-Iraq War by striking their oil infrastructures, but by expanding the conflict they only brought in the U.S. against them.

Thus there are unintended side effects for a state adopting punishment strategies that can be totally self-defeating. In the current Gaza conflict, it is Hamas that is using a punishment strategy by striking larger numbers of Israeli cities and reaching northward as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. But what Hamas has done is to create far greater solidarity on the Israeli side rather than break the will of the Israeli public. Rather than splitting the Israeli public it has put Tel Aviv and Ashdod in the same boat, thereby forming a strong Israeli consensus for waging a war to stop the rocket attacks.

A second issue that Ikle raises that perpetuates modern wars is the existence of outside support for the guerrilla forces a state might be fighting. This is not just a matter of the supply of weapons or funding, it is has a broader impact on the morale of guerrilla fighters involved in an insurgency against a well-equipped army. If they are isolated and have no reinforcements coming they are psychologically more prone to halt their fight.

Israel has acquired experience in this area in the last decade. One of the cardinal strategic errors in the 2005 Disengagement was the decision of Prime Minister Sharon to withdraw Israel’s military presence from the Philadelphi Route along the Gaza-Sinai border, after which the number of supply tunnels increased dramatically. Prior to the Disengagement, only short-range rockets were fired at Israel, like the Qassam, that was manufactured in Gaza. But in 2006, suddenly the longer-range Grad rocket that is manufactured in Iran was fired for the first time at Ashkelon, indicating how the improved lines of supply to Hamas was changing the battlefield.

It became extremely difficult to reach a decisive outcome in the war in Gaza and defeat Hamas as long as it had this link to external sources of supply, like Iran. In comparison, the IDF was able to defeat Hamas and other organizations in the West Bank in 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, partly because their forces had no external source of supply. Israel continued to seal off the outer perimeter of the West Bank — the Jordan Valley — and did not pull out from this strategic area, as it had withdrawn from Philadelphi Route. As a result, the war in Gaza continued from the Disengagement until today, while no such armed conflict on a similar scale erupted in the West Bank.

There is a third issue that Ikle raises that sometimes keeps conflicts going for longer than they should: a pessimistic outlook in Western democracies has taken hold that guerrilla forces cannot be defeated. As a result many people tend to doubt the ability of their own armed forces to win modern wars and popular support for guerrilla conflicts tends to evaporate very quickly.

In Israel it is frequently stated that “only a political process can vanquish terrorism.” But what happens to “political solutions” when Israel confronts an organization like Hamas that is unwilling to compromise on its rigid ideology of muqawama and armed struggle against Israel?

Yaakov Amidror, who is now the National Security adviser, wrote a study showing that historically counterinsurgency wars have actually been won by the West when certain conditions were fulfilled.

Amidror reviewed the U.S. victory in the Philippines in 1954, the British victory in Malaya in 1952 and that in Oman in the 1970s as classic textbook cases. More recently there was the counterinsurgency campaign waged by General David Petraeus, who converted what looked like an American defeat in Western Iraq to a victory against al-Qaida in 2007.

What emerges from all these theoretical writings is the obvious point that wars against terrorism come to an end if they are won. But it is important to remember that victory is not achieved in these kinds of wars with a photograph of the enemy emerging from a bunker holding a white flag. In Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, as Amidror wrote, the wave of suicide bombings that the Palestinians employed against Israel came to an end. That result alone constituted a victorious outcome.

In the Gaza conflict we just had [Operation Pillar of Defense], the stated goal of military operations was to bring to an end the constant rocket fire on Israel by Hamas and other organizations which receive sanctuary in the territory Hamas controls.

If the cease-fire stabilizes in the weeks ahead, then the IDF will have achieved its stated goal. But to preserve what it has accomplished, Israel and the U.S. will have to put in place arrangements for the Philadelphi Route to prevent Iran from replacing all the weaponry that Israel has destroyed. Closing the outer perimeter to a territory where an insurgency war is being waged has been proven time and again to be a prerequisite for assuring stability in the long term.

Hamas escalated its rocket war on Israel in 2011 and especially in 2012, largely because it felt that the regional balance of power had changed with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist regimes, especially in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists became the dominant political force. It did not feel regionally isolated any longer. The Hamas leadership assumed that it could attack Israel while hiding behind the protective umbrella of President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt and Prime Minister Erdoğan of Turkey.

Israel demonstrated that nothing would deter it from exercising its right to self defense, even in the era of the Arab Spring. Hamas miscalculated. Essentially, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt felt strongly that now was the time for it to consolidate its control on power and not to get drawn into the military adventurism of Hamas, despite the full ideological identification of the former with the latter. But this change appears to be tactical in nature.

Thus Egypt played a constructive role at the end of this round of conflict in the Gaza Strip, but it remains to be seen whether this shift becomes permanent or is only temporary. The ideological hostility of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt against Israel remains stronger than ever and was just demonstrated this week in statements made by its supreme guide, Mohammed Badie. In any case, Israel will continue to have to rely on itself for its security, backed by the national fortitude that the Israeli people convincingly demonstrated all throughout the Gaza crisis.

This article originally appeared in Israel Hayom.

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