A New Kind of War
One year after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, Israel has discovered that it is easy to win military battles against its 21st century-antagonists -- but infuriatingly difficult to win the war of public opinion.
The end result of Operation Cast Lead, last year's conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was quite clear. During three weeks of fighting over December 2008 and January 2009, more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed and at least 2,500 houses in the strip were demolished. There is an ongoing debate about the number of armed Palestinians killed, but even Hamas does not contest that hundreds of its men died, among them three of the Islamist organization's senior leaders. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) penetrated to the heart of the strip -- the center of Gaza City, where most of Hamas's major compounds are located. The organization's defensive infrastructure, which had been painstakingly built over three years and included hundreds of booby-trapped houses, tunnels, landmines, and smuggled anti-tank rockets, was destroyed.
The end result of Operation Cast Lead, last year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, was quite clear. During three weeks of fighting over December 2008 and January 2009, more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed and at least 2,500 houses in the strip were demolished. There is an ongoing debate about the number of armed Palestinians killed, but even Hamas does not contest that hundreds of its men died, among them three of the Islamist organization’s senior leaders. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) penetrated to the heart of the strip — the center of Gaza City, where most of Hamas’s major compounds are located. The organization’s defensive infrastructure, which had been painstakingly built over three years and included hundreds of booby-trapped houses, tunnels, landmines, and smuggled anti-tank rockets, was destroyed.
Hamas fighters had no answer for the IDF’s technological and military edge. Their attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers failed and, though Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory, only a few civilians were killed. More than a year after the fighting, the strip is still under siege by both Israel and Egypt. Most Gazans are forbidden from traveling abroad, while their supply of goods depends primarily on smuggling through tunnels from Egypt.
So how, you might ask, did Hamas mark the first anniversary of this colossal failure? By celebrating, of course. In a number of rallies, Hamas leaders proudly reminded their supporters of the organization’s achievements during the conflict. For them, the fact that Hamas had stood its ground against the strongest army in the region and continued shooting rockets until the last day of the war was more than enough to declare victory. Survival was the goal, and it had been achieved.
Such bizarre and dissonant remarks are widely accepted in the Middle East as a part of the regional game. Hezbollah, which had suffered heavy losses in the second Lebanon war against Israel in the summer of 2006, still describes that conflict’s outcome as a "Victory from God" (Nassr Min Allah). The Arab media, led by Al Jazeera, repeated this message enthusiastically, despite Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s admission, a few days after the war’s conclusion, that he would not have gambled on an attack against Israel had he known that the Israeli reaction would be so severe.
It’s not that the leaders of these organizations don’t actually know what happened in Lebanon and Gaza. Hezbollah and Hamas fired senior commanders after the wars. But both groups understand that asymmetric conflicts are very different from conventional warfare. In these battles, perception — even marketing — is far more important than results. The images that organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas manage to sell to their publics, to their enemy, and to the international community have a far greater effect than actual events on the battlefield.
In fact, Israel’s military victory in Gaza was far from complete, and the battle of perceptions is still a draw. A certain level of deterrence was achieved, but Hamas still remains in full control of the strip. And Israel’s overwhelming force, applied against an enemy fighting from within the civilian population, resulted in hundreds of innocent victims. This in turn led to the extremely harsh (and biased) Goldstone Report, along with the fear that senior IDF officers would be brought to trial in some European countries for alleged war crimes. Israel is now considered by many in the international community as the regional "disturbed child," requiring immediate restraint if a new war breaks out.
Nevertheless, despite their victories on the battlefield of opinion, Hamas and Hezbollah might be celebrating a bit prematurely. The military stakes have risen recently, due to Iran’s involvement and some technological evolutions on Israel’s side. After Israel’s impressive military success against Palestinian terrorism in the second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, Hezbollah, with Hamas following closely behind, developed a new tactic to circumvent Israel’s increased security precautions. During the 2006 war, Hezbollah bombarded Israel with 4,200 rockets, fired from South Lebanon. These rockets were aimed at Israel’s underbelly, its civilian population. Israel was caught unprepared, because plans for developing an interception system to defend against medium-range rockets and missiles (those with a range of under 160 miles) had been aborted for cost reasons in 2000.
Recently, however, Israel has come up with a partial solution: the "Iron Dome" system. A sufficient number of such systems will only be deployed in two or three years, a fact that has led some Israeli leaders to conclude that no further withdrawals from Palestinian territories are possible in the near future because it would expose Israel’s major population centers, such as Tel Aviv, to rocket fire on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, Iran has absorbed Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas into a coordinated system fighting Israel, disregarding ideological and ethnic differences. Hamas, worried about its independence, hesitated before giving in to Iran’s advances five years ago. But the Iranians were willing to offer huge financial support to the Gazans at a time when help from the Gulf states was dwindling.
Syria, which has historically nurtured aspirations of becoming a regional power, also accepts Iranian supremacy. Western intelligence sources claim that terrorist training camps in Iran and Syria now host students from Lebanon and Gaza for months at a time, exchanging lessons learned while fighting Israel and on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran uses Hezbollah and Hamas for a campaign "by proxy" against Israel, hoping to gradually erode the Jewish state’s resistance while steadily stockpiling thousands of rockets in Gaza and in Lebanon. These weapons are also intended to deter Israel from any attempt at striking Iran’s nuclear sites.
Israel is fighting a long and difficult battle against Iran-controlled terrorism. Having frustrated most suicide-bombing attacks, Israel now faces the complicated challenge of rocket warfare, for which no comprehensive strategic solution has yet been achieved. Therefore, military counterattacks will remain part of Israel’s strategy, meaning that another round of fighting in the near future, in either Gaza or Lebanon, seems almost inevitable. As they listen to the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah glorify their accomplishments in the recent wars against Israel, the Gazans and Lebanese should think long and hard about whether these propaganda victories have been worth the human cost.
Amos Harel is the defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
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