Can Israel Handle a War on 2 Fronts?

Tamir Hayman, a former head of Israeli intelligence, assesses the government's capabilities.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Israeli Merkava battle tanks deploy along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel.
Israeli Merkava battle tanks deploy along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel.
Israeli Merkava battle tanks deploy along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on Oct. 13. Aaris MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel-Hamas War

Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza on Thursday, fueling expectations that a ground invasion of the densely populated strip of territory could be imminent, a move that the United Nations has warned could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. 

Israel ordered 1.1 million Palestinians to evacuate from northern Gaza on Thursday, fueling expectations that a ground invasion of the densely populated strip of territory could be imminent, a move that the United Nations has warned could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. 

To the north, a senior leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group warned on Friday that it is “fully ready” to join the conflict, raising the specter of a second front opening with a far more potent adversary along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. 

As Israeli society reels from the bloodshed and chaos wrought by the Hamas attack last weekend and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) prepares what is widely expected to be an equally unprecedented operation against the militant group in Gaza, Foreign Policy spoke to Tamir Hayman, the former head of Israel’s military intelligence, about the goals of the operation in Gaza, the prospect of Hezbollah joining the fight, and the blow dealt to Israeli resilience.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Foreign Policy: What have the past six days been like for you? Is your family safe? Are your friends safe?

Tamir Hayman: Currently, everything is fine with my close circle of family. Of course, I know lots of my friends and extended family that either are missing or were killed during the attack. I am also on reserve duty, back in the place I was [based] before, supporting whatever I can at the strategic design level, in the strategic intelligence. We have passed the point of shock, and recovery is on the way.

FP: What’s that recovery going to look like?

TH: There are a few elements. First of all, the major spot that was hit was the villages, kibbutzim, surrounding the Gaza Strip. [They] were heavily attacked and destroyed, and there was really a massacre over there. A massacre, an atrocity that you cannot imagine. The ruins, the bodies, the scent is unbearable. The sights are horrible and the scent is worse. There is a stench of death and blood. 

Now, we have sealed all the holes in the fence of Gaza. We have evacuated all the civilians and there is only military personnel in the vicinity of Gaza, so this is one aspect of renewing our confidence. Second is the [Hamas] attack capabilities in Gaza, striking capabilities. Each and every neighborhood which was the base of the attack that was launched, we worked with the air force with heavy air power and destroyed every target possible. Of course, we are targeting only targets after evacuating civilians as much as we can. 

Then, massive attacks on the infrastructure of the Nukhba, which is the [Hamas] special operations unit that infiltrated Israel. All Hamas personnel are now considered to be targets, legal targets. 

The third element is stabilizing the situation in the north. Although Hezbollah is not actively, full-scale involved, but actively, below the threshold of war, trying to create distraction in order to relieve tensions over Gaza, using drones, exploiting the Hamas capabilities and the Palestinian capabilities to launch mortar attacks on the Iron Dome [Israel’s missile defense system], all of those aspects are creating tension in the Home Front Command, and we are trying to hold things up. We have deployed all of our forces in order to be more prepared for, God forbid, another attack by special operatives from Hezbollah. We are fully ready for that kind of a scenario. And now we have to balance our effort between Gaza and the north, and in my opinion we should secure the flank, but the main operational effort should be concentrated on Gaza. 

The fourth element is stabilizing the home front, what is happening in Israeli society. This has not yet recovered and will take us years in order to recover the security and the sense of confidence over Israel’s capabilities, especially in terms of early alert but also in terms of military capabilities. 

FP: Going back to your point about evacuating civilians. Already, we are seeing multiple reports of civilians being killed, or a mosque being hit, of a market being hit. How do you take down Hamas without a horrific civilian toll?

TH: You must understand that Hamas’s military branch, although a horrible terrorist organization of [Islamic State]-like murderers, is also constructed in a very similar way to military units. You have their outposts, their channels of command and control. You have their bases in deep and wide underground tunnels that connect all those aspects. So you have elements that you can identify. It’s not like we are hunting humans in apartment houses. They are organized as military units. They are, most of them, underground, but we know the structure and the capabilities. 

So the problem is how do you separate the civilians from that military capability and then strike. This is what we are doing right now: We are trying to evacuate the massive uninvolved civilian [population] from all of the northern Gaza Strip, and later on we can strike. We know where they are. We can strike with air power; we can maneuver to them; we can root out those major capabilities. We can prioritize what are the special capabilities we want to root out; for example, special operation capabilities, the aerial unit, the naval unit, the rocket unit—all of those elements that can target, and did target, Israeli civilians. 

Second, Hamas, although it is a very, very large organization, the element of control in Gaza, the government of Hamas, is relatively small. We know who they are, and we can replace them. We can try to hit them, and we should try to create the [circumstances] that will force them [Palestinians in Gaza] to prefer the other entity to come and replace them and rehabilitate Gaza. Therefore, it is more likely that they will accept what they haven’t accepted so far, which is to bring back the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, back to Gaza. So the first element is crushing the military capabilities. The second element is removing Hamas.

FP: Has that ever worked in the past? Has the IDF ever been able to use military force to change the political opinions of Palestinian civilians?

TH: I think the phrase “has been done in the past” is a phrase that we understand is irrelevant in order to predict the future. So many things from over the past six days are unprecedented. Have we ever lost 1,200 people in one day? No. Have we ever, ever had 130 people kidnapped—children, women, the elderly? Never. So we are in uncharted water. 

FP: You mentioned the possibility of a northern front opening. How likely do you think this is at this stage? Do you think Hezbollah has the appetite to open a second front in the north?

TH: I’m not sure that they have the appetite, but the opportunity may give them the appetite. If they see weakness, they see opportunity. Probably, Hezbollah thinks that they cannot sacrifice themselves for the Palestinians because their whole reason for existence is Iran, not Gaza. So if they see more signs of weaknesses, then surely they will see an opportunity. If they see signs of the opposite, of strength and resolve, they will probably not get tempted. 

FP: Do you see risk for escalation due to misunderstanding at the northern border, where an action could be misread either by Hezbollah or by Israel?

TH: Of course, yes. Hezbollah has a false sense of self-confidence that can lead them into a miscalculation by assuming that action by them will be interpreted by us as minor, while we will interpret it as major. We will retaliate appropriately, and that can lead to a cycle of escalation that can lead to the opening of a secondary front. We should be very, very accurate in the way we navigate the operational effort right now.

FP: How does Hezbollah compare next to Hamas in terms of their capabilities and the threat they pose to Israel?

TH: It’s another scale. There is no comparison. We are talking about 10 times the fire capabilities, more than double their ground capabilities, far better equipment and accuracy capabilities. It is another scale, much closer to a regular army than a terror organization. Although it is a regular army that inflicts terror. 

FP: Is the IDF ready and equipped to handle a two-front war?

TH: Yes, we can handle more than one front. We can handle even three fronts. But the military decision, victory, will not be simultaneous, but that’s no problem. We can finish one and move to another; we have enough capabilities that can do that. 

The problem is not the IDF; the problem is the home front. The problem is the damage to Israeli society and the resilience of Israeli society. Two fronts is not a military problem. It’s a social, resilience, and home-front defense problem.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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