New doctrine needed: How should Israel fight in Gaza?

Some call for more commando actions; others say the cycle of hostilities should be labeled and fought as wars, not ops

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Israeli Air Force bombings in the Gaza Strip can be seen from an IDF deployment in a field near the Israeli border with Gaza on July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli Air Force bombings in the Gaza Strip can be seen from an IDF deployment in a field near the Israeli border with Gaza on July 25, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In early August, an organization devoted to social and economic reform turned to the High Court of Justice and petitioning it to force the state to call the hostilities in Gaza by a different name: war. The point of the petition was to increase the monetary compensation due to employees and business owners in the battered south.

The state argued, in its August 12 response, that “the assumption” that a declaration of war is a social and economic imperative of the first order, as had been argued, “is fundamentally mistaken.”

On the contrary, assistant state prosecutor Udi Eitan wrote, there is no direct compensatory or economic utility for the citizens of the state in such a distinction.

The court has yet to issue a ruling. And while Israel has many reasons to avoid declaring war — no state wants, etched into the annals of its history, a string of endless wars — the distinction, from a military perspective, may be far more than mere semantics. It may, after three rounds of hostilities with Hamas — two of which were longer than the Yom Kippur War — be part of the search for a new and effective fighting doctrine against terror organizations.

Detailed below, as Israelis wait for the outcome of the Cairo negotiations between Hamas, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, are two different approaches. One is maximal, one minimal. Both, though, seek to depart from the strategy that dictated the long and equivocal campaigns fought during the past decade in Lebanon and Gaza.

Operation vs. War

The absence of tactical surprises and deceptions on the battlefield; the lack of a clear-cut decision; the relatively high death toll, despite the lopsided balance of power; and the duration of the current campaign were all inextricably linked to the decision to launch an operation rather than a war, said Brig.-Gen. (res) Ami Morag, a decorated former commander of the Armored Corps.

The tunnel threat, Morag explained, brought a war-sized force to a limited front, creating more focused friction and leading to a relatively high death toll. Moreover, he added, it meant that the army was barred from bringing one of its two greatest strengths — mobility — to the fore. “Take the tank,” he said. “When it stands still, it’s vulnerable. When it maneuvers, it’s a tremendous force.”

The army’s deployment, along the eastern flank of the Gaza Strip, created a situation in which a highly advanced, highly mobile fighting machine was forced to fight something “like a trench war,” he said, adding that the decision to target the tunnels — “a means” — rather than combating the threat itself, Hamas-led terror, “obviated the need for deception.”

An Israeli tank holding a position inside the southern Gaza Strip on August 2, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Israeli tank holding a position inside the southern Gaza Strip on August 2, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The stasis, Morag added, was “very nicely” exploited by Hamas operatives, who adhered to “the classic” war doctrine of attacking a standing army with small bands of mobile troops.

Instead, Morag, whose sons fought in Gaza during the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge, said that the conception of the campaign as a war would likely have led Israel’s leaders toward more decisive moves.

“In my soul, I’m a man of peace,” he claimed. “I believe agreements should be reached in non-lethal ways. But if I’ve decided that all other options have been exhausted, and no agreement can be reached, then I choose war” — a short, decisive campaign that would appear, at first, to be inhumane, but would ultimately, he said, save lives.

“Humane wars,” he said, “take a long time.”

The dark arts of war

But if Morag argued, in essence, for a return to the traditional nature of war despite the changed nature of the enemy, the deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Depth Corps, seeking to balance out the battlefield in the age of nonconventional warfare, called earlier this year for a different sort of revolution in military affairs, with a division of intelligence officers and special forces personnel operating beyond common expectations.

Referencing Nassim Taleb’s black swan theory, which depicts the drastic effects of unexpected events, Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, serving in the active reserves, wrote in an essay in Israel Defense that, faced with an enemy that operates within civilian populations and shuns the rules of law, Israel should field “a lethal black swan of its own,” which would operate “far away from the expected and from the accepted conceptual pattern.”

Armies at the service of democratic nations, Hirsch wrote, are bound by preformulated modes of action, standardized weaponry and a rigid code. The new fighting force, he continued, “will operate between the lines. They operate away from the highway, not in line with what can be expected from a military force and not even within the framework.”

The traditional notion of a military based on heavy fighting machines maneuvering on land, water or in the sky, he wrote, viewed commando operations as “spices” added to the main dish, or “a boutique capability” that had little to do with the fundamental defense role of the military. Today, he argued during a subsequent address at Bar Ilan University, Israel is faced with fast, sophisticated and diverse enemies, who leave a very faint intelligence trail.

Facing this unique rival, he said, means Israel’s defensive forces must be “born again,” with small forces, once seen as peripheral, “now carrying the entire army on its back.”

US Special Operations forces are seen during a joint operation with Afghan National Army soldiers targeting insurgents operating in Afghanistan's Farah province. (photo credit: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
An illustrative photo of US Special Forces during a joint operation with Afghan National Army soldiers targeting insurgents operating in Afghanistan’s Farah province. (photo credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Former commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Col. (res) Doron Avital, called Special Ops “a key tool” in fighting a force like Hamas. He said he knew the army had employed these units during the campaign, but was not sure “at what level of force.”

One operation, which appeared to attain partial success at best, was a Naval Commando raid on July 12 in the northern Gaza Strip. The target, a long-range rocket-launching base near al-Sudaniya beach, was reportedly destroyed in the raid, but the force was discovered, four operators were injured, and the debilitating blows may have been landed by airstrikes.

The operation was (to a lesser degree, but nonetheless) reminiscent of the two penetrating Sayeret Matkal raids in the heart of Hezbollah territory during the Second Lebanon War. Neither of those highly risky operations appeared to have any effect on Hezbollah or its ability to wage war. Speaking of the second operation, in which Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno — a man widely believed to have been the best covert operative in the IDF — was killed, Ely Karmon said that such operations require two elements: solid intelligence and a willingness to sacrifice elite soldiers for the cause.

In Gaza, said Karmon, a senior researcher at the IDC Herzliya’s International Institute of Counter-Terrorism, the army banged its head against the front line of Hamas’s defense in Shejaiya, which he likened to “Hamas’s Maginot Line.” Sending undercover troops into Gaza City, though, and trapping the Hamas leadership in, say, the underground channels beneath Shifa Hospital, he said, only works if the forces have the sort of intelligence that allows them to lay ambushes at all tunnel escape points and if Israel’s leadership is willing to accept a situation in which some of the soldiers are killed or captured.

But legendary Mossad commander Mike Harari, addressing this sort of scenario and the steady allure of special operations, recently told his biographer, Aaron J. Klein, that such missions are only attempted when it is clear the forces can be safely extracted from enemy territory. “You only go out on a mission if the escape plan is as good as the operational plan,” he said. “Period.”

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