ID 27684198 © Rafael Ben Ari | Dreamstime.com
Why are Israel and Hamas each failing to achieve their goals vis-à-vis each other by use of force? Strategy deals with employing the means available in order to achieve your political goals.
Israel has many means, superior military strength, impressive economic capability and significant international support. So why is it failing to achieve its goals against Hamas in Gaza?
Hamas has invested considerable fortune and time to build a varied terrorist and guerrilla capability, including rockets that can reach Israel's economic centers, offensive tunnels into Israel and defensive tunnels inside Gaza and more. Despite this investment Hamas has failed to achieve its goals against Israel.
Both rivals in this long-duration violent conflict in Gaza have many tools for violence and despite that fail to achieve their goals – does this result from negligent strategic conduct? Or is it the result of a more profound strategic principle that resides in the dynamics of limited protracted conflicts? In this article I will attempt to show that the latter is correct – these failures are due not to bad strategy but to the natural dynamic of such conflicts. Changing the strategic situation will be possible only as the consequence of a significant political-diplomatic move or war.
Israel's Objectives Against Hamas
Israel's government has no long-term operational goal towards Gaza. Israel has no solution it is attempting to achieve in Gaza. Israel declares that it is interested in a change of regime in Gaza, replacing Hamas, but Israel has no strategy for achieving this long-term goal.
Instead Israel follows only short-term goals – maintaining its security, while attempting to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza by providing it with a measured level of funding and basic supplies.
Also, Israel wants the return of two Israeli civilians who crossed the border into Gaza for unknown reasons and the bodies of two soldiers killed in Operation 'Protective Edge' (2014).
Israel has military and political tools it can use to attempt to influence Hamas.
Militarily, Israel has defensive and offensive means, the sophistication of which has no precedent. Israel has the most advanced anti rocket and mortar defensive system in the world. It is completing a defensive system against Hamas' offensive tunnels and it seems that Hamas has accepted the loss of this capability in which it invested tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of tons of scarce concrete.
Offensively Israel has high-quality intelligence and a precise powerful strike capability. In recent years Israel has struck subterranean targets as well as other facilities and posts belonging to Hamas.
Politically in recent years Israel is enjoying a flowering of regional relationships that enables it to employ these relationships against Hamas – especially with Egypt that controls access to Gaza and acts a mediator between the rivals. The Gulf States are willing to donate money to Hamas to buy quiet and the USA provides unlimited backing.
Hamas Objectives Against Israel
Hamas' current leadership too, focuses on short-term goals. The ultimate declared goal of annihilating Israel remains on paper for an unforeseeable future. In fact, after years of resurrecting the military following Operation 'Protective Edge', Hamas, headed by Sinwar, is focusing on stabilizing the civilian situation in Gaza. Gaza's economy is hanging on by a thread after the economic disengagement from the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas is attempting to loosen, if only slightly the Israeli siege while pressuring Israel on the issue of its prisoners.
Despite Israel's defensive capabilities, Hamas can fire rockets all across southern and central Israel to significantly disrupt Israeli civilians' daily lives. The exact status of the offensive tunnels is not known, but even if the entire offensive tunnel system has been severely reduced, the defensive tunnels can cause the IDF much grief inside Gaza. Hamas has also declared it has new and surprising means against the IDF.
Over the past year Hamas has developed two new violent tools. The first – incendiary and explosive-carrying balloons carried by the prevailing wind-regime deep into southern Israel. The second – a form of violent riots along the border fence, trying to penetrate it and injure Israeli soldiers with various explosives, petrol-bombs and sniping.
Politically Hamas is relatively isolated, supported only by Iran, Qatar and Turkey.
The Current Situation
Since shooting resumed between the rivals, approximately three and a half years after Operation 'Protective Edge', it is clear that both Israel and Hamas are not satisfied with the situation. Hamas has regained some confidence since rebuilding its military capabilities but cannot improve the civilian situation in Gaza. Israel is not satisfied with the resumption of the violence crossing from Gaza and the issue of the civilians and dead soldiers in Hamas hands.
If both sides are not pleased and both sides have capabilities, they are not using why are they not trying to change the situation?
In Israel the IDF is criticized for not reacting more forcefully against the incendiary balloons and border-riots. What is preventing the IDF from employing its superior capability to compel Hamas to cease the violence? Especially given Hamas' extremely difficult situation, possibly the worst in its history, and the plight of the Gazans who desperately need financial aid and an infusion of basic commodities.
The central reason that Israel is not responding forcefully to Hamas' actions is Israel's fear that this would escalate to a large-scale confrontation.
Prime-Minister Netanyahu gave a number of explanations for avoiding a strong response to Hamas' actions:
- The IDF should hold back and first finish the anti-tunnel obstacle along the border.
- The need to focus on the Hezbollah tunnel-threat on the Lebanese border.
- A large-scale operation will not achieve a fundamental change in the situation – it would be followed by a return to the same reality.
The first reason is illogical, because during a large operation there is no operational significance to the obstacle. The major effect of the tunnels is if Israel is surprised by a penetration that attacks an Israeli village. While an operation is in progress the saturation of the border area with soldiers will reduce the threat to the civilians. At the same time, because in any large operation Israeli soldiers will be hurt, the fact that some might be hurt inside Israel is less significant. Therefore, the explanation that Israel is restraining itself till the objective is complete rings hollow.
Given the results of the operation against the Hezbollah tunnels, the explanation that the IDF needs large forces in the north doesn't seem to be supported in fact either. The entire operation was conducted in Israel territory, did not infringe Lebanese sovereignty, received widespread support and legitimacy. Large forces were not needed.
Netanyahu's argument that no large-scale operation can improve the situation is also counterfactual. The three large operations in Gaza – 'Cast Lead' (December 2008), 'Defensive Pillar' (November 2012) and 'Protective Edge' (July 2014) all ended with no long-term solution to the Gaza situation, but the level of violence following them was dramatically reduced relative to the periods before them. Therefore, Netanyahu's argument is mistaken – he does not want a solution to Gaza that includes Hamas, but previous large-scale operations considerably improved the security situation.
Israel has not provided a satisfactory explanation to its mellow policy and strategy against Hamas' violence.
Hamas, on its side, lives in tension between wanting to create an equation of responding to every Israeli strike and its fear of provoking another Operation 'Protective Edge'. Though Hamas claims Israel is not meeting its ceasefire obligations and the civilian situation is deteriorating, Hamas is not escalating its moderate violent pressure against Israel. After a year of incendiary balloons, it seems Hamas has gained nothing.
The Dynamic of Protracted Conflicts
The dynamic of protracted limited conflicts is created when both rivals prefer to maintain low intensity violence rather escalating to full-out war and, simultaneously, are not willing to reach a political resolution, even if temporary, of their conflict. This situation prevents the militarily superior side from exploiting its superiority thus leaving the weaker side with a sufficient response. In low intensity violence both sides have sufficient capability to escalate their actions, for example by increasing rocket-fire in quantity or areas attacked. The response of the stronger side does not exploit is superiority because it prefers not to escalate too much and does not overwhelm the weaker side. The rivals can 'negotiate by fire' because they each have levels of escalation. The fear of over-escalation stabilizes the situation. The weaker rival fears all-out war because then the superior rival will escalate beyond its capability to respond. The superior rival fears escalation because it analyzes the cost as outweighing the possible benefits.
Theoretically, the weak rival should have feared escalation whereas the stronger rival should have escalated to exhibit its determination to exploit its superiority. However, reality shows that weak rivals are justifiably willing to take risks based on the unwillingness of the stronger rivals to escalate, even though the stronger rival would enjoy a clear superiority in an all-out war.
The rivals try to improve their relative situations by minor changes in the intensity of the violence or attempt to slightly change the 'rules of the game'. However, these attempts generally fail to make a significant impact. Despite their repeated failures, the rivals are locked in this approach and the situation can remain (and does in fact remain) unchanged for many years.
A dynamic evolves in which the level of violence is 'agreed' – a level which both sides can live with, even though they each prefer something different. Occasionally the actual intensity of violence sways above or below this accepted level – usually because of some operational mistake or accident or due to a hopeless attempt of one of the rivals to slightly improve its situation.
This dynamic can be described by the balance attained when two springs are pulling a weight placed between them. The weight oscillates within the elasticity range around the physical point of equilibrium of the system. If one side tries to move the weight to a new point, the rival increases the force it employs to return the system to its equilibrium. A change of the system will occur only if the force of the movement is strong enough to overpower the elasticity of one of the springs and will then achieve a new point of equilibrium.
In the political conflict, a change of the situation, rather than in the situation, occurs only if the 'rules of the game' are broken. Such a break can be political – a peace treaty or a unilateral withdrawal; or it can be a dramatic escalation in fighting to high-intensity warfare that exploits the clear superiority of the stronger rival. The system will exit its range of elasticity, the strategic equilibrium will change, and a new political equilibrium will be created that will be the basis for the low-intensity conflict that will follow.
The graph below illustrates the intensity of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel, from 2005 till the beginning of 2019. It shows that vis-à-vis the intensity of the violence there have been four distinct periods.
Figure 1: Rocket and Mortar Fire from Gaza
In the first period preceding Operation ‘Cast Lead’ – dozens of rockets and mortar bombs were fired into Israel every month. The shooting peaked in the summer of 2008 until the rivals achieved a ceasefire agreement – Tahadiya.[i] In November the shooting from Gaza resumed and in December Israel responded with Operation ‘Cast Lead’.
During the second period, following 'Operation Cast Lead' the shooting resumed but averaged less than ten rockets and mortar bombs per month. This period too ended with a Palestinian escalation of fire and Israel responded with Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ in November 2012.
The third period – from after Operation ‘Defensive Pillar’ to Operation ‘Protective Edge’, there were long periods of quiet interspersed with small bouts of shooting. The escalation of fire in summer 2014, following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers, caused Israel to initiate Operation ‘Protective Edge’.
During the first three and a half years after Operation ‘Protective Edge’, the fourth period, there was virtually no shooting at all.
The Recent Bouts
Following Operation ‘Protective Edge’ Hamas underwent a period of rebuilding its forces during which it maintained a very low intensity of violent actions against Israel. However, contrary to common perceptions, it was not completely passive – the first rocket was fired in April 2015, approximately six months after the end of the operation on August 26, 2014.
For the three and a half years following Operation ‘Protective Edge’ rocket and mortar fire averaged only one or two per month, then in November and again December 2017 the Palestinians fired approximately 20 rockets and mortar bombs each month (in November in one incident and in December scattered over 12 separate incidents).
The introduction of incendiary kites and balloons in 2018 is an especially interesting turn of events, as Hamas tried to add a capability theoretically not included in the 'rules' enforced on it at the end of Operation 'Protective Edge'. At first Israel's leadership did not know how to respond to this new threat, but after public pressure grew to respond, the government was compelled to act forcefully. The Israeli response triggered a series of bouts of rocket and mortar bomb fire. In one incident in May 2018 the Palestinians fired almost 200 and in November in a two-day exchange they fired approximately 500. Israel's response to these bombardments was severe, but it preferred reaching agreements rather than escalating to a large-scale operation. However, these agreements did not reduce the fighting to 2017 levels. Therefore, in March 2019, less than four months after the previous round, Israel ceased transfer of Qatari funds to Gaza and Hamas responded by renewing its attacks with incendiary balloons and on the ground along the border-fence.
It seems that Hamas is trying to improve its situation by increasing the violence emanating from Gaza. Israel, in turn, intensifies its responses to the point of a large-scale escalation, at which point the rivals compromise on some agreement that does not last and neither side achieves its goals.
What Can Change the Situation?
The summer 2008 Tahadiya, and three large IDF operations, brought about dramatic reductions in the violence that lasted for lengthy periods.
In between the IDF conducted significant operational changes, such as deploying the newly developed anti-rocket defense system (Iron Dome), building improved border obstacles, deploying new intelligence capabilities and new weapons systems. Israel tried different response-strategies, Defense Ministers changed and so did governments.
Hamas also evolved militarily, expanding its artillery arsenal, and spending huge sums of money (in Gazan terms) on building its offensive and defensive tunnel systems, as well as changing its military organization and in its political leadership.
However, only large-scale operations or ceasefire agreements have ever affected the intensity of violence for extended periods of time.
Israel and Hamas are trapped in the dynamic created by a long-term protracted limited conflict. This dynamic stems from the character of limited conflicts, not from the strategies chosen by either side and therefore neither rival has the wherewithal to improve its strategic situation by improving its method of limited action.
Comparing this conflict to other similar ones, such as the conflict in Lebanon, shows the same dynamic working in all of them, including the same limitation on changing the strategic situation without engaging in a full-scale military operation or a significant political action.
How Can Israel Change the Strategic Situation Vis-à-Vis Gaza
Israel must decide: at what point is it not willing to tolerate Hamas' level of violence and then initiate a large-scale military operation aimed to changing the security situation? Such an operation, as with the previous ones, will probably not completely transform the strategic situation in Gaza – Hamas will remain in power, given that no viable alternative exists. However, Hamas' internal situation will change and, as with previous cases, it will be possible to compel it to accept a new equilibrium.
Israel's Prime Minister is correct to argue that even after another war with Gaza there will not be a revolutionary change, even if only because he has no long-term goals vis-à-vis Gaza and there is no completely new political and strategic situation he aspires to achieve. However, he is wrong to argue that Israel has nothing to gain from another war and that it is incapable of changing the security situation of the Israeli towns and villages bordering Gaza. Israel has done so in the past (twice while Netanyahu was Prime Minister) and will probably do so again if the Palestinians make the mistake of attempting to unilaterally changing the situation in their favor.
Alternatively, the Israeli government can attempt to achieve a long-term political arrangement with Hamas, but only if it agrees to accede to some of Hamas' demands, at least those that are aimed at improving the lot of civilians in Gaza.
Despite their arsenal of military means and political options, it is clear that both sides in the Israel-Gaza conflict have abandoned their long-term goals and are not succeeding in achieving their short-term goals. This is not the result of mistaken strategies of either side but of the natural dynamic of protracted conflicts.
The quantitative data of the intensity of violence emanating from Gaza and analysis of the dynamic of this conflict through 2018 strengthens this understanding of how Israel and Hamas repeatedly failed to achieve their goals through that year.
The conclusion is that a significant change in the intensity of violence is possible only by a significant diplomatic action or, conversely a significant military action. Until then we will continue to see threats not consummated and a reality that continues to confound the leaders who continue to make declarations they cannot realize in fact.
[i] Tahadiya: An Arabic term meaning 'calm' or 'quiet'. It is used in context of the different types of ceasefires in Arabic culture – essentially a conditional temporally open-ended unilateral reduction in violence. Hudna, on the other hand is a bilateral agreed to ceasefire for a set time. Traditionally, these ceasefire types are intended to provide the Muslim side time to recuperate its strength before renewing a war.