Monday, January 5, 2009

"What are the Israelis Thinking?"

The formulation is Andrew Sullivan's, a few days ago, and he added that
It is hard to find any solid strategic argument for entering Gaza and occupying parts of it for an unspecified amount of time.
Yesterday he was already partially retracting, in a fine demonstration of how the immediacy of blogging doesn't always contribute to educated discussion of issues - just as with the rightfully reviled mainstream media. Sullivan was merely saying what most pundits were saying, of course, in varying degrees of vehemence.

As the events unfold, some brave voices are beginning to break ranks, though it grieves me to note the predictability with which they come from the political Right. I'd prefer if clear thinking was evenly distributed all over.

So what is Israel doing? I think the strategy is slowly coming into focus, and it's just possible that the pundits might have acted wisely to wait a moment before pontificating.

First, Israel's decision makers at all levels and in many organizations seem carefully to have read the Vinograd reports. Since no Israeli in any position of authority can afford to assume there won't be another war, they all had to do their best to ensure the next one would be executed better.

Second, the possibility of the next round happening in Hamas controlled Gaza had to have been clear since the beginning of 2006 at the latest, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections; actually, since armies must have plans for all possibilities, they'd better have plans for other places and scenarios, too; but the Gazan one has been growing obvious for quite a while, and must have been near or at the top of the list of the planners since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian civil war of summer 2007.

Gaza isn't Lebanon. It's hard to say which is a "better" place to fight in. What makes Gaza so daunting as a military arena is the very high number of civilians, and their density. The proverbial "can't throw a brick without hitting" is mostly an accurate description, certainly in the towns of Gaza. Of course, some armies wouldn't bat an eyelash at such a situation or see it as a problem: the Russians, for example, and various Arab formations in Sudan and Iraq; in the 1970s the Jordanians weren't bothered by killing lots of Palestinians, while in the 1980s the Syrians slaughtered tens of thousands of their own people. I mentioned the Lebanese in the previous post; the Hezbullah part of Lebanon remains true to form. The Palestinians have been aiming at civilians as a matter of principle, be it Lebanese, other Palestinians, or best of all, Israelis, ever since they defined themselves as a nation.

But Israel does care, which is one reason the IDF reconquered the West Bank in 2002 and then again in 2003, but never reconquered Gaza and eventually fully left, in 2005.

As recently as ten days ago many of us didn't see how we could use force in Gaza, in spite of the fact it was also growing obvious we didn't have much choice.

Third, Hamas recognizes Israel's qualms, and "played to their strengths" by embedding most of their forces and infrastructures within the civilian population, setting up a win-win situation: should Israel attack there will be large numbers of dead civilians which Hamas intended to use for promotion of its goals; should the Israelis refrain from attacking, even better: Hamas would be seen as the only force around that faces Evil Israel, hitting Israel's civilians with impunity and growing lethality, courtesy of Iran.

Israel's leadership had no choice, that has been clear for a while, but how would they create the means? Being right doesn't mean you can act upon it; waging a just war with unjust methods undermines the original justification.

Where there's a need there has to be a way, especially in situations where throwing up your hands in despair will result in innocents getting killed and entire communities being terrorized. The way that seems to have been devised was what I'll call accelerated inching attrition.

First, you think a lot. You probably start with defining your goal: what is it you wish to achieve; perhaps you list various possible goals. Then you look at every possible component of the problem, you try to imagine every possible thing that can go wrong, and you ask yourself what it would take to overcome the problems and avoid the pitfalls. I have no doubt the IDF and its civilian surroundings have articulated every single objection currently being screeched by the Guardian and everyone else, and gone looking for a response. (The arrogance of the pundits who are so cock-sure they've got anything novel to say is comic, but not my subject at the moment).

The more you think (an activity that never ends), the more you can begin making preparations. You train your troops for the tasks they'll need to face, as well as for all the things you can think of that might go wrong. And then you train them some more. Reserve units, too, of course.

You collect information. Mountains of it, and sift it through, and organize it in ways that will be useful. You then use the emerging picture to calibrate your plans, hone them, and also figure out what parts of the picture need more details, and you go get them. This is all a self-enriching cycle.

You prepare the civilian formations: municipalities, water companies, medical systems and organizations, communications, etc etc. Whenever you think you've exhausted the list of preparations, you go looking for more. There's no such thing as completing all preparations, as Achikam told me an hour before they went in, after yet another day of completing all the preparations.

Finally, the time came, ten days ago.

The first stages were done by the air force, in a pattern first used by the Americans in Iraq in January 1991, but adapted to the conditions of Gaza. The first stage was to kill as many Hamas men as possible, in as many sites as possible. The goal was to throw Hamas into immediate confusion and never allow it to recuperate. Hundreds of dead and many hundreds of wounded - the majority not innocent bystanders, of course - taxing the hospitals, sowing panic and demoralization or at least its potential, disrupting any type of public order, forcing the leadership underground, hopefully severing some of their command and control capabilities.

On the second day we also destroyed some of their tunnels, effectively cutting off, or at least significantly reducing, their logistic hinterland.

By the third day the initial wave of airborne successes had been achieved, and David Grossman, assuming we were still in 2006, called for a halt: the air force had done its best, and from here on there wasn't much left for it to do other than rearrange the rubble and kill civilians. Better to call it a victory and stop. In hindsight, arguably this may have been true by the end of the first week, but it wasn't true on the third day. On days 3 through 7, the air force did something many of us hadn't thought of: it pulverized the middle level of the Hamas fighting machine. The head had been confused frightened and forced underground on day one; the fighting units, to the extent Hamas has them, and the 15,000-some armed men, were mostly unscathed. During those days, however, their immediate hinterland was targeted and apparently seriously hit. These were the dozens of homes of senior Haman figures pulverized, mostly while they were empty of people but still full of weapons. And tunnels. By destroying them, the IDF seriously crimped the ability of the Hamas units to function except where they already were. They couldn't be moved or regrouped. They can't be resupplied. They are where they are, armed as they are, period. They cannot be relieved. They probably have intermittent connections with their commanders at best.

This was achieved with limited loss of Hamas lives, and very few of civilians. True, someday the international media will enter Gaza freely, and they'll show endless footage of destroyed buildings, but by then it won't make much difference, will it. They'll be preaching to the believers, and anyway there will be a new story, somewhere else.

The next stage of the attrition focused on the barriers to a land invasion. The myths told about this stage were endless, even in Israel, and I'm not going to repeat them, but the general idea was that Hamas had created a series of fortifications, barriers and impediments to the advance of IDF ground forces. The Hamas leadership seems to have believed this, too, witness their proclamations as recently as three days ago that the ground forces will never come because the cowardly Israelis know they'll be cut down if they ever try.

In spite of the total fog of war that first evening, it was clear within about three hours that this probably wasn't what had happened. On the contrary: the IDF forces sailed through those lines of defense with very little action, few casualties, and, one might add, not very many dead Hamas fighters, either. My explanation for this is that for an army to slow down an invader on a fortified line, it has to be an army: with training, weaponry, command and control systems, reinforcements on their way, and so on. (The Israeli failures on the Golan and Suez on October 6-7th 1973 demonstrate this, and that IDF was always much more formidable than Hamas). Hamas would never have been able to stop a concerted effort of the IDF to get in, but it expected to bloody them. The attrition of days 3-7 prevented that.

By noon after the invasion Gaza had been bisected, with powerful forces sitting on the hilltops (such as there are in Gaza), or tall rooftops, and lines of supply back to their rear echelons. Casualties can be evacuated, supplies can get in; in the rear, meanwhile, new brigades are carefully and purposefully preparing themselves for battle: the reservists. Experienced veterans of previous campaigns, who flocked to their units when called up two nights ago, irrespective of how inconvenient it was in their regular lives.

Where are we now? The next line of Hamas defense, and its main one, was always the inevitable weakness of an attacking army in an urban environment. Even the most brutal and ruthless armies invade cities at their extreme peril: think Red Army in Berlin, April 1945, taking more than 100,000 casualties (the number of dead Berliners was, of course, much higher). Keep in mind, however, that the commanders of the IDF know that; they don't need to be informed by the media. Keep in mind also that Hamas has to be hit, as explained above. Ergo, a way had to be found, and prepared, trained and prepared for.

I'm no more informed than the rest of you, but allow me to suggest what may be happening (this is pure conjecture). As described above, at this stage of attrition the Hamas men are almost on their own, perhaps in small groups. They're tired and frightened, or at least, tired and very tense. They've been under fire for ten days, most of which were filled with frustrated anticipation: even assuming they've been raring for a fight the whole time, it has been slow in coming and doesn't appear all that imminent even now. Their leaders are out of sight, their closer commanders may also be gone. They realize that the tunnel they intended to use to resupply has been bombed, nor are many reinforcements likely to come. All this would still be alright if only the IDF infantry would walk into their carefully prepared traps. But the IDF isn't doing that. Instead, it's inching forward. Its infantry seems to have excellent intelligence about each building; instead of racing forward like an elephant into a booby-mined trap, it fights for a building, kills some of the defenders but captures others, interrogates them about the other buildings on the street and only then moves forward to the next one.

Is it possible for an army to take a hostile city chock full of armed defenders without mass death on both sides? I don't know. I don't think it has ever been done before. But given the evidence, I say there's a chance, yes. Obviously, all sorts of things could go wrong. Two mis-fired bombs could land on a tall building killing 100 civilians, calling forth real diplomatic fury where so far there has been mostly only protocol displeasure. A unit of troops might indeed walk into one of those traps, with a number of casualties that would give our government pause. These dangers are real and immediate - but also clearly foreseeable, so perhaps the preparations will make them not happen.

What's the end game? It could be weeks of sifting through the city of Gaza until Hamas has effectively been disarmed. I expect, however, that it's more likely that Israel itself will now speed up the diplomatic process, starting with the visit this evening of Sarkozy: You want a cease fire, all you folks out there? You want to avert weeks of slow house-by-house searches as the populace suffers? So do we. So let's all agree on the mechanisms that will ensure that Hamas never regains its military capacities, and you, the international community, will help ensure the mechanisms stay in place; once that's been arranged we'll leave Gaza and hope never to return again. Sometime in the next 12 months elections need to take place, and perhaps the Palestinian voters will choose peace over strife this time. Ironically, all this violence is making it likely the next Israeli government will be eager to cooperate with the Obama administration on seeking ways towards a just peace.

In three days or weeks I may come to regret this post, of course. That's the problem with blogging versus writing history.


von Oskopia Kaleid said...

"In three days of weeks I may come to regret this post"
Sureley not because of its content.

Anonymous said...


Whatever most Israelis are thinking, I doubt they give Sullivan all that much weight.

The other thing that may be worth keeping in mind? When Israel "does something" militarily ... like the "6 Day War" ... the world keeps talking about this for a long time.

Just in case you didn't know that the 6 Day War had "commentary" almost as long as the Talmud. What you might want to consider, is that up ahead there's gonna be lost of talk. Including that Israelis "gave the impression of weakness" by tolerating years and years of incoming missiles!

I can remember reading what a Japanese general said right after December 7, 1941. Did you know he observed that "Japan has woken up the sleeping tiger?"

I bet there are arabs in gazoo who now which for Hamas just to go and disappear.

While I did see that from Lebanon 2006, we got THE GREEN HELMET MAN; this time, with Hamas' help, there's the BROWN JACKET GUY. Just shows up in lots of photographs. Does Hamas use a modelling agency?

Just remember, when you see a lot of the media "rushing in," it probably translates to a LOT OF CURIOSITY. And, perhaps? T'marra, you may see a headline that reads:


Lydia McGrew said...

"So let's all agree on the mechanisms that will ensure that Hamas never regains its military capacities, and you, the international community, will help ensure the mechanisms stay in place; once that's been arranged..."

I think it would be folly to believe that that can be arranged. The international community _will not help ensure any such thing_. Think UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. Walking around armed with clipboards and "observing" Hezbollah re-arming. Not very helpful, that. Worse than unhelpful. Only places more people there to hinder Israel's movements when they have to go back in again.

Anonymous said...

I am hoping for a real war. Not just a military adventure that lasts a a week or two.

I hope the major cities will be sorunded and have civilians leave. Then the fighting can begin.

If Hamas leaves with the civilians their lack of spine will be clear for everyone. If not they will die.

Either way a win for humanity.

BTW is OK or bogus?


Anonymous said...

"Sometime in the next 12 months elections need to take place, and perhaps the Palestinian voters will choose peace over strife this time."

What is the point of elections? Palestinians vote for the pro-Israel candidate or be bombed to hell?

Oren said...

Thank you. This is better analysis that all the World's Christine Amanpours combined. Here's a question maybe you can apply your academic work to: how do you militarily remove a social and political infrastructure?

It seems to me that one way or another, for there to be peace and/or quiet, Hamas's ideological prominence will have to be at least diminished, which will one way or another require the dismantlement of its social and political institutions. It's one thing to bomb a mosque that is alleged to operate as a base for Hamas, but short of arresting its residents, I don't know how to stop that mosque's operations in the long run. So how can this military operation lay the groundwork for that end?

Yaacov said...

Viking -

I've never seen, but now that I have, I'd say it probably is authentic. Cute, too, tho not of earth shattering importance. And the don't deliver to Gaza.

Charles Malik said...

"Hamas recognizes Israel's qualms, and "played to their strengths" by embedding most of their forces and infrastructures within the civilian population"

Yaakov, this is only partially true.

As you point out, Gaza is densely populated. As in most lesser developed countries, zoning does not exist; government offices, businesses, and police stations are often located in the same building. This is not based on devious strategy, but rather a consequence of poor planning.

During the first day of the conflict, the IDF released images of the buildings and locations targeted. The majority of them looked like government or military buildings separated from civilian populations by walls and fences. The civilian death count was low.

When the Rafah tunnels were targeted, civilian casualties were inevitable, given the locations of the tunnels.

The number of civilians killed when Hamas members were targeted while removing arms from their residences is significantly higher than kills from the previous examples.

Does Hamas store weapons in civilian neighborhoods specifically so that Israel will be forced to kill civilians? No. Once again, it is poor planning. The basic idea is that it is not good to store all of ones arms in the same place. If individual Hamas members were provided with weapons and ordered to store them somewhere, undoubtedly quite a few would think about Uncle Sami's empty garage or Grandma Sana's gardening shed.

Is it a good idea to store weapons in civilian areas of Gaza? Great, if one is fighting Fatah. Reasonable, if one is fighting a guerilla war against the IDF (which is now happening). Deadly, when trying to disguise one's actions from a drone thousands of feet above.

The IDF decision to strike police stations (all under Hamas command) significantly raised the civilian death count, as well, simply because of the positions of the police stations and the civilians inside at the time.

One must recall that Hamas' first priority is maintaining control of Gaza. Its command is structured as such, with military equipment and detachments in civilian areas (as in any neighborhood governed by nervous authoritarians).

The best Hamas units trained for raids and kidnappings against Israel were most likely destroyed during the first day of the war in Barak's surprise attack.

Joel Rosenberg said...

It's a solid bit of analysis, I think. Accurate? We'll see; I think that the key event, if you're right -- and I hope you are -- will be the action along the Philadelphi corridor.

Charles Malik, unsurprisingly, makes a good point or two, but surprisingly misses a key point or three. One is about the police stations: they're a (not, alas, the) key element in Hamas' local control; another is the importance of the tunnels for Hamas influence; and the last is that people (including Hamas) often do thing x for n reasons.

What Hamas is counting on is not new among Arabs fighting Israel; they're counting on outside pressure to call a premature halt (like, for example Dean Rusk tried to do during 1967). Among the things that remains to be seen is if they'll be successful this time.

The one area where, I'm sorry to say, your analysis is wrong (I hope it is) has been pointed out before: if Israel is counting on the international community to put and keep mechanisms in place, it's an incredibily wrong-headed plan. It has to depend on Israel being able to do so and, again, that depends on the Philadelphi corridor, not some UNIFIG or the equivalent.

Israel has to know what it's demanding and demanding the right thing for that to work; that isn't it.

Anonymous said...

I do hope Israel completely destroys Hamas. Dead terrorists, or perhaps the better word is pirates, can menace no innocents. And remember that just like pirates, organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah are hostis humani generis - enemy of the entire human race. There is no peace possible with such monsters, nor negotiations possible. The only authority they recognize is their own, accountable to no one. Anyone has the natural right of self preservation in destroying such monsters, especially Israel, the main target of their predations. It would be well worth remembering that in the early 20th century, the U.S. went to war with Mexico over much less from Pancho Villa, and Mexico's failure to control him. The unjustified provocations from Hamas have been astronomically greater. And I can't help thinking that if Israel took a page from Black Jack Pershing, and executed members of the Hamas leadership with bullets freshly soaked in pigs blood, that would be a crushing blow against Hamas psychologically. Nobody could seriously claim a dead Muslim contaminated with pig blood to be a martyr in Islamic paradise. Take away that possibility, and nobody will want to join or fight for Hamas, or Hezbollah.

Charles Malik said...

Okay, I amend my comments slightly:

Hamas intentionally rigs school with bombs: