Israel’s challenges in fighting the terrorists who threaten it is, in some ways, a classic case of “Asymmetrical warfare”—when one side of a conflict has more might or resources than the other. While it’s true that Israel’s army—a highly trained force equipped with sophisticated weaponry—looks like it has all of the advantages, this conflict is not really so simple.
Traditional asymmetrical warfare
Beginning with the war between Spanish fighters and Napoleon’s French Army between 1807-1813, and continuing into the modern era, dozens of “revolutionary” forces have attacked or undermined governments through “guerilla warfare” – raids, ambushes, and other small-scale attacks directed at military installations and forces.
In Israel today, however, the terrorist fighters have added new, horrible twists to “guerilla warfare” by targeting civilians rather than the military, and by using their own civilian populations as human shields. Sadly, these tactics have begun to appear in other conflicts around the world, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of how to fight this kind of perverse asymmetry is essential not only for Israel, but for all democratic nations.
Armies fighting armies
The Israeli army began as a typical national military whose purpose was to defend against the regular army forces of other countries. With highly motivated and expertly trained troops, as well as sophisticated weaponry purchased abroad and developed at home, the IDF was able to beat back the combined armies of countries many times its size in several wars.
Following the defeats of these regular armies in the 1967 and 1973 wars, however, Israel’s army began to face other “military” forces: Terrorist groups and militias that began with Yasser Arafat’s PLO and its associated groups – the predecessors of the terror groups it faces today, such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Tanzim, and the al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigade. Israel is not fighting a ”Palestinian” air force, navy, or army, but rather a series of inter-related militias that not only do not function like regular military forces, but that use tactics abhorrent to regular armies, such as carrying out “missions” against purely civilian targets and engaging in military operations from their own civilian areas.
Irregular forces, irregular tactics
Israel’s military victories against other nations’ armies generally were credited to superior weaponry, highly trained and motivated soldiers, and the element of surprise. None of these “asymmetrical” advantages, however, are enough to defeat small cells planning suicide bombings on city buses or restaurants or home invasions in Israeli villages.
The initial phases of the First Intifada were, in fact, a more traditional case of asymmetrical warfare: Small bands of civilians staging violent protests against Israeli soldiers (which, overnight, negatively impacted the Jewish state’s world image). Not after long, however, the initial grass-roots protests were taken over by terrorist groups using non-standard “asymmetrical” tactics, such as using “human shields” – having armed fighters shoot at Israeli soldiers from behind groups of children, so that the soldiers could not pursue them nor return fire without harming the children.
By the 1990s, the “asymmetry” Israel faced had become a question of how a law-abiding state can fight terror.
When any response is “disproportionate”
Today, Israel faces terrorist forces who regularly launch rockets and missiles at Israeli cities, engage in suicide bombing campaigns targeting Israeli public transit and public spaces like restaurants, and—in a vile but legitimate tactic aimed at Israel’s military—attempt to kidnap soldiers. The terrorists operate from heavily populated areas, preventing the IDF from being able to respond without incurring civilian casualties—going so far as to locate military command centers and other strategic targets in spots like hospitals, schools and mosques. Israel cannot respond by conventional military means without killing civilians placed in harm’s way by the terrorist groups, incurring not only Israeli regret but world censure (the same world, of course, that is silent on the terrorist groups’ tactics to begin with).
There is no way for a regular army to respond to terrorist groups—which are, by definition, smaller—without its response being “disproportionate,” in that the army has more conventional resources at its disposal. This is all the more true when the terrorists operate in such a way that any response will end up hitting civilians.
And, sure enough, accusations of “disproportionate response” predictably follow every Israeli action, no matter how much restraint the Jewish state shows before responding, nor how carefully Israel responds. For example, Israel was pilloried for its “disproportionate response” when it invaded Gaza in 2008 to stop Hamas rocket fire – in spite of the fact that thousands of rockets had fallen on Israeli cities, that Israel had tried every avenue to get the government in Gaza to stop the rockets themselves, and that the IDF compromised its own mission and its soldiers’ safety by announcing that it was invading and even leafleting areas to warn civilians.
Different definitions of success
Despite the incredible odds, however, Israel’s military has pioneered tactics that—while imperfect—are showing the way for other democracies facing terrorist threats. As researchers like Yagil Henkin have shown, the IDF has developed effective and ethical ways of engaging terrorists.
Cultivating superior intelligence networks that can pinpoint terrorist activities and locations is essential. One Israeli tactic that lessens threats to civilians—as well as soldiers—in highly populated urban areas is “swarming,” in which small and mobile infantry brigades connected to aerial surveillance and other intelligence suddenly overwhelm buildings in order to apprehend terrorists, or even conduct searches. In addition, forces enter and exit buildings by blowing holes in walls—which severely damages buildings, but protects soldiers and civilians from snipers and other ambushes. Redrawing an urban battlefield lessens the incentives terrorists have to operate from within population centers. At the same time, Israel has tried to limit the scope of the battlefield with targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders.
These new methods don’t promise immediate defeat, but they have a growing record of subduing the terrorist threat. Ultimately, the true asymmetry isn’t a question of tactics or weaponry, but of ethics. And when it comes to moral asymmetry, Israel may have to fight for its survival, but it retains the high ground.