Juan Cole: Gaza 2008 ... Micro-Wars and Macro-Wars

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

With regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict, we have entered the age of micro-wars.

The first wars that Israel fought with its Arab neighbors were conventional struggles in which infantry, artillery, armor and air forces played central roles.

Israel's enemies had few effective tools in the 1950s and 1960s. Abdel Nasser encouraged Palestinian resistance from Gaza in 1955, but it was more harassment than a serious military operation. The Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian conventional armies were what Israel's leaders worried about. Jordan was no match for the Israelis and it had a history of secret agreements with the Zionist leaders, so its military was only a threat when, as in 1967, other Arab leaders convinced the Jordanian leadership to join in a collective effort.

Israel's policies were not merely defensive, contrary to the propaganda one constantly hears from New York. Moshe Sharrett's diaries demonstrate conclusively the expansionist character of the regime. Israel's leaders badly wanted the Sinai Peninsula and therefore a commanding position over the trade of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in the 1950s and 1960s. There was also some petroleum there. Israel used superiority in armor and air power in 1956 to take the Sinai, in conjunction with an orchestrated Anglo-French attack on Egypt's position in the Suez Canal (which Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized that summer). President Dwight D. Eisenhower, afraid that vestiges of Old World colonial thinking would push the Arabs into the arms of the Soviets, made Israel relinquish its prize. But hawks in Israel took the Sinai from Egypt again in the 1967 war, in which Israel again demonstrated that armor plus air superiority always defeats armor that lacks air cover (Israel managed to destroy the Egyptian air force early in the war).

Egypt could not accept loss of its sovereign territory. As the largest Arab state, with a third of the Arab population, and a developing economic, technological and military capability, Egypt could not be dismissed. Its leader from 1970, Anwar El Sadat, found a way of striking back. Egypt launched the 1973 war as a surprise attack, and used sophisticated underwater sand-moving equipment to get across the canal and penetrate into the Sinai. By this time Egypt had Soviet SA-6 surface-to-air missiles that served as anti-aircraft batteries and was careful to keep its tanks under their umbrella. Had Egypt had a better air force, Egyptian armor could have rolled right into Israel proper in October of 1973. The Israeli cabinet is said to have feared it was the fall of the Third Kingdom. But even in the absence of a proper air force, the Soviet SAMs were a game-changer. I would argue that they were the difference between the crushing defeat of Egypt in 1967 and the draw-to-slight victory Cairo won in 1973.

The writing was on the wall. Israel could not have the Sinai. Egypt was too big and too increasingly powerful an enemy to continue to provoke it. 1973 settled that. The Egyptian public was tired of war and its expense, and so both sides were willing to conclude the Camp David Peace Treaty of 1978. Egypt got the Sinai back permanently. Israel escaped the most serious military threat in the region.

Israel's political tradition seeks expansion if possible; if not possible, it seeks a balance of power with its enemies. If that is not possible, it seeks to be held harmless from its avowed foes. If that is not possible, it is willing to wage total war to punish the enemy population until it accepts at least a cold peace. (I mean by"total war" war on the civilian population in which the guerrilla group is embedded, as for instance dropping a million cluster bombs on the farms of south Lebanon in 2006 or half-starving Gazan children in 2007-2008, methods illegal in international law but routinely deployed by Israeli leaders and defended by most Zionists everywhere.) Where necessary, Israel is willing to give up territorial expansion to get the cold peace.

The 1982 Lebanon War was a hybrid. Israel deployed a conventional army against the Palestine Liberation Organization and Lebanon. The PLO fought an unconventional struggle in Beirut, and reached out diplomatically to the US, France and Italy to achieve a negotiated outcome rather than an outright defeat. The PLO had to leave Beirut. But Israel's victory was pyrrhic. 1. The Lebanon War was highly unpopular at home and abroad because it seemed unprovoked. 2. The PLO was not destroyed. 3. Israel's old expansionist tendencies kicked in and it was unwilling to relinquish South Lebanon, such that it began occupying yet another Arab country. 4. Israel's occupation helped create the Shiite resistance we now call Hizbullah, which evolved into a highly effective unconventional military force.

Jordan's government was neutralized in the early 1990s with a peace treaty, just as Egypt's had earlier been with Camp David. The PLO also engaged in the peace process off and on, and with the death of Arafat the old guerrilla PLO seemed to end, as Fatah became a political party.

That development left Israel with three main regional enemies: Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Hizbullah in turn gradually attracted Iranian patronage. In the case of the Levantine players, the main issue was Israeli occupation of their land-- south Lebanon and the Shebaa Farms for Hizbullah, the Golan Heights for Syria, and Gaza and the West Bank (the most vigorously colonized of the Occupied Territories) for Hamas.

The Arab-Israeli wars of the opening years of the 21st century have not been conventional wars. They have been micro-wars. Israel had demonstrated in the earlier Arab-Israeli wars that it could generally win a conventional struggle.

The new repertoires of struggle against Israel had four dimensions.

  • First, they depended on fundamentalist religious party organization (Hizbullah, Hamas), wherein cadres gained popularity in their own base by providing aid and services (e.g. hospitals, soup kitchens, etc.) This development marked a distinctive move away from the leftist romantic guerrilla model of the late 1960s and the 1970s, which was secular and less organic. Because they are religious and political communities, they can lace their guerrilla organizations and materiel through the civilian sphere. Guerrilla operations might be planned out in a civilian apartment building. Rockets might be stored in a mosque.

  • Second, they deployed new tactics such as suicide bombing, sophisticated tank-piercing explosively formed projectiles, and the launching of small rockets on Israeli settlements and nearby towns. (Large rockets are vulnerable to the Israeli air force; small rocket launchers are mobile and hard to locate).

  • Third, the micro-warriors depended on regional-power backing (Syria, Iran) and technical help in the modification of rocket technology and in other areas, such as breaking Israeli codes and gaining the ability to monitor Israeli military communications.

  • Fourth, they targeted Israel's Achilles heel, its demographic vulnerability. Jewish communities are economically thriving and well integrated in the industrial democracies, and there are significant pull factors encouraging Israeli emigration. Some Israeli demographers think that if one counts the second generation, there are 900,000 Israelis outside of Israel. There are as many as 200,000 Jews now in Germany, mostly from the former Soviet Union, who preferred to go there rather than to Israel. During the Second Intifada or Palestinian uprising, in some years Israel's retention rate of new immigrants fell to unheard-of low levels. Some 50 percent of American immigrants to Israel have returned to the US,and Israel has lost nearly 10% of its one million Russian immigrants. All the violence is nervous-making. The micro-wars, the wars of the rockets, are intended to discourage in-migration to Israel by the Russians and other former East Bloc Jews, and to foster out-migration by Israeli Jews, which the Israeli leadership and Zionism generally view as a dire threat to the character of the Israeli state.

    All four dimenstions played a part in Hizbullah's success in forcing Israel to end its occupation of south Lebanon in 2000. That forced withdrawal was micro-war's first big success, and a more decisive victory than Egypt gained with conventional arms in 1973. Israel had to give up its claim on a slice of Arab territory without receiving any guarantees of peace or any advantage whatsoever.

    All four dimensions were also at play in the summer, 2006 Israeli-Lebanese War. Hizbullah deployed its rockets so effectively that one fourth of Israelis were forced to flee their homes temporarily. Although the earlier Arab-Israeli wars did sometimes send Israelis to bomb shelters, I don't believe that as much of a fourth of the population was ever made to flee their own dwellings before. Hizbullah benefited from the loyalty to it of villagers and townspeople it had helped with clinics and other social services. Hizbullah was able to penetrate Merkava tanks and even hit an Israeli ship at sea. With Iranian and Syrian help, they had cracked Israeli codes and could listen in on their enemy's military communications. The Israelis had no idea where their caves and tunnels were. Israel lost the war with Hizbullah in the sense that the latter proved resilient. Only by ratcheting the struggle up to a total war, in which Israel hit Lebanese infrastructure in general and killed over 1000 Lebanese, many of them not Hizbullah or even Shiites, was it able to convince the other Lebanese and the UN/Europeans to intervene to restrain Hizbullah. The Israeli attempt to permanently ethnically cleanse the Shiites from Lebanon's deep south near the Israeli border by the use of cluster bombs failed. The ensuing de facto truce allowed Hizbullah to re-arm with rockets and to gain legitimacy as part of the Lebanese cabinet, but the European border patrols under the banner of UNIFIL (UN peacekeepers) have forestalled further micro-warfare against Israel for the moment.

    Even as the northern front quietened from fall of 2006, despite Israel having achieved few of its war goals, a new microwar broke out in Gaza.

    In the 1980s, when the secular, left-leaning Palestine Liberation Organization predominated as the Palestinian political force, Israeli intelligence funneled some aid to Hamas (descended from the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), a fundamentalist group, in hopes of dividing and ruling the Palestinians. That part of the plan worked, but Israeli intelligence created a monster, since as Hamas grew in strength and popularity, it grew increasing vocal about its rejection of Israel and its ambition to see the state dismantled, allowing the emergence of a fundamentalist Muslim Palestinian state where Israel now stands.

    The current Israeli military effort to substantially weaken Hamas in Gaza follows on the contradictions in Kadima Party policy. In 2005 Kadima, led by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which Israel had occupied in 1967. But since Kadima refused to negotiate with Hamas, Israel was unable to shape the political structures of its former colony, leaving the outcome to chance. It was not a stable place By 2005 Gaza had a population of 1.5 million. Although it was a relatively nice little Mediterranean region before the rise of modern nation states, its traditional markets were Egypt and Jordan, and after 1967 its only outlet was Israel, which already produced much the same things as Gaza did. So Gaza had become trapped economically.

    Hamas became popular in Gaza in part because of services and in part because of its rejectionism vis-a-vis Israel, and it won the January, 2006, elections for the Palestinian Authority. Because of its rejectionist ideology and its willing to deploy terrorism and micro-war against Israel, Israel and the United States boycotted the PA under Hamas and strove to undo the results of the election.

    Here is Aljazeera's timeline for what happened next:
    ' June 25, 2006: Palestinian fighters conduct an operation in Israel, killing two Israeli soldiers capturing another, Corporal Gilad Shalit.

    June 28, 2006: Israel launches Operation Summer Rains in what it says is an attempt to recover the captured soldier. Israel launches air strikes against of bridges, roads, and the only power station in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinians are killed during aerial and ground attacks over the following months.

    June 29, 2006: Israel captures 64 Hamas officials, including eight Palestinian Authority cabinet ministers and up to twenty members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

    September 8:, 2006 UN officials say Gaza is at"breaking point" after months of economic sanctions and Israeli attacks.'

    By summer of 2007, the Israelis and the US had managed to sponsor a coup in which the secular Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, took back over the West Bank, and Hamas was confined to Gaza. Hamas pursued the tactic of sending small home-made missiles against nearby Israeli towns, mainly Sderot, emulating what Hizbullah had been doing to the Israeli colony in the occupied Shebaa Farms in 2005-2006. Israel responded primarily by squeezing the Gaza public, denying it enough food, fuel, electricity and services to function healthily, in hopes that it could be made to turn against Hamas. This punishment of the civilian population (half of which consists of children and some large proportion of which does not anyway support Hamas) is illegal in international law, and failed in its purpose. Hamas became ever more entrenched.

    Israel's current attack on Gaza is aimed at forestalling an ever more successful microwar waged by Hamas. Its rockets were inaccurate and most seem to have fallen uselessly in the desert. But they did do some property damage and killed 15 Israelis over 8 years, and they also inflicted psychological blows on the fragile Israeli psyche. The Israeli leadership saw a danger that Hamas would become ever better entrenched, organically, in Gaza society and gain all the advantages such a social penetration offers, and that monetary aid from Iran and explosives smuggling through tunnels from the Egyptian Sinai would allow them eventually to wage a truly effective micro-war.

    The Israeli leadership knew that it could not reply to Hamas's microwar without engaging in total war on the Gaza population, and that this step would be unpopular with the world's publics. But the Israeli leadership has successfully thumbed its nose at world public opinion so often and so successfully that this sort of consideration does not even enter into their practical calculations (except to the extent that they are careful to do a lot of propaganda for their war effort). Their estimation that they will suffer no practical bad consequences of attacks on civilians is certainly correct in the short to medium term.

    The Israel lobbies are wealthy and powerful, and the US congress depends heavily on them for campaign funding. If the US legislators voted on the Gaza operation, they would support Israel except for the same 10 who objected to the war on Lebanon (the 10 are mostly from congressional districts with a lot of Arab-Americans). Israel will suffer no practical sanctions from any government. Egypt and Jordan are afraid of Hamas and are more or less handmaidens of Israeli policy toward Gaza. Syria and Lebanon are weak. Iran, for all the hype it generates, is distant and relatively helpless to intervene. European governments have largely ceded the Palestinian-Israeli issue to the US and Israel. Gordon Brown is publicly calling for a ceasefire while secretly supporting Bush's attempts to stop any such thing at the UN.

    The main immediate problem for the Israelis is that simply preventing Hamas from waging an ever more sophisticated microwar is an extremely short-term and technical objective. It may or may not be achievable by the methods of the current war, which appear so far to be conventional methods. Its outcome is not very material to a settlement of the larger issues.

    The big long-term problem Israel has is that its assiduous colonization of the West Bank has made a two-state solution almost impossible, turning it into an Apartheid state. And if you go on practicing Apartheid long enough, that begins to attact boycotts and sanctions. And forestalling a Palestinian state means that likely the Palestinians will all end up Israeli citizens.

    I was on the radio recently with John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, and he expressed the hope that Egypt would take back Gaza and Jordan what is left of the West Bank. You may as well dream of pink unicorns on Venus. It isn't going to happen. The Palestinians are Israel's problem. War on them, circumscribe them, colonize them all you like. They aren't going anywhere, and you can't keep them stateless and virtually enslaved forever, occasionally exterminating some of them as though they were vermin when they make too much trouble. That, sooner or later, will lead to boycotts by rising economic powers and by Europe that could be extremely damaging to Israel's long-term prospects as a state.

    It may still be 10 or 20 years in the future. But because of Israel's economic and demographic vulnerabilities, for it to lose the war of global public opinion may ultimately be more consequential than either macro-war or micro-war.

  • Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)

    comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Arnold Shcherban - 1/5/2009

    and that John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN is a notorious right-wing scoundrel.