US Lessons for Israel's Unconventional War

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict defies easy categorization. It bears some resemblance to a conventional inter-state war, even though there is no sovereign Palestinian state. Yet in many ways it is more akin to a civil war, with two sides fighting over a single piece of territory, British Mandate Palestine - which is today Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

All wars, civil or inter-state, generally end in one of two ways: an outright military victory by one side over the other, or a negotiated settlement between the combatants. The century-old conflict between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine will not be resolved through a military victory. The only viable solution to the conflict is a political one, a negotiated settlement that creates two states.

Israel, a United Nations member-state with overwhelming military superiority, is held to the standards of international humanitarian law and the Law of War. Fair or not, Hamas, like other non-state actors, is not held to the same standards or expectations. Hamas uses unconventional and asymmetrical tactics - including hiding behind and fighting amongst its own civilian population. In this way, it behaves like an insurgency group.

States have never been able to defeat non-state guerrilla insurgencies by military force alone-- without committing mass murder against the civilian population. And no democracy, including Israel, is willing to go to such extremes. As the US has discovered in Iraq, ending guerrilla insurgencies requires negotiating with at least some of the insurgents. In Iraq, the Awakening Councils, now on the US payroll, include some extremely violent ex-insurgents. Some of them had previously killed US troops, but are now fighting alongside Americans against more recalcitrant and radical Iraqis and foreign jihadists. Negotiating with anti-American Sunni sheiks and their armed fighters was a key factor in the success of the “surge.”

Of course, Israel and Hamas will never end up on the same side, and the US will eventually leave the Iraqi theater of operations whereas Israel is fighting in its own backyard. But this general point of successful counterinsurgency holds true: negotiation with the more pragmatic elements of the guerrilla force is often a necessary condition for ending an insurgency. Most “insurgent” groups have their pragmatists and their ideological extremists. This was so in Iraq and Northern Ireland, and it is the case in Palestine and even within Hamas.

With the surge in Iraq, US forces put counterinsurgency theory into practice. While negotiation with an existential enemy like Hamas might be more than Israel can stomach right now, the Israelis could take a few lessons from America’s new playbook, co-authored by General David Petraeus before he took command in Iraq.

The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (available in bookstores and on enumerates a list of “paradoxes of counterinsurgency,” many of which are clearly applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

• “Some of the best weapons of counterinsurgents do not shoot.” Military force is but one tool in the successful counterinsurgent’s toolbox. Winning the hearts and minds of the populace has become a well-worn cliché, but as Petraeus, et al, put it, “arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds.”

• “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” Sadly, the field manual’s observations on this point ring more true each day in Gaza. “The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal.” For those fighting guerrillas embedded in civilian areas, the key “is knowing when more force is needed—and when it might be counterproductive.”

• “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.” The more powerful side shouldn’t always take the bait. “Often insurgents carry out a terrorist act or guerrilla raid with the primary purpose of enticing counterinsurgents to overreact, or at least to react in a way that insurgents can exploit … . If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects may result, an alternative should be considered—potentially including not acting.”

Fighting an unconventional force that uses its own civilians for cover has always posed moral dilemmas for the conventional armies of democracies. Despite the often negative media coverage and the tragic mistakes in targeting that US forces have made in Iraq and especially Afghanistan, over the past few years the United States has emerged as the world’s leader in the theory and practice of fighting unconventional forces while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Israel, with a professional army that seeks a “purity of arms” while fighting some of the world’s most ruthless guerrilla forces, could learn from America’s mistakes and successes.

Israel’s extensive air and ground campaign has killed many civilians and is destroying civilian infrastructure, producing a dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The greater the death and destruction, the more callous Israel appears, and the more the legitimacy of its original self-defense justification against Hamas is undermined. In this asymmetric conflict, Hamas benefits when innocent Palestinians die.

There is no viable military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tragically, the general outlines for a peaceful resolution to this century-old conflict have been on the table for years. What has been missing is a synchronicity of effective leadership on all sides, Israeli, Palestinian, and American.

The best case scenario coming out of Gaza is that the carnage and resulting instability will motivate key regional and international actors, including the US, to help separate the forces and move Israelis and Palestinians - with effective, third party monitoring and enforcement - toward a final, negotiated settlement.

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