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A disaster decades in the making. Israel must change fundamentally to survive

The awful Hamas attack on southern Israel on 7 October is an extraordinary disaster. It is nothing less than one of the very worst days, perhaps the single worst day, of casualties in the entire history of the Zionist movement. The number of those killed in a single day, now more than 700 according to rapidly-changing official assessments, has very little or even no precedent even during Israel’s previous big wars. During the siege of the Etzion Block, in the months before Israel declared independence, 240 soldiers and civilians were killed. Of these, 127 were killed in the final battle and massacre at Kfar Etzion on 13 May 1948, the worst such incident during Israel’s War of Independence. During the worst single week of Arab riots prior in Mandatory Palestine, in 1929, 133 Jews were murdered. At that time, the Jewish people had no army and no state, and they created an army and a state to prevent such massacres from recurring. Yet, on 7 October, that army and state failed more catastrophically than the weak defenders of the pre-state Jewish community. Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces are in a deep crisis of disfunction.

This disaster has been many decades in the making. It is not a coincidence that Hamas attacked 50 years and one day after Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack which began the Yom Kippur War on Saturday, 6 October 1973. On that Jewish holy day, Israel’s army was not ready for anything. On 7 October this year, on Saturday at the end of Sukkot, the army was even less ready. Even less, because it was attacked not by two large armies with thousands of guns and tanks, but rather by a few thousand terrorists armed with infantry weapons. The established Israeli practice of effectively suspending the state on significant holidays has led to disaster. Not once, but twice. The most basic lesson of the Yom Kippur war has not been learned.

The need to prevent another catastrophic surprise like 1973 was a staple of Israeli official speeches for many years. Less than three weeks ago, IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi marked the 50th anniversary of the war. He drew the following lessons:

“Not to underestimate them, and not to glorify ourselves. We must be more prepared than ever for a multi-aspect and extensive military conflict, which will include maneuvering in close contact and high friction with the enemy, which will involve losses and casualties, and where the rear is also a front.”

How bitter those words sound today. Again, as in 1973, there is talk of an ‘intelligence failure’, the inability of Israeli intelligence services to warn of enemy attack in time. As 50 years ago, this takes attention away from the key problem. Then, Israel built the Bar-Lev Line to defend against an Egyptian crossing of the Suez canal. It forgot one thing – that defense lines must in fact be defended. On the day of the Egyptian attack, there were just 500 soldiers on the line, making all the time and effort spent on its construction irrelevant. Now, Israel spent more than a billion dollars on an exceptionally sophisticated border fence, completed less than two years ago. This fence was breached in multiple places, in daylight. The full details will not be public knowledge for some time, but the basic fact is self-evident. The forces assigned to defend the border were insufficient, and so the purpose of the fence was lost. The second most obvious lesson of the 1973 war, to be prepared for defense in fact, not in principle, has also not been learned.

This time, there were obvious warnings that all was not well with Israel’s defenses. On the morning of 3 June this year, another Sabbath, an Egyptian soldier crossed into Israel and killed three soldiers of the Bardelas (Cheetah) battalion. Ten days later, the commander of the Paran brigade was dismissed from his position, and several other officers were reprimanded, for a series of failures which had led to the successful attack by a lone terrorist. This should have led, but did not in fact lead, to a re-assessment of the defenses of the Gaza border. This re-assessment did not take place even after 6 September, when terrorists detonated a large explosive on the Gaza border fence, or after 13 September, when six terrorists blew themselves up on the Gaza border, in a failed attempted to deploy another large explosive device. Explosive devices such as these were a key instrument in the rapid breaching of the border fence in multiple locations on 7 October, as Hamas itself is now showing on video.

The IDF should have been ready for the relatively simple task of protecting Israel’s shortest border, just 59 kilometres (37 miles) long, as compared with the 208-kilometre (129 mile) border with Egypt. It was not, because Israeli military effectiveness has been in decline for many years. A telling example was the final significant engagement of the Yom Kippur War, namely a failed attack on Egyptian army positions in Suez City on 24 October. Even though Israel had broken the back of the Egyptian army by this time in the war, the IDF’s first and only significant attempt at urban combat in 1973 led to a bloody defeat, in which the Israeli army lost 88 men killed and another 120 wounded because of rushed planning, bad coordination between units and an inability to navigate effectively within an unfamiliar urban area.

In Israel’s next war, the First Lebanon War of 1982, such problems were not solved, but rather avoided. Israel encircled Arafat and other Palestine Liberation Organization leaders in West Beirut, but did not storm the encircled area. Infamously, this summer siege ended with the evacuation of the PLO, the assassination of Israel’s ally, Lebanon’s Christian President-elect Bashir Gemayel by Syrian nationalists, and finally the revenge massacre of Palestinians by Christian militias directed by Elie Hobeika, whose entire family had previously been murdered in a 1976 massacre conducted with PLO support. Instead of attempting to repair the situation and ensure that Lebanon would not once again become a base for anti-Israeli terrorist groups, Israeli society fractured, and mass protests calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, began. Less than a year later, Begin resigned. In substance, since the beginning of the siege of Beirut in June 1982, Israel stopped pursuing decisive military victory against any of its opponents, in large part because societal consensus to support such a course had evaporated. As a direct consequence of this, Israel now faces entrenched terrorists not just in Lebanon, but also in Gaza, and in Nablus, Jenin and Hebron in the West Bank.

Israel has not been alone in choosing a strategy of limited war by default, regardless of the fact that this represented a road to nowhere. Ronald Reagan sent in the Marines to Lebanon, only to ‘redeploy’ them out of the country after Hezbollah’s first great success, the bombings of the Marine and French barracks on 23 October 1983. Seven and a half years later, George Bush Senior obliterated Saddam Hussein’s forces in southern Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War, but left Saddam in power. Dick Cheney, later a proponent of overthrowing Saddam, was then Defense Secretary and described the Iraqi dictator as ‘just one more irritant’, with a complete absence of strategic foresight. In 2003, America did overthrow Saddam, but the Iraq War became America’s equivalent of Israel’s Lebanon War, a cause of political and social division which brought to an end American attempts to achieve decisive military objectives. Even the ‘Surge’ campaign to stabilize Iraq in 2007-8 ended not in victory, but a miserable cease-fire with the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. As with Israel’s limited-war policy, the result has been disaster. Al-Sadr continues to exercise influence in Iraq, while Qais al-Khazali, a militia leader whose forces killed hundreds of American soldiers during the Iraq war and who is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, heads a political party and openly meets with foreign ambassadors.

Israel and America’s strategies of limited military action are equally bankrupt. However, in Israel’s case, it lives next door to the terrorists, not thousands of miles away. What happened on 7 October was bound to happen eventually. The last IDF operations prior to disaster, “Shield and Arrow” in Gaza in May, and “Home and Garden” in Jenin in July, had reduced Israeli strategy and policy to the absurd. While expending considerable resources, particularly of precision munitions, both these operations inflicted no long-lasting damage on either Hamas or Islamic Jihad, nor were they intended to achieve this purpose. They were filling space until the next similar operation, without any substantive objective. As Avigdor Haselkorn wrote in April this year, this approach of ‘mowing the grass’ had exhausted itself, and “It seems there will be no choice but for Israel to shift to a tactically and strategically offensive doctrine.” What was obvious to close observers is now apparent to all, in awful circumstances.

Israel now has no choice at all. It must decisively defeat Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and it must do so reasonably quickly. Otherwise, Hezbollah and Iran are likely to assume that Israel is completely militarily bankrupt, and the war will become a multi-front one, with even worse Israeli losses than those being suffered at present. Given that the IDF is long out of the practice of conducting decisive ground offensives, especially in urban terrain, taking Gaza by storm is not a feasible approach. This leaves one operational approach, cutting off Gaza from Egypt by seizing the Philadelphi corridor on Gaza’s southern edge, and also advancing far enough north into the rest of the Gaza Strip to make the IDF forces in this area safe from most methods of attack available to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A total blockade will then have to be imposed on the rest of Gaza, until the terrorist groups will be forced to surrender. This blockade will need to be supported by constant airstrikes on the blockaded area, and fire from the sea onto the shore, to systematically reduce the length of time that the terrorists will be able to hold out. This will not be easy, especially since international criticism of this approach shall be predictably vicious, but it is the only viable path open to Israel.

The alternatives are either storming Gaza, with heavy losses, or allowing the terrorist groups to survive and to hold on to the hundred or more hostages that they have taken. The first of these options might lead to such difficulties for the IDF that Israel’s other enemies will be tempted to attack. The second would involve accepting catastrophic defeat, and would initiate the collapse of the state. This means blockade is the only option that Israel can implement, in practice.

As during any large war, events are moving at great speed. Hezbollah has already shelled Israel and is threatening to join the war. Two Israelis have been murdered in an attack in Egypt. Yet, the IDF has still not finished clearing Israeli territory of terrorists, as of the time of this writing, let alone began an offensive into Gaza. If Israel will not gather its strength and launch a large-scale offensive within several days, its enemies will gain the distinct impression that it has become a paper tiger. A further and much worse disaster will then not be long in coming. Israel has had decades to change, now it has just days left to launch an offensive, and a few short years thereafter to fundamentally and permanently alter its approach to politics and security.

About the Author
Dan Zamansky is a British-Israeli independent historian, with a particularly strong interest in the history of the World Wars and the long shadow these cast over the contemporary world. He believes that the mistakes of the past are being systematically repeated at present, and this process must be urgently reversed.
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