Asymmetric Warfare: It’s Confusing
I remember well my first encounter with anti-Israel animus. As an NYU undergrad and co-president of the Israel club, I stopped on my way to class to talk to a small group of students standing outside with signs proclaiming “Zionism is Racism”. Curious as to who I was dealing with, having spent the prior 18 months living in the West Bank, I asked the first girl I met whether she had ever been to Israel before. When she answered in the affirmative (she had been on Birthright, a 10-day tourist experience), I asked her what she had thought of the country. With a glassy look on her face that made me wonder about the substance behind her argument, she gave me a one-word answer: “confused.” Attempts at further conversation stagnated. She had spoken her mind.
Nearly six years, dual citizenship and two wars later, and I find myself using the same word when asked to describe the situation here. “It’s confusing.” It seems a cop-out, but it fits, better than anything else that I can think of.
This won’t be a lengthy treatise on the history of Israel, Palestine, Zionism, Palestinians etc. Nor do I wish to focus on numbers—deaths, injuries, rockets, rocks, or metrics of anything else for that matter. I will hopefully dedicate another post to discussing “proportionality” and its many meanings. Here I want to talk about why this is all so confusing for that dwindling portion of humanity that believes that Israelis deserve to live in peace and security like any other people, and whose hearts still jolt when they read about (and a fortiori see pictures of) children orphaned, injured, or killed.
The situation is confusing. Jews, a people who have been an oft-persecuted and scapegoated minority in foreign lands for much of world history, finally have a home which they should feel safe in. After decades of existential threats in that home, Israel is now conclusively, militarily advantaged over its neighbors (even as the anti-Semites the world over are making it clear that Jews are personae non gratae). The Disengagement from Gaza, and the combination of subsequent elections and coup, unintentionally cemented the new threat to Israel—–the asymmetric one (Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon).
Asymmetric warfare is apparently “trending” this century. As strongmen fall and borders disintegrate, armed groups with political (and often religious) goals step in to fill power voids. But they compensate for conventional military capability inferiority with asymmetric warfare, with terrorism. They trample on the Geneva Conventions and the accepted norms of war, or worse, as in Hamas’s case, they utilize international humanitarian law, exacerbating the situation for civilians. They seek to create fear and terror, using psychological warfare, where they would fall short in a conventional battle. This is the external challenge that Israel faces, but it is hardly unique to Israel. States, governments and armed forces the world over are struggling to find the best way to deal with asymmetric belligerence. It’s only Israel that brings such attention to the issue.
The right to self-defense is unequivocal. Israel has invested in defense systems, allowing it to absorb a large and sustained salvo of rockets that presumably no other country would. Yet that does not mean that Israel is impenetrable, or that restraint voids the right to self-defense. That right exists.
The challenge becomes how to respond. When Israel fought wars against Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, there were armed forces on a battlefield. Men in uniforms, with weapons, tanks, planes. Legitimate military targets, fighting our own military targets. No longer is it so.
Instead we face men who fight in civilian garb, sometimes disguised as women or old men. Men who utilize ambulances as get-away cars. Who launch rockets from hospitals or health clinics. Who turn houses of worship into armories. Who use their own civilian population as tools, as weapons. Every civilian death harms Israel and benefits Hamas; unfortunately they are well-aware of this and have made it a priority. Let there be no confusion here—Hamas’s tactics, the ways in which they wage war, are pure evil.
Where the confusion lies, the uncertainty, is in how to respond. UNRWA schools are used as weapons silos—and the only thing notable is that UNRWA manages to seem surprised anew each time. In the same 24-hour cycle, we had a report that they had found rockets (likely fundamentally illegal under IHL due to their indiscriminate nature) for the third time this conflict, reports from Gaza that the IDF had hit a UNRWA school, and an IDF denial, suggesting that errant Hamas or PIJ rockets had hit the site. What to do when schools are simultaneously used to store children and weapons? We know what kind of people fight like that—immoral cowards. But how does one respond? HRW and others remind us that while Hamas’s attacks from civilian areas provide legal justification, they don’t necessitate Israeli retaliations. They fail, however, to suggest what might work as an alternative.
What do you do when you’re an 18-year-old sent into enemy territory to reduce civilian casualties, and someone opens fire on you from a hospital? Do you contact the hospital, tell them to stop allowing their facilities to be used as a military base? Perhaps they tell you that they can’t; the thugs have guns and they don’t. Perhaps you ask them to leave, or to stay indoors and away from the windows. There isn’t an easy answer here, and none of us would want to be in such a situation.
It’s confusing, because much as the world wants to criticize Israel, it just doesn’t make any sense. This war is awful, yet without the blockade, the much maligned blockade, this war would likely have happened sooner. Do you open the borders, open the seas, knowing full well that that will increase the weapons coming in, and the timetable on the next confrontation? Do you leave the blockade in place, thinking that avoiding war is best, knowing that as the economy worsens, Hamas faces more domestic pressure, and has more incentive to initiate warfare? Do you let more building materials in, hoping naively that they will go to improving public infrastructure, not to tunnels of terror? Or fewer, knowing that Hamas decides for all Gazans where building resources are allocated? There seem to be many poor options, few good ones. The West Bank, with its flaws and security threats, is a paradise relative to Gaza; the primary difference being the powers in charge. But we can’t go back in time, dis-disengage and prevent Hamas’s takeover. You deal with the situation at hand, ideally with an eye to the future, and that situation offers a small number of unenviable options.
It’s complicated, complex, confusing, when your enemy deliberately fights from urban, densely populated areas. Every legitimate army in the world tries to protect its civilian population; this group stores its weapons, shoots from and hides in, the civilian population that it allegedly seek to “liberate”. What do you do in such a situation; how do you respond?
What would you do if your neighbor hid behind his wife and children and threw rocks at you? Without a way to get at him directly, would you flee? Would you hide? Would you shake it off—they’re only rocks—knowing that a shot to the head could blind you? Or would you throw something back, acting in self-defense? Maybe some of us might take the high road, trying to avoid the dangerous neighbor, not willing to risk harm to his wife and kids who are unlucky enough to be related to this monster. But now consider that it was not you receiving the rocks, but your spouse and kids. Would you be so cavalier about risking their well-being? For most of us, the answer to that is obvious. The best response would seem to be to respond, doing your best to avoid hitting the innocent family members, knowing full well that the odds are against you and you might well fail. Your family doesn’t suffer just because your neighbor is evil.
That is the situation the average IDF soldier faces in Gaza. These are the decisions the average commander faces in Gaza. Unthinkable situations that bring our finest and bravest to tears. Note I did not list the history between my neighbor and myself. Perhaps he has a legitimate grievance. Perhaps he doesn’t. Perhaps we both think we’re right and the other wrong. None of that justifies endangering my family or prejudices my right to protect my family.
Hamas can argue a right to self-defense as well. But they must do so following the laws of war, designed to protect civilians, not to put them in harm’s way and utilize them as political tools. Until they do so, the situation will remain muddled—a right to self-defense clear, with almost surreal challenges as to how to exercise that right. And looming above all the disturbing, depressing knowledge that with each tactical and technological innovation designed to minimize civilian harm, with each Israeli soldier injured in place of more powerful airstrikes, with each un-contextualized picture, uncritical statistic and irresponsible report, we are only incenitivizing the continued use abuse of the 1.8 million civilians, 75% women and children, subjugated under Hamas’s ironfisted dominion in Gaza. Perhaps the reports that Hamas leadership is hiding in Shifa hospital are accurate, and perhaps with “reasonable losses” the IDF could have taken them out, but there just isn’t an easy way to describe how you feel when you hear that your enemy is hiding in a hospital. It goes against every instinct about how war is fought. War is never pretty. But it also doesn’t need to, shouldn’t, look like this.
So to answer the question that a few friends have asked—how do I feel about the devastation, about the travesty that is war with Hamas—I am confused. I believe in our right to self-defense as I feel the tragedy of civilian death. I understand that we—Israelis, the UN, NGOs, global media have all played a role in incentivizing Hamas’s behavior to the point that we now witness. Individual violations can and should be investigated, but they won’t change the underlying issue here.
The world has no idea how to fight an ethical war against an asymmetric actor. Even as we push for peace and long-term solutions, the specter of Hamas violence, of the utter eradication of any semblance of military ethics, looms large, beyond this conflict. This is a challenge that we may increasingly see on the global stage. Perhaps it will never get as much attention as in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, but we are bound to see more of this, until the world discovers a way to interact with hostile asymmetric forces. That is the larger challenge that arises from this conflict—to prevent future loss of life not just in Gaza or in Israel, but elsewhere. Asymmetric warfare is not an ideology. It’s a tactical choice made by a militarily disadvantaged non-state actor, and if these tactics are seen to “work” on the Israeli stage, then they will be implemented elsewhere, endangering more and more women and children. International law lags behind in dealing with this contemporary threat; military ethics may never offer us a satisfactory answer. But the world must find a strategy for defeating the incentives that promote such tactics. That much has been laid clear.