Asymmetric wars: comparative study (1)

In the modern approach to the study of wars, some would say post-modern, it is fashionable to speak about the special characteristics of asymmetric wars. In these wars insurgents groups, so-called non-state actors, which cannot defeat the organized and highly equipped army of a state, are concentrating on inflicting violent and deadly strikes on the civilians of their enemies with the aim of creating internal social chaos and political instability. With the rise of globalization and the spread of humanitarian international law, asymmetric wars are becoming an arena of lawfare. Lawfare was coined as a term to describe the effort to discredit and delegitimize the enemy by exposing him to criticism from international public opinion, particularly human rights groups, on the violation of humanitarian laws and ethical codes. The primary tool in the strategy of this asymmetric warfare is the civilian population which is becoming both the target and the shield of its violent tactics.

There is nothing new in the historic human endeavor to examine, to study and try to minimize civilian casualties in armed conflicts. As a matter of fact many international legal instruments, since the nineteen century through the Geneva conventions of 1949 (and the later the protocols), are devoted to establish such codes of behavior. This effort was culminating in the treaty or the Statute of Rome (1998) leading to the establishment of International Criminal Court which operates since 2002 in The Hague.

In August-September 2001 (days before the 9\11 Jihadists-terrorists attacks killing thousands in New York and other locations on the East Coast of the United States), the NGO Forum of the United Nations’ Durban Conference called for the “establishment of a war crimes tribunal” against Israel. Since then, Israel has become the primary target of this new form of lawfare. Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south are the major non-state actors in this lawfare strategy backed by different Arab-Muslim states, mainly by Syria, Iran and Qatar. Hezbollah, which represents a Shi’a Islamist militant group based in Lebanon, highlights how irrelevant are the rights of Palestinians in the lawfare strategy.
In their war against Israel the major military targets of Hamas and Hezbollah are Israeli citizens and their primary strategy is exploiting their own civilian population as shields and targets. They are very much minded to the cynical, simplistic and demagogic practice of the international media – the press and the social networks, to base their analysis in articles and pictures on the civilian-combatant ratio. The more civilians dead the more legitimate and moral are the “representatives” of the victims, Hezbollah and Hamas. The more civilian victims in Lebanon or Gaza, this equation will go on, the more immoral and illegal is the war of the superior and organized army of Israel.
So what can be the comparison base for this kind of moral and legal debate? In these series of articles we will examine several aspects of the numbers game. In this game of numbers, driven by the immediate sensation of photos showing death and devastation, and given the nature of build-in hostility to Israel, the position of Israel is very often inferior to its enemies. We shall try to analyze the numbers and what we term as multiply factors in this study of the history of war in different regions of the world in recent times.

Our study is based on comparative data from several wars: the United States in Vietnam, Russia in the Chechen Wars, NATO in Yugoslavia, the United States and its allies in Iraq, the United States in Afghanistan, wars in Africa, and the Israeli wars in Lebanon (2006) and in Gaza (2008, 2012, 2014). It is amazing to see how Israel is maintaining its position as a party which is more conscious to enemy’s civilian casualties than any other state in the world of those exposed to asymmetric wars. This is despite the fact that Israel is facing, more than any other state, deadly threats to its citizens and that her enemies use their own civilians as shields comprehensively, consistently and intensively, more than any other country in the world.

(This is the first in series of articles on the subject)

About the Author
Dr. Avi Beker teaches diplomacy and international law at Tel Aviv University and Ono Academic Center. He was the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress and a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.