The Fire This Time: How the IDF must avoid the pitfalls of the 2006 and 2008 campaigns

Following Hezbollah’s cross border kidnapping in July 2006, Israel responded by attempting, to the greatest possible extent, to destroy Hezbollah’s infrastructure and weaponry, neutralize them as a military force, and force their removal north of the Litani. They also hoped that a favorable political diminishment of Hezbollah within Lebanon would follow the successful military campaign.

Dismissing the need for an overwhelming combined arms assault, IDF Chief of Staff Halutz first opted for an improvised air assault punctuated with small-bore border forays. After a week of air assaults and standoff attacks the decisive victory promised by Halutz was, however, nowhere in sight. Hezbollah was just as firmly entrenched along the border and south of the Litani as they ever were, and rockets were still popping into northern Israel at 100 or more a day.

Then Halutz deployed company and battalion sized assaults to raid and engage Hezbollah strongholds near the border. The IDF deployed battalion and company size units into Maroun al-Ras, Bint J’Bail, and elsewhere, where they encountered well trained Hezbollah militants who ambushed them with a skill and a ferocity that shook them.

By the third week of the campaign,  the IDF now decided to increase the forces on the ground and by August 12 Operation Change Direction 11, an advance of 4 divisions, including a westward drive of 162 Division from At Tayyibeh to link up with elements of the Nahal Brigade that had been airlifted into position there near Ghanduriyih, had commenced. The ground campaign lasted two days, each division advanced several miles, killed some Hezbollah, occupied some strategically dubious territory, and accomplished absolutely nothing of significance. To emphasize this failure, Hezbollah tossed a few hundred rockets into Israel on the last day of the campaign.

The Israeli campaign in response to the Hezbollah cross-border kidnapping of July, 2006 has been much criticized, and rightly so. The war unquestionably exposed failures in planning, intelligence, counterintelligence, command, mobilization, execution, and logistics. The entire ground campaign was conducted on the fly with inadequate, ill-equipped formations, senior commanders and brigade commanders who had not trained in maneuvering large mobile formations in years, regulars and reservists who had received little or no training, and soldiers and tank crewmen whose only experience was patrolling the West Bank and Gaza.

The IDF had set out to destroy Hezbollah’s infrastructure and weaponry, neutralize them as a military force, and force their removal north of the Litani. Yet any plausible attempt to do this was going to be a long, messy affair. The situation was totally unlike 1982 when the PLO militias were scattered in isolated positions throughout the south, and where IDF armored columns sliced through them with ease. Hezbollah had spent six years fortifying virtually every major population center south of the Litani into a major stronghold, each with a sophisticated network of bunkers, minefields, booby-trapped dwellings, arms caches, and anti-tank gun emplacements. Their fighters were well trained in the arts of ambush and defensive concealment, fiercely motivated, and armed to the teeth. There was a rough consensus in military and intelligence circles that this was just not going to get done in several weeks with the strategy in place and the forces that had been allocated.

Yet, dismissing the need for an overwhelming combined arms assault, Halutz first opted for an improvised air assault punctuated with small-bore border forays. Then, when that was found to be inadequate, he deployed company and battalion sized assaults to raid and engage Hezbollah strongholds. Then, when that was found wanting, he poured more forces into the mix piecemeal to utter negligible effect.

War must never be waged on a string of improvised half measures. It must be waged swiftly, decisively, forcefully, and with a strategy apparent to all from the Brigadier down to the buck private. What was needed here was a combined-arms operation to hit the enemy where he was weakest, attacking in force all along the border areas at divergent axes, supplemented by sea and airborne assaults, compelling them to scatter their forces, and outflank them from every direction with shock, speed, and surprise, not engage in a series of scattered, costly slugfests to little strategic or even tactical benefit in built up urban areas where the defenders were strongest and had the advantage. Given Hezbollah’s penchant for static defense, this would have been a more than viable strategy.

It would have involved a maneuver operation to secure areas where Hezbollah was not in strong possession, and securing the strongholds of the major population centers would have taken at least a month, maybe longer. It would undoubtedly have been a long, bloody affair. If the Israelis were going to achieve the strategic goals they set for themselves, that is, at the very least, what it would have required. If they were unable or unwilling to do this, then they should have opted for a more limited response and more modest goals.

Yet the IDF, in the aftermath, were quick fix the problems that dogged the campaign. Armies, especially those in democracies, tend to undergo rigorous self-examination following failures or set-backs, like the Union Army did after the opening battles of the American Civil War, the Americans did after Kasserine Pass in 1943, and the Israelis did after the October 1973 War. The Winograd Commission put all of the IDF’s failures in the 2006 war under a microscope, and diagnosed them rather severely and at length.

Indeed, in contrast to the 2006 war, Operation Cast Lead was a full scale combined arms assault that commenced with a wave of airstrikes on December 27, 2008, followed the next day by surface to surface naval attacks, then followed by a ground invasion into Northern Gaza on January 4, 2009. There was excellent air-ground-sea coordination throughout.

In the 2008 Gaza War, Hamas tried to replicate the Hezbollah  strategy of working tunnels, booby trapped dwellings, concealed small-arms fire, and roadside IED’s into a spider-web of defensive fortifications that would bog down the IDF advance guards, and draw a steep price in blood for any territory taken. In this, they were completely unsuccessful. IDF infantry, accompanied by bomb-sniffing dogs, conducted clearing operations in the built-up areas in hours of darkness, making full use of Hamas’ lack of night-fighting skills and equipment.

Hezbollah had shown an unexpected tactical prowess, and used its small arms, mortars, rockets, and antitank weapons to successfully maneuver against the IDF. They made excellent use of direct and indirect small arms and anti-tank fire from concealed positions, they worked their elaborate tunnel system effectively, and their small arms fire control was excellent and well coordinated. The Hezbollah defenders, in short, fought skillfully, and showed they were prepared to extract a steep price for the loss of any real estate to their attackers.

Hamas fighters, in contrast, were distinctly inferior, and apparently showed no real appetite for close-quarter engagements with the IDF. Skillful clearing operations had taken the sting out of  a lot of their defensive works, their homemade IED’s were often crude and ineffective, and Hamas combat formations became so disoriented when they made contact with the IDF advance guards, that their rank and file often fled, and unit leaders more often than not found themselves cut off from their front-line fighters, thus losing all command and control–a classic example of what happens when thug terrorists “play” at soldiering.   As one embedded Israeli journalist commented,

“Hamas fighting prowess hardly inspired awe. Hamas gunmen–in full view of the people of Gaza–abandoned the arena and fled into the crowded neighborhoods where they quickly shed their uniforms. The offensive array of bunkers and tunnels and booby trapped buildings–set for remote detonation–were captured intact.”

When Gaza civilians complained that retreating Hamas gunmen were preventing them from leaving their homes and thus putting them at risk, the gunmen reassured them, “we are all destined for paradise, are you not happy to die together?” Also, while busy fleeing the IDF and exhorting the populace to the glories of martyrdom, Hamas gunmen did, however, find the time to manfully torture and gouge out the eyes of some 70 suspected Fatah informers–a typical Hamas touch.

In any event, Operation Cast Lead indicated the extent to which the lessons of 2006 had been learned and corrected. The execution of the operation benefited from a well conceived plan and predetermined objectives, and, unlike in 2006, the IDF correctly realized that the only way to truly disable rocket launchers was by taking control of the ground from which they were fired. The strategic confusion and inapt tactics that characterized the 2006 war were nowhere in evidence here. There was a fundamental disconnect between the political strategic goals of the 2006 war, the military strategy to accomplish those goals, and the tactics employed to accomplish the meandering military strategy. In Cast Lead all arms were focused on narrow, achievable military objectives, and carried them out with expert timing, coordination, and execution.

The damage inflicted on Hamas infrastructure and weaponry as a result of the conflict were profound, but, ultimately, recoverable. Hamas higher ups were reportedly incensed at the failure to kidnap a single IDF soldier, at the al-Kassam Brigades failure to score any success against IDF armor, and most particularly at the failure to stem and repel the IDF’s deepest incursion into Gaza City, near Telal-Hawa. Desertion in the face of the enemy was rife, and some 100 Kassam Brigade fighters of the Zeitoun area were consequently stripped of their membership.

Hamas’ tactical failure can most clearly be seen in the casualties of both sides. In the battle of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, for example, Palestinian militants lost some 48 killed for some 23 IDF soldiers killed. In the course of Cast Lead Hamas fired some 980 rockets and mortars, fought some 19 pitched battles, lost some 1166 militants killed, 150 captured, lost some two politburo members, two senior commanders of the Executive Force, and some 50 explosive experts. In return for this sacrifice, they managed the killing of some 6 IDF soldiers–an astronomical casualty exchange ratio.


There are ironies to the outcomes of both the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008 Gaza War that observers of Operation Pillar of Cloud would do well to note.

The 2006 Lebanon War must be deemed a military failure; the air assault and the ground campaign failed to stem or even diminish the flow of rocket fire throughout the 34-day conflict, and Hezbollah remains today as defiant and as armed to the teeth as ever.

Yet politically, there is striking evidence of a chastening effect of the 2006 war on Hezbollah, and this was most clearly demonstrated in how passively they sat out the 2008/9 Gaza war and how they are doing the same in the current one. And while Nasrallah continues to do  his little dances of bluster and bravado for the cameras, he does so now from the basements and underground shelters where he now bustles to and fro to escape assassination. When a salvo of Katyusha rockets were fired from South Lebanon into Nahariya on January 9, 2009 during the last Gaza conflict, Nasrallah couldn’t distance himself from the attack fast enough. The Israeli campaign may have been flawed, but it was sufficiently punishing to restore deterrence to their Lebanon border and to discourage any large scale adventurism by Hezbollah of the type we saw before that conflict.

In contrast, Cast Lead was a model military campaign, and about as thorough a defeat as the IDF has inflicted on an opponent since 1967. Yet the deterrence established in the aftermath was questionable. Hamas popped off some 160 rockets and mortars after the conflict throughout the rest of 2009,  365 in 2010, 680 in 2011, and some 929 from the beginning of this year to the start of Pillar of Cloud on November 13. While the 2134 rockets and mortars fired by Hamas at Israel between the end of Cast Lead in January 2009 to the outbreak of Pillar of Cloud in November 2012 are certainly less than the 3000 rockets and mortars fired into Israel in 2008 alone, this, and the steady escalation of rocket attacks in the last year, has still rendered life in the south no less intolerable.

In 2006 a flawed military campaign, yielded a positive, or at least acceptable, political result. In 2008, a masterful, well executed military campaign yielded a dubious political outcome.

In war, whenever possible, one must never inflict insufficient injuries. Machiavelli once advised his Prince that a defeated opponent must either be treated generously on the one hand, or be killed or vanquished beyond all hope of recovery on the other.

Under ordinary circumstances, this can usually be achieved when one side inflicts a decisive military defeat on the other–this was the favorite formula of 19th century military theorists such as Clausewitz and Jomini, who preached the dogma of the decisive battle that allowed the victor to dictate the desired political solution to the vanquished. But in  irregular warfare, the kind presaged in the Peninsular War fought in Spain in 1808-1814, and in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902, ends and means, along with notions of victory and defeat, and political outcomes, are far more uncertain, and are often peculiar to the circumstances involved.

This was clearly illustrated in the Second Intifada between September 2000 and June 2003 where Hamas and the other Palestinian militant groups were, if not defeated, were at least forced into a ceasefire that saw a radical diminution of the violence. This was achieved not by diplomacy, but by the growing efficacy of Israeli counter-terrorist operations, the growing inefficacy of suicide-bombing operations, and Israel’s much-condemned, but successful, policy of targeted assassinations. It was this, and not some conversion to non-violence, that brought Hamas and Islamic Jihad to the hudna.

This was also clearly illustrated in the situation in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the mid 1990’s, which has often been compared to the Israel/Palestine conflict as one that eludes a “military solution.”

George Mitchell, Obama’s former Middle East Peace Envoy ( you know, the genius behind Obama’s fruitless “settlement freeze” initiative that was supposed to “restart” the peace process?) was selected by the President to the task of Middle East peacemaking precisely because of his fame as a peacemaker in Northern Ireland, and it was widely expected that the former senator would work a similar magic on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the notion that Mitchell himself had somehow “made peace” in Northern Ireland was always a fairy tale and a product of his own vanity. Ever since the outbreak of “The Troubles” in 1969, IRA terrorists had been committing terrorist acts, and murdering British soldiers and police throughout Britain and Ulster with virtual impunity. That this brought great suffering to the peoples of Northern Ireland was always a matter of complete indifference to them, and they continued to do so as long as they saw it was to their advantage, and they themselves made to pay no penalty.

But at the Loughgal Ambush in 1987, the IRA got the first taste of what happens when their enemy beats them at their own game.

British intelligence had learned of a pending IRA attack on a local police station in the town of Loughgal. When eight IRA gunmen from the East Tyrone Brigade–one of the most savage of IRA paramilitaries with much blood on its hands–sought to attack the local police station and murder its constables, a unit of British special forces lying in wait ambushed them, and shot all eight of them dead. From this point on, British special forces, operating in the shadows and often on the bare margins of legality, out-thought, out-fought, and out-generaled the IRA, and had so infiltrated their ranks that life became unsafe for them. More than anything else, it was this, and not the healing hands of George Mitchell, that brought Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to the negotiating table.

Hamas, of course, will not “come to the table” with Israel as Sinn Fein/IRA did with the Unionists in Northern Ireland to work toward a solution for peaceful coexistence, but any viable political solution that emerges from the current situation, will be shaped by the extent to which Hamas as a political organization is damaged or chastened by the current conflict.

It is therefore useful to remember that while the central dynamic of the conflict lies of course in Hamas’ refusal to countenance Israel’s existence, and their genocidal, lunatic objective to  “liberate Palestine” by violent Jihad, there is another dynamic at work here: the impunity of Hamas perpetual warmaking.

Hamas wages war because their absolute power over the lives of Gazans, control over their media and information, and lack of accountability all allow them to do so at their leisure, and to lie their people about how and why they are doing so.

Hamas also wages war repeatedly because they can do so with impunity. They emerge from each bloodletting with losses and damage to be sure, but the ceasefires that follow always give them the time and the space to repair damage, refit and replenish their arsenals, and thus prepare for the next round. While these wars inflict horrible sufferings on the people of Gaza, these sufferings are just another sword in Hamas’ armory to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world, and enhance their own victim status. Thus not only are there no consequences for defeat, but they gain reward in however badly they lose. In such a scenario, when there are no consequences for defeat, war not only becomes a perpetual temptation, it becomes an addiction.

Far from suffering any punishment so far that would dissuade them from any future violence or provocations, Hamas’ unrepentant  arrogance and intransigence are already reflected in the tough terms they are attaching to their consent for a ceasefire. If this conflict ends without any significant weakening of Hamas as a military and political organization, and a way to prevent them from replenishing their arsenal and war waging potential in the future, then both the Palestinians of Gaza and Israelis living in the south will both endlessly be held to ransom by Hamas’ ravenous and insatiable lust for blood and violent Jihad.

Let the UN, the European Union, and all those expressing concern for the welfare of the Palestinians in Gaza and excoriating Israel’s response to Hamas rockets be made perfectly aware of this. Their refusal to take concerted action to extract a penalty from Hamas for their endless war-waging has consequences. If they are troubled by this unsatisfactory state of affairs then  it is incumbent upon them either to explain why Hamas’ endless war on Israel and the consequences it inflicts upon the people of Gaza and the peace and stability of the region are acceptable, or to take action to do something about it.

If they will take no action, then Israel must wage nothing less than total war on Hamas.  Life must henceforth become dangerous to every Hamas leader and operative, and there must be, first and foremost, a thorough decimation of their leadership and any capacity for command and control, along with a crippling of their war-waging capacity to the greatest possible extent, and for however long it will take. Ultimately, this will mean a ground offensive to take control of all rocket launching sites and smuggling tunnels.

Cries of “disproportionate force” are already being bandied about, and will continue even if the campaign does not go to ground and were to stop this instant; the IDF, therefore, might as well as be thorough to whatever extent they were not four years ago. Iran, Hezbollah, Egypt and Turkey will not be crediting any misguided Israeli restraint or forbearance no matter what they do, and their inclination to bring pressure to bear on Hamas to desist in any adventurism in the future will depend much upon the heaviness of the blow that is landed. A steep penalty must be placed on the violation of Israel’s sovereignty and the murder of its  innocent civilians, and all must be made to know what it means to be Israel’s enemy, and never to forget it.

These are hard words, but deterrence is never cheaply bought.


Perhaps no nation has resorted to the use of force more reluctantly than Israel. The days leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967, the debates prior to the Entebbe raid, and so many others–every resort to force has seen extensive deliberation and furious debates followed by reluctantly taken, but decisively executed actions. David Ben Gurion literally agonised over the decision to take the offensive in April 1948, hoping that restraint would prevent a widening of the conflict, and encourage diplomacy. But Havlagah was paying diminishing returns. But sabotage of the convoys was increasing, the strangulation of the roadways and all arteries of communication between the scattered communities of the Yishuv were sharpening, the attendant shortages of basic commodities and weapons inside Jerusalem were growing, and the siege around the city was tightening. The Yishuv must either attack or die, and they chose to survive, rather than not to.

After some 7,000 starving British soldiers, along with some 4,000 civilians were butchered in cold blood in the Siege of Khartoum in 1885, Winston Churchill, later a young soldier serving as a subaltern in the war in the Sudan, reflected upon what happens when a liberal democracy like Britain was roused by the the mass murder of its subjects, and answers with stern retribution:

“No terms but fight or death were offered. No reparation or apology could be made. . . . The red light of retribution played on the bayonets and the lances, and civilization, elsewhere sympathetic, merciful, tolerant, ready to discuss or to argue, eager to avoid violence, to submit to law, to effect a compromise–here advanced with an expression of inexorable sternness, and rejecting all other courses, offered only the arbitration of the sword.”

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.