Carol Cieri
One Lady, Three Continents, Many Ideas

The Great Mistake: Why Israel Is Fighting a Total War against Hamas

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More than 200 rockets later, we are back at square one. After a covert operation in the Gaza Strip last Thursday, in which one Israeli soldier and seven Palestinians lost their lives, Hamas targeted the south of Israel with hundreds of rockets in the past few days. An exceptional event even for Israeli standards, given that it comprised the largest ever single-day barrage in the history of the conflict, the overall situation is hardly new for anyone who knows the dynamics in the Middle East. Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, is but the most recent example of an Israeli operation conducted in the Strip because of rocket launches. What is staggering is the uncharacteristic international silence on the matter – no major international media outlet gave significant space to the most violent rocket attack on Israel since the establishment of the State. Interestingly, the ones who reported the issue considered it the logical response of Hamas to the Israeli operation last week. Nonetheless, no one grasped with the sheer violation of basic principles of international law (proportionality and distinction, to name just a few) of the organization’s response to Israel. Although no one praised Hamas, the loud silence failed to condemn. It would be easy to cry anti-Zionism and double standards in acknowledging responses, but it would hardly be beneficial to any informed political debate. The true question that one must ask is why, when Israel conducts limited operations to further their national security, the death of a few is so disparaged, while the launch of hundreds of rockets into a sovereign nation is considered an appropriate, or at least understandable, response.

What the argument will be here is that the international understanding of the nature of the conflict informs audiences to consider it an existential (or total) war for Hamas, and a non-existential (or limited) war for Israel. The cognitive implications of this distinction lay at the foundations of the international acceptance of Hamas response over Israel’s. Far from being a distinction particular to the Israeli-Gazan dynamic, such division of roles in a wartime situation is typical of every asymmetric conflict – namely, hostilities between an internationally recognized government, and a guerrilla or non-recognized group seeking political outcomes. The greatest difference between symmetric and asymmetric conflict is the fact that in the former case the survival of both entities is at stake, both entities have a powerful purpose to defend, i.e. the survival of their country and their way of life. Moreover, the use of force is not constrained, as all national resources are mobilized towards survival. In the popular image, symmetric conflicts evoke the grand battles of both World Wars.

Differently, in asymmetric warfare, only the survival of the weaker side (i.e. the insurgent, guerrilla, or other forms it may assume) is at stake. That is to say, the insurgents do not pose a threat to the survival of the established government. The military consequences of such an approach are clear – the government forces do not need to be fully mobilized to protect their citizens because they hold the upper hand in military might, while the insurgent is waging a total war between the boundaries of the territory it controls precisely because its survival is at risk at any given time. To summarize, in symmetric warfare both sides are fighting a total war of survival, while in asymmetric warfare only the insurgent is, for the government is fighting a limited war. The full mobilization required by total wars is neither politically feasible nor militarily necessary for the government in the case of asymmetric warfare.

Now let us turn to the Israeli-Gazan situation. For anyone who takes a peek inside this conflict, a dilemma arises: Israel is by far militarily stronger than Hamas, its population is bigger, and it has far greater resources. Hamas, on the other hand, is a non-recognized government in an economically devastated territory, trying to control a relatively small population. Gives these parameters only, we are clearly faced with asymmetric warfare. The international community, or at least a staggering number of states within it, agree with this opinion. Because of the military disparity between the contenders, the Israeli ability to defend itself from rockets through the Iron Dome technology, and the high resilience of the Israeli people as they have demonstrated throughout the history of the State, Israel is the ‘government’ and Hamas is the ‘insurgent’, in an asymmetric situation. The implications of these assumptions are as follows: Israel should be wary when targeting Hamas posts in the Gaza strip and the only ‘politically correct’ operations are low-intensity ones, with a civilian casualty rate close to zero, and no employment of ground forces. Restraint is the word du jour. Moreover, because the war is ‘limited’ on the Israeli side, the political focus of the country should be directed elsewhere, while the conflict takes only a second place in making executive and legislative decisions. On the other hand, Hamas, as the weaker side in the conflict, is somewhat allowed to wage a ‘total’ war because of their limited resources. They employ whatever means is at their disposal, not to be otherwise subject to occupation. Such is the logic of asymmetric conflict. It is then little of a surprise that the international community is more prone to allow the weaker side to disproportionately react, because of the power imbalance. As Andrew Mack stated, “the asymmetry in conventional military power bestows an underdog status on the insurgent side, the morality of the war is more easily questioned”.

Although this analysis is sound at a first glance, the matter at hand is indeed more complicated. Two points are worth mentioning to the symmetry of the conflict: the first being that both Israel and Hamas are fighting a war of survival, hence the perceived asymmetry is true solely with regards to the military imbalance between the sides; the latter is that the international community cannot have the cake and eat it too – either they bestow ‘insurgent status’ on Hamas, and declare the asymmetry of the conflict together with the moral consequences of such an assertion, or they recognize the Palestinians as a nation and qualify the war as an inter-state (i.e. ‘symmetric’) conflict.

As to the first point, the matter of military inequality, and the diverse modi operandi used by the two sides are understandable, given each side’s social and economic conditions. The asymmetry of the conflict has little to do with military might and more to do with the risks posed by the other on one’s survival. Given the extent of their effort to amass firing capabilities, the employment of terrorism within and without Israeli borders, the tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory, and the manifested will to bring about the destruction of the Jewish State, Hamas does, by all means, pose an existential threat to Israeli security. It is not a matter open to discussion that in their own Covenant Hamas calls for armed resistance to end the occupation of Palestine. The result, inherently, would be the end of the State of Israel. Conrad C. Crane was quoted as saying that “there are two kinds of warfare, asymmetric and stupid” – in no conflict will the two or more contenders have the same capabilities and, being rational, they will exploit what is at their disposal. Therefore, it is logical for Hamas to employ the full extent of their firing capability to defend their interest, but it is equally logical for Israel to defend its population through the vast employment of their military might. The superiority of one over the other by no means disqualifies their use. A similar argument could be made about the 1991 Gulf War: the US intervention in defense of Kuwait tipped the balance of power against Iraq because of the poor conditions of the Iraqi military. By joining the war, the United States employed a vastly superior military against a poorly equipped enemy. No one questioned the morality of such an effort, although by no means did Iraq threaten the existence of the US. It follows logically that the superiority of an army over another, may it be in existential or limited wars, is not a ground to disqualify the employment of such an army. If that proves to be the case, a deep re-thinking of modern history is required.

The second point is in reference to the root causes of the symmetry of the conflict. Hamas rose to power in the Gaza Strip in 2006, after Israel had unilaterally disengaged from the region. Regardless of the Israeli diplomatic efforts to prevent both the governments in Ramallah and in Gaza City from claiming statehood, by no means has the international community been receptive of the Israeli plight. If we wish to see the Palestinians as a nation, and if we acknowledge the validity of the 2006/7 elections in the Palestinian territories, there is little evidence of Hamas to be considered an ‘insurgent’. They rule over a defined territory, they have control over the paramilitary structures in the area, and provide all sorts of social services to the population. The international lack of recognition of Hamas as a legitimate government stems primarily from their accepted status as a terrorist organization by key players such as the United States or the European Union, rather than their lack of governmental structure or legitimacy. Continuing on historical comparisons, Hamas has a clearer legal status to rule over Gaza than, say, Kim Jong Un has over North Korea – Hamas won elections, as rigged as we can declare them to have been. And again, rigged elections do not prevent us from recognizing the legitimacy of world leaders in illiberal democracies. Therefore, the second qualification of an ‘asymmetric’ conflict again is lacking: Hamas is not an insurgent, but a governmental force ruling over a territory as much as Israel is. Far from recognizing their right to claim international recognition in this article, notwithstanding the international community should decide whether they recognize Palestinian statehood or their status as an insurgent, and be willing to accept the necessary consequences. Clearly, there is an argument to be made to consider the Israeli-Gazan conflict as a symmetric war between two equal entities fighting for survival.

To conclude, in light of the aforementioned reasons for the lack of qualifications to define the situation between Israel and Hamas as an asymmetric conflict, we are equally faced with the need to acknowledge the right, at least moral, to weigh the actions by both sides on the same scale. Because of survival being the issue at stake for both parties, the international community can hardly judge Hamas’ rocket launches as a way to defend itself during an asymmetric conflict. On the contrary, Israel is then allowed to employ the required extent of their defense services as much as Hamas is expected to use their firing power. The asymmetry in the conflict is only a façade, skillfully employed by public policy experts on the weaker side, to skew the moral compass of observers. All things considered, no one is more allowed to protect its survival more than another.

About the Author
Carol Cieri is an MA candidate in the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. Her academic interests focus on the challenges posed by terrorism, both domestically and abroad, and the international implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict. She earned her BA from IDC Herzliya in July 2018, majoring in Counterterrorism and Middle East.
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