During Israel’s last major armed conflict with Hamas in 2014, Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli public was largely disappointed on account of the length of the hostilities between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The encounter, which lasted 50 days, was one of the longest conflicts in Israel’s military history. Though one might assume that this was owing to the opponents’ military parity, this was not the case.
During the conflict, Israel’s military was one of the strongest in the world. Israel aimed devastating strikes on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which killed over 1,000 enemy combatants, demolished most of Hamas’ tunnels, and destroyed Hamas’ operations bases embedded in civilian areas. However, despite the force of the Israeli military, Hamas still managed to fire rockets at the Israeli home front everyday. Additionally, Hamas not only attacked southern communities, but its guerrilla forces launched hit-and-run attacks on Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in both Gaza and southern Israel throughout the entire operation.
Israelis, even those born several years after the 1967 Six Day War, had different expectations for the IDF regarding the conflict. They expected Israel to move more swiftly to defeat its enemies. Some often presented the lightening victory achieved by Israel against three large and well-armed Arab armies, 50 years prior, as the standard that should have guided the IDF and the Israeli government in defeating Israel’s enemies during the later conflict. Domestic critics still refer to the Six Day War as setting the standard for military objectives, with the main goals of using overwhelming force and achieving a clear victory as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, such criticisms often overlook that in 1967, soon after Israel’s victory, the War of Attrition began between Israel and its enemies – Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). This war, initiated by Egypt, lasted three years and resulted in nearly 1,000 Israeli casualties as well as Arab casualties that were many times higher.
During the War of Attrition, artillery battles along the Suez Canal and limited cross-border commando incursions by Egypt against Israeli positions in the Sinai, developed into large-scale air battles. Battles at sea also raged. Additionally, Israel launched air strikes deep inside Egypt, and IDF commandos launched retaliation raids on Egyptian targets. The IDF was also faced with PLO guerrilla raids from Jordan.
Those using the Six Day War objective and the demand for “rapid Israeli victory” as the standard for the IDF’s military objectives, do not consider the War of Attrition, as it does not fit their model of a swift and almost immediate victory.
The reality of Israel’s past victories, however, is that Israel has never achieved a complete victory over its enemies, as this can solely be accomplished by complete destruction of the countries that they come from. Despite this, Israel has always succeeded in causing its enemies adequate damage, breaking waves of conflict, with periods of low intensity between Israel and its enemies and even interludes of truce. In fact, the damage incurred by Israel’s enemies has given them pause and removed their desire to continue attacking Israel. However, Israel’s enemies have continued to rebuild and rearm, always preparing for the next round of conflict. This pattern has held true in the modern era of non-state actor enemies, or sub-state actors. For example, Israel’s conflicts with Hezbollah and Hamas have not resulted in complete destruction of these jihadist armies, but they have caused sufficient damage, causing them to hold fire for years.
Notwithstanding all of the foregoing, it is foreseeable that the next war with Hezbollah or Hamas could have the IDF return to the goal of a Six Day War type of victory. In a day where jihadist forces are focused on targeting Israel’s soft underbelly, specifically the home front, with rockets and missiles, the idea of future wars being protracted for several weeks or months is becoming untenable. Accordingly, the objective of a quick and firm victory, using overwhelming force, has now revived.
The added twist here is that Israel is more focused than ever on completely destroying its enemies. This is primarily due to major increases in the Israel Air Force’s target destruction rate, in addition to the advances in Israel’s ground offensive capabilities, making Israeli armored formations an unstoppable force in the Middle East.
These characteristics, combined with the revolutionary developments in network-centric warfare and Israel’s unrivaled intelligence capabilities, gives modern Israel the immediate option of completely destroying an enemy, such as Hezbollah, and eliminating it as a fighting force for many years to come. For instance, in such a scenario, Lebanon, as a weak state that hosts Hezbollah, would suffer greatly, and could itself become a failed state.
The associated question that arises is whether the Israeli government itself would order the IDF to carry out a Six Day War type of objective when fighting future conflicts. This will ultimately be influenced by how much the Israeli home front is being threatened at the time. Essentially, for the Israeli government to pursue such an objective, Hezbollah’s enormous surface-to-surface rocket and missile arsenal would have to place Israeli cities, towns, and villages under a threat that has never before been seen. Additionally, the outcry and pressure from Israeli citizens would likely be large enough to leave the government with little or no choice but to activate the IDF’s fullest offensive capabilities. Another motive for Israel to achieve quick victories would be the time limit that the United States might impose on such a destructive war.
Currently, Israel’s growing capabilities and power contribute to consistent deterrence to its enemies from creating open conflict. The best scenario is for all sides to continue to avoid the horrors of war for as long as possible. However, if Israel is forced to defend itself against belligerent Islamic states and groups, the Six Day War standard may shape Israel’s future war objectives, likely ensuring that a second War of Attrition does not take place.
Edited by Bahar D. Simani
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.