A Tactical Misstep: Has Israel Already Lost The Gaza War?

By unleashing mighty vengeance against Gaza, Netanyahu has proven that he has learned nothing from Israel’s history of unsuccessful wars

A Tactical Misstep: Has Israel Already Lost The Gaza War?

There is no doubt that the Israeli military knows how to win wars against conventional armies. It has shown that over and over again, beginning in 1948, the year of its creation, 1956 during the Suez Crisis, 1967 in the Six Day War, and 1973 in the 19-day Yom Kippur War.

Israel’s conventional military prowess is documented not only by Moshe Dayan in his memoirs but also in a neutral source like the International Encyclopedia of Military History by Dupuy and Dupuy.

But when it comes to fighting guerrilla wars, Israel has a poor track record. In 2006, it did not win the war in Lebanon, showing it had learned little from its incursions into Lebanon in 1982, where it also did not win, despite Ariel Sharon’s bluster.

When Hamas militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, they caught the Israeli military totally off guard. The Hamas attack exposed the failures of Israel’s intelligence services and its vaunted Iron Dome, but even more so of Netanyahu’s political strategy. By first bombarding and then invading Gaza, Israel has made the same mistake that its long-time ally, the US, has made not once, or twice but thrice. Once in Vietnam, then in Afghanistan and yet again in Iraq. The US, despite its overwhelming military superiority, lost all three wars despite appearing to win them in the first few months of the war. It won tactically only to be defeated strategically.

The North Vietnamese won the Vietnam war, the Taliban won the Afghan war which was ostensibly fought to decimate the terrorist network that had carried out the attacks of 9/11, and Iran, America’s arch enemy in the region, won the Iraq War without firing a shot. That war was fought on the false premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

In the post 9/11 period alone, the US spent $8 trillion on wars. These hard earned taxpayer dollars would have been better spent on housing the homeless, feeding and clothing the poor, treating disease, and attending to much more mundane problems such as fixing potholes in freeways and roads. In fighting these three major wars in Asia, the US lost thousands of its armed personnel, killed millions of opponents without mercy, pummeled and obliterated their civilian and military infrastructure, and in the end had nothing to show for it. The only beneficiary was the military-industrial complex. In his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower had warned Americans about the existence of this complex.

When it comes to fighting guerrilla wars, Israel has a poor track record. In 2006, it did not win the war in Lebanon, showing it had learned little from its incursions into Lebanon in 1982, where it also did not win, despite Ariel Sharon’s bluster

After the Vietnam War ended, a colonel of the US army visited a colonel of the Vietnamese army in Hanoi. He told his Vietnamese counterpart that they never defeated the US in battle. The Vietnamese answered, without a moment’s hesitation: “That may be true but it’s also irrelevant.” The US had won every battle only to lose the war.

The image of the last US helicopters flying off the top of the American embassy went viral throughout the globe even before the Internet was born. To drive home the point, as to who had won the war, and to really rub it in, the Vietnamese renamed Saigon after Ho Chi Minh, the archnemesis of the US.

By waging these wars, ostensibly to promote freedom and democracy, the US gave a boost to global anti-Americanism. Today, it’s the only country that’s not only standing by Israel’s side but also sending it arms and ammunitions as it continues to direct the slaughter of civilian Palestinians in Gaza.

Thus, having learned nothing from history, the US has lost the war of public opinion once again across the globe.

More than a hundred countries are calling for a ceasefire but the US continues to veto one UNSC resolution after another and by continuing to supply arms and ammunition to Israel. On Dec 12, 2023, the UNGA voted overwhelmingly for a ceasefire. 153 nations voted in favour, 10 voted against, and 23 abstained. The US and Israel were only able to garner support for their viewpoint from 8 countries, which included Papua New Guinea. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, long time allies of the US, broke ranks and voted in favour.

Two excellent critiques of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, and indirectly of the US support of Israel, have appeared in Foreign Affairs, an American publication which is arguably the most influential voice on foreign policy in the globe.

The first essay is by Audrey Kurth Cronin. She directs the Institute for Strategy and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and has authored a book titled, ‘How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns’.

She says that Hamas has won the war for public opinion. It cannot be defeated militarily, because of the asymmetric nature of guerilla warfare. “The best way for Israel to defeat Hamas, therefore, is to regain the moral high ground by moderating its use of force and offering more protection to Palestinian civilians… doing so is the only way Israel can cut off Hamas’s ability to draw support and incite further violence.”

Cronin says that Hamas is using a very basic weapon that weighs just 10 pounds, the AK-47 rifle, very effectively, as have most guerilla fighters since it was invented in 1947 by the Soviets. Hamas is also using its tunnels very effectively, she says, and adds that tunnels have been used throughout history by the weaker party against the stronger party. They were used very effectively by Jews against Romans in Judea [West Bank] in the first century and by the Vietcong against American troops in Vietnam.

She further says that “Israel could use massive bombs to destroy tunnels, but doing so would kill thousands more civilians in the process — winning the country only more international opprobrium and promoting Hamas’s narrative that the IDF deliberately slaughters innocent people. Even if the military operation were successful, the political cost would further isolate Israel and spur more people to take up arms against it.”

She counsels Israel to “counter Hamas’s political mobilization — that is, cut off its ability to attract attention, recruits, and allies.” But her essay stops short of addressing the underlying problem that gives oxygen to groups like Hamas. And that is Israel’s prolonged and brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. It captured Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank including the holy city of Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967.

Since then, Palestinians living in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza have been living a subjugated life. To add insult to injury, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have settled illegally in the West Bank and adopted a very aggressive attitude towards the Palestinians. In Gaza, Palestinians have been living in a stage of siege long before October 7. Unless those circumstances change, Israel will continue to see the rise of new guerilla groups.

The second article is written by Robert Pape, who directs the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats. Professor Pape is the author of a book titled,  ‘Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War.

He says that Israel’s sustained aerial bombardment of Gaza, which has killed thousands of Palestinians, and its decision to cut off virtually all water, food and electricity to 2.2 million Palestinians is, by any definition, “a massive act of collective punishment against civilians.” He wonders, as do many other analysts, whether this wrecking of Gaza, first in the north and now in the south is “a prelude to sending the territory’s entire population to Egypt, as proposed in a ‘concept paper’ produced by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry?”

Pape adds that even “in strategic terms, Israel’s approach is doomed to failure —and indeed, it is already failing. Israel would have been better off had it heeded these lessons and responded to the October 7 attack with surgical strikes against Hamas’s leaders and fighters in lieu of the indiscriminate bombing campaign it has chosen.”

Netanyahu has justified Israel's relentless bombardment of Gaza by citing an RAF strike which targeted the Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen and ended up killing scores of schoolchildren. Pape counters that by saying that between 1942-45, the Allied Forces destroyed 58 German cities, but they “never sapped civilian morale or prompted an uprising against Adolf Hitler, despite the confident predictions of Allied officials. Indeed, the campaign only encouraged Germans to fight harder for fear of a draconian postwar peace.”

During the Korean War, he says, the US “destroyed 90 percent of electricity generation in North Korea. In the Vietnam War, it knocked out nearly as much power in North Vietnam. And in the Gulf War, U.S. air attacks disrupted 90 percent of electricity generation in Iraq. But in none of these cases did the population rise up.”

Then comes the devastating conclusion: “Israel is almost certainly producing more terrorists than it is killing, since each dead civilian will have family and friends eager to join Hamas to exact revenge. Hamas has an advantage over Israeli forces: it can easily abandon a fight, blend into the civilian population, and live to fight again on more favorable terms. That is why a large-scale Israeli ground operation is also doomed to failure.”

After October 7, many other analysts and even President Biden cautioned Israel not to act emotionally by mounting an all-out invasion of Gaza because it would lead to massive civilian casualties. But Netanyahu had gone tone deaf. He did exactly what he was told not to do.

In Dubai for the COP28 summit, Kamala Harris, the US Vice President, asked Netanyahu to stop killing innocent children in Gaza. The more serious warning came from Lloyd Austin, the US Defense Secretary: "In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat." General Austin, as a four-star general, oversaw the battle against Islamic State militants.

If Israelis want to live a peaceful life, they will have to put an end to what can only be described as Palestinianphobia. They could accept them as equal human beings, reach out to them, and move toward either a two-state or a one-state solution.

These warnings from the US are a case of “too little, too late.” The man who had ruled Israel longer than anyone else, the man who was widely disliked in Israel prior to October 7, and the man who is facing criminal charges, is not thinking strategically. Soon after October 7, he boasted: “We will obliterate Hamas. We will triumph. It might take time, but we will end this war stronger than ever.”

He is deluding himself. So many analysts and scholars have told him that Hamas is an ideology, not just a group of fighters. He can’t eliminate Hamas unless he improves the living conditions of the Palestinians which, of course, is anathema to him.   

Here is the reality. His time in office, already past 16 years, is nearing an end and he knows it. The clock is ticking. In vain, he is seeking to prolong the war and with it, his political career. But the day is not too far away when he will no longer be in office.

The US is putting pressure on Israel to end the war. Here is what The Economist said: “It has been nine weeks since Israel began bombarding the Gaza Strip and six since it sent in ground forces. Some 18,000 Gazans, mostly civilians, have died. But Israel has so far failed to achieve its main objective of destroying the military capabilities of Hamas... It increasingly looks as though the Israeli Defence Forces have just weeks to finish the job before America, Israel’s vital ally, withdraws support for the offensive. Success looks unlikely.”

Biden is openly asking Netanyahu to stop the killing of civilians but the latter seems unmoved. He does want the Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza. Neither does he want a two-state solution. His defense minister views the Palestinians as “human animal,” unknowingly evoking memories of what the Jews were called by the Nazis: untermenschen.

The executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, Stefanie Fox, has penned a trenchant critique of Netanyahu’s rampage in Gaza in TIME magazine. To substantiate her assertion, she quotes from senior members of his cabinet and the military. The finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said, “We have to be cruel now and not to think too much about the hostages.” Major General Giora Eiland intends to “create conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable, a place where no human being can exist.” Security Cabinet Member Avi Dichter said, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” drawing a comparison to the Nakba of 1948 in which three-quarters of a million Palestinians were driven from their home.

She concludes that “Since the horrific attack on October 7th…the Israeli government has pursued a genocidal war, killing over 17,000 people in Gaza including over 7,000 children. By the end of October, the number of children killed had already surpassed the annual number of children killed across every other conflict zone in the world since 2019. With the full and complete backing of the U.S. government, the Israeli military has been bombing Gaza relentlessly — destroying homes, hospitals, refugee camps, water desalination plants, universities, and libraries… This war has already created generations of trauma.”

As many analysts have said, unless it changes its policies, Israel will give rise to a more dangerous breed of guerilla fighters than Hamas. For that, they will have to thank Netanyahu. To paraphrase Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, his decision to bombard and invade Gaza was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.

If Israelis want to live a peaceful life, they will have to put an end to what can only be described as Palestinianphobia. They could accept them as equal human beings, reach out to them, and move toward either a two-state or a one-state solution. The status quo is unstable and volatile. It has to change. But it won’t change unless Israel changes its colonial occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and its attitude toward Palestinians in general. 

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui