The world’s most prolific military analyst, CSIS’ Anthony Cordesman, recently returned from a fact finding trip to Israel where he met with senior Israeli defense officials and weighs in with his signature data heavy analysis lessons on learned from the first major battle between Israel and Hamas. He says the just concluded fighting provides a “case study” of the IDF’s “impressive” improvements since its strategic and tactical bungling of the 2006 war in South Lebanon and the complexities of asymmetric warfare between states and non-state armed groups.
On the reasons the war began, Cordesman says Hamas’ acquisition of quantities of long-range Grad (18 miles) rockets from Iran may have played a part in its decision to escalate the not very peaceful “ceasefire” that was in place by targeting Israeli cities previously out of range. Hamas clearly misread Israeli intentions and capabilities in not anticipating a sharp response. He asked senior Israeli officers if they had planned at the outset to destroy Hamas, and they all replied no, that the campaign was always intended as an in-and-out raid, not a prolonged stay. Cordesman concludes that neither side had any real endgame in mind when the fighting started, he says, both sides “escalated to nowhere.”
Beyond the rockets and mortars, Hamas had no real combat power or options against the IDF other than relying on civilians as human shields, hoping the Gaza Strip’s “population density” would serve as both deterrent and defense. They were wrong on both accounts. Israel’s response was an attack designed to cause “maximum damage in a minimum amount of time.” Once that decision was made, civilian casualties were inevitable.
He estimates Hamas numbered between 6,000-10,000, and was armed mostly with small arms. They had some SA-7 air defense missiles and RPG-29 anti-armor missiles, and of course, lots of unguided rockets. In Gaza’s urban maze, Hamas fighters prepared a “spider web” of strong points ringed with booby traps, IEDs and connected by tunnels. Most engagements between the IDF and Hamas revolved around such strong points.
The IDF had greatly stepped up training, particularly air to ground coordination, and restructured its command for irregular warfare. It took cell phones away from its troops, as Hezbollah had listened in on IDF phone conversations. Over several years, the IDF had amassed a “remarkably accurate” picture of 603 major Hamas targets in Gaza, using primarily Humint. As the campaign went on, the IDF began to lose Humint as Hamas hunted down informants. The IDF made extensive use of aerial drones and orbiting targeting aircraft that allowed very accurate re-strikes. Israeli jets dropped lots of 10-20 kilogram bombs as warning shots, referred to as “knocking on the roof.” Still, with the skies above Gaza filled with electronic eyes, the fog of war persisted, leading to “significant numbers” of misidentified targets.
Israel’s air strikes were very effective, Cordesman says, one officer “went so far as to say that the IAF began its attacks at 11:30 and could have ended them at 11:40.” Another officer said all 603 vital targets, such as tunnels and offices, were hit within the first 3-4 days. While Cordesman says “immense damage” was done to Hamas infrastructure, senor Israeli officials said Hamas remained “largely intact,” and the air campaign killed at most several hundred fighters.
The ground part of the campaign was managed by IDF Southern Command, instead of being conducted from central command in Tel Aviv, an arrangement that caused serious problems in 2006. The actual fighting was limited to three brigade equivalents, with commanders given the freedom to adapt to conditions as they saw fit. Cordesman cites a number of “newly developed” IDF tactics and techniques:
• The IDF used night warfare for most combat operations because Hamas did not have the technology or training to fight at night.
• Heavy use was made of infantry to penetrate a given area rather than relying on exposed heavy armor.
• More advanced digital systems were available at every major level of combat, as well as better access to intelligence, including UAVs and other imagery, SIGINT, and COMINT.
• IDF forces did not use predictable routes during the combat approach phase. They used techniques like armored bulldozers to smash their way through building and bypass Hamas booby traps, IEDs, and ambush points.
• Operations maneuvered quickly, without prolonged rests or stationary positions. The IDF quickly learned that Hamas, like the Hezbollah in 2006, were slow to move and react and create new ambush and concentration points.
• Where possible, IDF forces remained away from narrow areas and tight zones of fire of the kind that could aid Hamas. The IDF was aided by the fact Hamas did not have – or did not use – significant numbers of anti-aircraft missiles or anti-tank guided weapons, although it seems to have used some advanced rocket propelled grenades like the RPG-29
• IDF forces attempted to use quick rapier thrusts designed to achieve a given effective or effect, rather than prolonged thrusts with predictable lines of advance and targets.
• Israel used its Tsefa mine clearing system, a rocket-launched chain of small charges designed to breach minefields and to clear the narrow roads through Gaza.
Hamas was losing around 50 fighters a day during the ground incursion, and perhaps 600 killed by the end of the fighting. Despite Hamas’ heavy casualties, Cordesman says no Israeli expert believes Hamas was crippled. Estimates put civilian Palestinian casualties at around 1,200 dead and over 5,000 wounded. Cordesman says the IDF’s decision to use “decisive force” in Gaza’s congested urban terrain meant any fighting would cause high civilian casualties.
“War is inherently horrible. Given the nature of the fighting, there is no evidence that Israel made more mistakes than NATO did in Kosovo or that the US and its allies made in dealing with targets in populated areas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tempo and pace of modern war virtually ensure such mistakes, and when they are made in populated areas, they will kill civilians. TV images of precision weapons going straight to the right target are good television, but real war is far from perfect.”
“The very nature of asymmetric warfare often forces the weaker size to maximize this uncertainty by not wearing uniforms, mixing in civilian areas, and using collocated civilians – often women and children – to provide support. This is no more an act of cowardice than using the protection of a tank or aircraft, but it does mean that war is evolving in ways that often increase the risk of civilian casualties.”
The broader impact of the war remains uncertain, Cordesman says, as the fighting ended without a clear result, and because of the high civilian toll, Israel lost the “war of perceptions.” He concludes that the war must be considered a strategic failure for Israel and will likely result in a decrease in Israeli security over the long term. “Any war which ends with both sides able to claim victory, without clear guarantees of a defined outcome, and leaving many of the conditions that led to the conflict as they were before it began is scarcely a decisive victory.”