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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel's Achilles' Heel

Again Israel is fighting. The Gaza operation, which started five days ago, is still ongoing and two questions are being asked today: whether ground forces will enter Gaza, and whether a temporary truce should be considered. Both questions are a reflection of another, unspoken question: how many soldier casualties will this operation cause?

Fear of casualties in war is Israel's Achilles' heel. The process started in the first Lebanon war in 1982, or rather during the prolonged presence of Israeli troops in Lebanon after that war (Israel withdrew from Lebanon only in 2000). The continuous toll of casualties in Lebanon gave rise to various protest movements, most notably "Four Mothers". This decades-long process brought about a paradoxical shift in the attitude towards war casualties: we fear more the death of a soldier than the death of a civilian.

This is a paradox because the primary role of the army, in any democratic society, is to protect the civilian population. A soldier is supposed to risk his or her life in order to avoid casualties to civilians. And yet most Israelis will be more tolerant of civilian casulaties than of military ones. Not one soldier has lost his life in the past five days, but several civilians died as a result of the Hamas rockets fired indiscriminately into Israeli cities. There is not one word of protest against this situation.

The expected toll of soldier casualties is the hidden barometer by which decision makers operate here, in both the government and the IDF, although few will admit it. The Winograd commission, set up after the second Lebanon war, pointed this out very clearly. Our enemies know by now that Israel is unwilling to risk the lifes of its soldiers in order to protect itself. It will fight mostly from the air or using technological means, thus minimising the risk of casualties. This respect for life is very commendable on one hand, but in the long run it works against the interests of Israel. No country, especially one that is threatened on a daily basis by its neighbours, can survive if it is not willing to use its army to protect itself.

This is not saying anything about the current operation, about which I have mixed feelings. It is a general comment on our warped national psyche.

2 comments:

backstop said...

Absolutely right.

The IDF, unlike almost all other military or paramilitary forces, has almost no tolerance for "acceptable losses".

It would reasonable to assume that in a ground operation the IDF could probably take out 5,000 -10,000 Hamas fighters, somewhere between 20 - 50% of its estimated strength. However, it would also lose at least 1,000 soldiers (maybe more), not even 1% of its fighting strength. It should also be factored in that 10,000 - 20,000 civilians would probably get caught in the crossfire or go down as "human shields" before the Hamas gunmen.

The questions are whether the cost is worth it and is Israel willing to pay. If any other government was dealing with this situation there would not be this manner of serious consideration and debate. The armies would have mobilized and the blood would have flowed. The US staged a semblance of a debate before barbequeing Iraq. The Russians had no qualms levelling Chechnya and Georgia. Israel struggles with these issues.

Ordinarily, a military scenario as described above, where one side loses 20-50% of its fighting force and the other, only 1-2%, would constitute a devastating defeat for the former side and a crushing victory for the latter. However, in the optics of the Middle East it is the opposite. Once the IDF withdraws it would be considered an unqualified Hamas victory.

There is an alternative to a ground assault. Simply seal off Gaza, i.e. don't allow anything in. Shut down the electricity in total. Stop the deliveries of food, fuel and "humanitarian" supplies in total. Continue to bomb the tunnels. If one is conducting a siege the objective is to starve or otherwise weaken the beseiged party so it cannot continue to fight effectively.

Eventually this will cause a general breakdown of sanitation and health. It won't matter if they have guns and rockets if they are too diseased to use them.

All the while Israel addresses Gazans to tell them that these things can be restored when certain things happen:

1. Hamas amends its charter to recognize the validity of the State of Israel.

2. Hamas and all other groups destroys their weapons and commits to peaceful coexistence.

3. Gilad Shalit is returned alive.

When all three (not just one or two) are done the power gets restored and the food and supplies start returning. The third is especially important. If Shalit is no longer alive they can starve in the dark with no heat.

Is this harsh? Certainly. Inhumane? Without doubt. Potentially effective? Probably.

The pictures from Gaza certainly display a war zone but nobody appears to be in rags. Nobody looks emaciated or anything other than reasonably fed. Nobody looks diseased. People are not dying of malnutrition, diarhea, dysentery or cholera. They may be on tight rations but there are still rations. Israel is feeding its enemy.

Why should Israel sacrifice its own people just to contribute to what will be a victory for Hamas? Make Gazans deal with Hamas themselves.

Bombing is not very effective and invasion is even less so. Starvation, however, almost always works.

mnuez said...

I agree with backstop. Jewish law has it that we don't allow any single named individual to be killed in order to save everyone else. Regardless of how various rabbinic sources might interpret that law, my own take is that it would apply to Gilad and any other Jew taken captive by Nazi-like captors. We must it clearly known to all and sundry that the Jewish people will rise up like the most maniacal monster this earth has ever seen if any of our children are potentially subject to the sorts of tortures described in Hameiri's Prisoners of Hate. After the Nazis we've decided that we're no longer tolerant and that we err on the side of indiscriminate violence against those who seek to kill our family members.

I would make no threat that we wouldn't actually carry out should the need arise but I would make the promissory nature of these threats so crystal clear that none ever would need to be carried out.

In my opinion the biggest problem that we Jews face is that no one speaks for us. Our political leaders are careerist vulgarites while our rabbinic leaders are full of emunot tfeilot in ridiculous things. Woe unto a nirdaf people whom such is their lot.