To use an analogy from military terminology, Dr. Samy Cohen has walked into a minefield. What’s more, he has done so knowing full well where he is headed. Cohen, a political scientist at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies and a former officer in the Golani Brigade Reconnaissance Unit, has chosen to take on the Israeli military-political establishment, charging it with having adopted a monolithic, often brutal, mind-set in its approach to asymmetric warfare, preferring a doctrine of “disproportionate response” to “minimum force,” and failing to adopt the lessons he says were learned by the former colonial powers in their struggles against insurgencies and terrorism.
Cohen, 66, was born into a French-speaking family that was expelled from Egypt after the 1956 Suez War and left for France. The following year he made aliya on his own, studying at an agricultural school and then spending six years in Golani, rising to captain before deciding to study political science in France, where he would marry and settle.
Initially, Cohen’s work steered away from Israel, focusing instead on French security and foreign policy. “For 20 years after my PhD I decided not to work on Israel,” says Cohen, who was here last week to lecture at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). “I felt too passionate and was afraid to be either too critical or too kind in my research. But in 2004, following the second intifada, I started to ask myself all kinds of questions about how the army is behaving in the territories. Why was there so much violence? I was struck by the images I saw on television. When I was a soldier, when I was an officer, we had very accurate instructions to be very careful with civilians. I was brought up with these ideas of ‘purity of arms’.
“So I decided to research what is happening here, and I saw that the kind of war Israel was fighting was not the kind of war I knew when I was young. It is a kind of war called asymmetric war, which is a psychological war between a strong party, an army, and a weak party, armed groups. These weak parties try to push the strong party to shoot at civilians, because if the strong party shoots at civilians they can show that the strong party is not moral. They try to change the balance of power between the strong and the weak, to weaken the strong by these kinds of means.
“So in asymmetric war, what is important is the media and public opinion, both domestic and international, and the aim is to try to provoke attacks on civilians and destabilize the strong. I tried to see if the IDF has understood this trap. I looked at how the IDF is waging this kind of war, does it have a strategy for this kind of war, which has to be different from classical war between two armies.”
COHEN’S CONCLUSION – which he wrote up into a book published in September titled Israel’s Asymmetric Wars
– from his review of Israel’s conflicts with non-state actors from the fedayeen
of the 1950s through to first and second intifadas, the Lebanon wars and Operation Cast Lead, is that it has almost unfailingly fallen headfirst into that trap.
From the days of Moshe Dayan’s policy of reprisals, military thinking has always been one of overwhelming response, says Cohen. The IDF, he adds, has failed to formulate a strategy for that kind of warfare. It has not tried to win hearts and minds, it has not tried to disassociate the civilian population from the combatants. “In asymmetric warfare,” he says, “the most crucial aim is not the combatants, but the population; you have to get them on your side.”
Shaking his head and calling it a “sad story,” he says Israeli policy has constantly led to the emergence of forces more radical than those that existed previously – Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Israel, he continues, has also failed to understand another aspect of asymmetric warfare, that international opinion has to be taken into consideration, that it will not tolerate massive civilian casualties.
“‘Minimum force,’” he says, “means that you have to launch operations not only to separate between the population and combatants, but there is another reason – international public opinion, because international public opinion has changed since World War II. During World War II everybody accepted the bombing of cities in Germany and Japan, but that was general war. Since then the values in Western countries have changed completely. The media are much more present than in the past. Public opinion is very sensitive to civilian casualties. So Israel has to take into consideration that international public opinion is sensitive to this subject.”
ISRAEL, SAYS COHEN, cannot afford to just dismiss criticism as an expression of anti-Semitism. “No, that’s not true,” he says, “because Israel was very popular for years after World War II. After the Six Day War there was huge support for Israel. Political and military leaders have to take into consideration that they don’t live in a bubble. An authoritarian regime can say, ‘I don’t care about anyone else.’ A democracy needs the support of other countries and needs to take into consideration these kinds of sensitivities. So minimum force does have logic.”
While Israelis like to say that Western countries deploy a double standard in their criticism, given their own involvement in asymmetric conflicts, Cohen is adamant that the Western powers have learned the lesson of their colonial struggles. “I have looked at the French army’s operation manuals and they are very aware of the fact that they have to be very cautious when they are operating in civilian areas,” he says. “The French army is operating in several areas and it is very cautious about using force in civilian areas. They have learned from the experience of the Algerian war and they know that it is counterproductive to harm civilians. This is a lesson also learned by the Americans in Iraq under Gen. [David H.] Petraeus, who understood they are waging another kind of war, that you cannot behave in the way the Americans did at the beginning of the war. So there is a very strong sensitivity to this problem, although nothing is perfect.”
Asked to comment on statements made after Operation Cast Lead by Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, that “the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare,” Cohen smiles and asks: “Can’t you teach Hamas a lesson without killing hundreds of civilians? Sometimes people ask me, ‘What would you suggest?’ I say, is the answer either to do nothing or to kill hundreds of civilians? Are there no other options other than the two extremes that can give the same effect without killing hundreds of civilians?”
Cohen points a finger at the political establishment, which, he says, wanted a very harsh response to restore deterrence after the Second Lebanon War and to restore national honor. “In this kind of war,” he says, “the political level has a very strong responsibility. It has to state where the limits lie because it’s not just a conventional war between two armies. The consequences in the world can be so huge that they have to control this kind of operation very tightly.... The prime minister and the political level should say, ‘Be cautious, otherwise we will have huge political protests around the world.’ ... In an an asymmetric war you don’t have to be the most powerful party, you have to be smartest.”
The concept of minimum force is not one that is readily received by Israel, says Cohen, or even one that officials and generals are open to discuss.
“At my presentation at the INSS, one of the officers there said there is only one way of waging war: ‘When you go to war, go to war with all your force.’ I replied, ‘You are right, but not in this kind of war when there are civilians, otherwise you will suffer from your decision. So try to be wise, to reach security without weakening your strategic position in the world, try to find the balance.’”
COHEN IDENTIFIES an obsession of Israeli strategists and society with
deterrence, an obsession that he puts down to cultural causes. “I agree
that deterrence is very important; Israel is a very small country and it
must have deterrence, but that cannot be the only strategic aim of a
country,” he says. “There is also an international dimension that has to
be taken into consideration. Israel doesn’t do that. I think that it’s a
cultural phenomenon. The Israeli people feel threatened; they think
that if they don’t respond harshly it won’t be a good response. Since
the beginning of the state they have felt they need to respond
disproportionately, to achieve deterrence.”
While Cohen understands that feeling of being threatened, he diagnoses a
split personality that wavers between self-perceptions of strength and
“The Israeli leaders say, ‘We are a weak country; we cannot use minimum
force. This is for powerful countries like the United States; we cannot
afford to use this kind of strategy.’ But at the same time they say, ‘We
are the stronger party; we will show them.’ So you have a sort of split
personality, they feel very weak and very strong.
“It’s a way of thinking that comes from a fear of another Holocaust, and
I think it’s very difficult to change. But I think people here need to
be aware that we make mistakes – and I say ‘we’ because I am Israeli –
and that you have to be wiser.... Protect yourself, of course you have
the right, but do it differently. You have to defend your population,
but do it wisely.”