Can semi-state terrorist enemies like Hamas and Hezbollah be effectively deterred? This question is at the heart of a central debate raging inside Israel’s defense establishment.
The answers that defense chiefs come up with will affect the security of every Israeli.
The concept of deterrence has played a key role in defining how Israel’s wars have been fought, and it is shaping the way the IDF seeks to deal with the chaotic in surrounding countries.
The region is filled with extremist, heavily armed semi-state entities that point tens of thousands of projectiles at Israel; they maintain hierarchical, highly trained hybrid guerrilla-terrorist armies.
Meanwhile, radical Sunni and Shi’ite players are rising up in Syria and Iraq.
This week, former IDF deputy chief of staff Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yair Naveh, who was a front-runner to become chief of staff in recent months, shared his vision of what Israeli deterrence should look like in 2015.
“When you analyze the fundamental interests of semi-state terror organizations, these are not like the interests of normal governments, which seek their people’s welfare,” he told The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv on Monday.
Israel’s enemies care only for their own physical survival. Hence, to deter Hamas and Hezbollah from attacking Israel, Jerusalem has to make it clear it is prepared to target their leadership, their senior command level, and to systematically eliminate their military capabilities, he argued.
If deterrence breaks down, Israel can influence the conduct of its enemies by proceeding to take precisely those steps.
There are differences between Hamas and Hezbollah, Naveh pointed out. “Hezbollah is more obligated to the Shi’ite population in southern Lebanon than Hamas is to the Palestinian population in Gaza. At the same time, when the test comes all of that falls by the wayside, and Hezbollah is left with its core interests: survivability and self-defense.”
Naveh, choosing his words carefully, referred to Israel’s 50-day conflict with Hamas last summer, and said, “Without accusing anyone, there was a leak from the cabinet that said Israel had no desire to defeat Hamas. My claim is logical and practical: If you tell someone you will not threaten his survival, from that moment he has no fear for the future and no restraint regarding a direct conflict. It is like sounding the all-clear.”
In the summer conflict, Naveh continued, Hamas’s goals were not military in nature. “It didn’t play on the military field. Hamas wanted to force Egypt to be a part of the issue [to ease conditions for the isolated Gazan regime] – and if not Egypt, then Qatar and others. They wanted borders with Gaza to open, and to renew relations with Egypt. That was the game it played.
“The moment Hamas’s survival was not under threat, it was not concerned with how many casualties it sustained, or how many it inflicted on us. Its only aim was to reach its goals.”
The long duration of Operation Protective Edge stemmed from Hamas’s understanding that its survival was not at stake, he stressed.
“Hamas’s people were not worried that Israel would carry out operations that were scathing in scope. Hamas prepared for the long haul,” he added, noting Hamas’s cynical exploitation of Gaza’s civilians as human shields.
Ultimately, Naveh said, factors that led Hamas to agree to a truce included reaching a critically low supply of rockets, and the solving of an internal feud between Hamas in Gaza and Khaled Mashaal, head of the organization’s overseas branch.
For most of the summer, Israel’s military actions did not seem to feature very highly as a conflict-ending factor.
Naveh distinguished between different breakdowns in deterrence. Sometimes localized escalations, such as the one that occurred between Hezbollah and Israel in January, can break out without triggering a collapse in Israel’s deterrence.
Hezbollah blamed Israel for an air strike in Syria targeting its operatives and Iranian officials, and responded with a missile strike on IDF vehicles in the North that killed two IDF soldiers.
“Something local can occur within the context of the rules of the game. Hezbollah felt it had to respond to the killing of [senior member Imad] Mughniyeh’s son [Jihad Mughniyeh, killed in the January air strike]. On the other hand, it did not want to miscalculate and reach a full clash. It did not fire Katyusha rockets on Haifa and Hadera; it limited the incidents to the front.
“Here, both sides danced a precarious ballet on a floor littered with shreds of glass.
Each side tried to assess the conduct of the other side, and not to stray from the rules,” clarified the major-general.
A second type of escalation results from a miscalculation, which sets off a string of attacks and counter-attacks, leading to all-out war.
A third form can come when one of Israel’s enemies plans to escalate the situation.
According to Naveh, Hamas did just this in July, when it fired barrages of rockets at Beersheba and Ashdod. Hamas did not intend to enter a full-scale clash, but did seek to cause the situation to deteriorate, and rode on the back of support for its actions among the Gazan population.
“You don’t start firing on Ashdod and Beersheba on day one and hit Tel Aviv soon afterwards, and then call it a miscalculation,” insisted Naveh.
“My claim is that Hamas planned an escalation.
Not a war, but an escalation. They prepared forces and resources; they dug tunnels and created special forces. They didn’t know where things would go.”
Seeking to ascertain the intentions of semi-state enemies is a mammoth task for Israel’s intelligence community, Naveh asserted. “In the past, we had to know what was going on in the head of the leader, say the Syrian president. Today, the systems on the other side are not monolithic. You have their people on the ground saying one thing and their spokesman saying another, and you have understand where things are going. The mission is harder, but that’s the challenge.”
IDF Military Intelligence is restructuring itself and making many changes to meet that task, he added.
Naveh said that destroying Hamas or Hezbollah’s military assets does not necessarily mean an end to their rule. “Look at the Palestinian Authority. They have no army; they maintain a police force that works effectively, and they rule. There is a dichotomous view that says either Hamas’s military wing rules Gaza, or we do.
“But there is a middle alternative. Hamas’s civilian bodies can rule Gaza; a weakened Hamas can rule. Finishing Hamas militarily does not automatically lead to its collapse.
Hezbollah and Hamas have to understand that the survival of their military wings is under threat, including their senior leaders.
My claim is that if they do not know this, our entire deterrence becomes redundant.”
Such a formula, Naveh said, could boost Israeli deterrence to such a high degree that if Iran were to order Hezbollah to attack Israel, Hezbollah would resist. The only way to reach that level, he continued, was to make it clear to Hezbollah that if war breaks out with Israel, its leadership will have to vacate Beirut if they wish to live – like the PLO’s leadership did in 1982.
That kind of deterrence will remain out of reach if Israel merely focuses on destroying large numbers of homes used by Hezbollah as rocket launchers.
“It is more of a challenge,” Naveh said.
“For what is deterrence? It’s when the fear of harm by the other side is so big that the fear removes their desire to realize their interests to escalate.”
Originally, the concept of deterrence as developed by Israel related to state foes, and today, the most formidable threat to national security comes from a state actor, Iran. Naveh is disturbed by Tehran’s recent actions.
“Under the surface, Iran is putting boots on the ground in the region, creating a direct axis. Their axis is one of capitals: Sanaa, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
They safeguard these strips by supporting local militias and dispatching their military instructors.
“The next stage could see Iran’s infantry forces, tanks and armored vehicles deployed to these areas to safeguard the new reality. In a few years we might look left and right, and see Iranian brigades in Syria and to the east, in Iraq, on the Jordanian border.”
Iran has reached the status of a nuclear breakout state. “Under these conditions,” Naveh explained, “Iran gains everything.
It has the deterrence of a nuclear state. If it is unhappy with someone, within a year, it goes nuclear. [Other states] will not want to anger them – they could reactivate their nuclear program; that level of threat is not far below one posed by a nuclear country.
“We forge the umbrella the Iranians give to terrorist boots on the ground. They are basing themselves along an entire axis, threatening the moderate regional states,” Naveh contended. “There is a debate: Who is more of a threat, Iran and the Shi’ite axis or Islamic State? One is a villain and the other is a beast, but the Iranian axis is much more threatening.”
Asked what Israel would do if it spotted Iranian heavy armor and infantry moving into Iraq and Syria, Naveh paused, before merely saying, “It would hold a security evaluation.
“The reality today is moving forward beyond all imagination. It is unpredictable,” he said. “There is no option but to respond to events in real time.”