Security and Defense: Creating perceptions on the ground

The 'modest' goal in Gaza is to achieve the kind of quiet from Hamas that we've got from Hizbullah.

iaf jet 298 63 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
iaf jet 298 63
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
One of the courses taught to future IDF battalion commanders at the Staff and Command College in Glilot is on the way modern warfare is conducted. The emphasis, these lieutenant colonels are told, is not about which side conquers more territory or loses more fighters - as was the case in conventional battles, such as the 1967 Six Day War - but rather on perception. In other words, the victor is the side that is perceived to have won. To demonstrate this idea, one of the instructors at the school decided several years ago to show his students the 2002 Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers, which tells the story of US Lt.-Col. Hal Moore - played by Mel Gibson - who led a battalion of American soldiers in the Battle of la Drang during the Vietnam War. Moore leads his 400 soldiers into the "Valley of Death" against an entire division of 4,000 Vietnamese soldiers and, at the last second - after hundreds of bodies have piled up on both sides of the valley, with Moore ready to surrender - the Vietnamese commander decides to withdraw first, fearing that the US army is stronger than it really is. While the Battle of la Drang took place in 1965, officers at the IDF's Kirya Military Headquarters were discussing it this week in reference to Operation Cast Lead, the current battle against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The common denominator between the two, the officers explained, is that neither was or is about conquering territory, and each was and is about changing the enemy's perception. Ultimately, this is what Operation Cast Lead is all about. As a result, the IDF gave it a relatively modest goal - improving the security situation in the South - and not the more grandiose objective of toppling or destroying Hamas. For this reason, the IDF decided on a "shock and awe" policy for the operation. The IAF bombardment of Gaza that started Saturday has resulted in 400 dead Palestinians and 500 bombed-out targets. The ground operation (that, as of the writing of these words, has not yet been launched) will have the same goal: taking the Palestinians by surprise, and creating the impression of an Israeli government gone "crazy." A SIMILAR strategy was employed during the Second Lebanon War. Two-and-a-half years hence, officials said this week that it has had a lasting effect on Hizbullah, as it instilled fear in its chief, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, that Israel could penetrate deep into Lebanon and strike his most strategic locations in the Beka Valley. This is the goal of Operation Cast Lead: to restore Israel's level of deterrence, and make Hamas realize that it is not in its interest to fire rockets into Israel. Though the IDF considers this an attainable objective, officers say that there is an understanding that ultimately Hamas will be able to rebuild its capabilities, as Hizbullah has done since 2006. For this reason, there is talk in the defense establishment of allowing Egypt to increase the number of its border policemen deployed along the Philadelphi Corridor, charged with locating and destroying tunnels through which arms are smuggled into Gaza. A source familiar with NATO-Israeli relations said Thursday that there is also talk of the possibility of deploying a multinational force in Gaza. Israel believes the likelihood of this is slim. But officials said they would demand the establishment of a "mechanism" to enforce and oversee a new cease-fire with Hamas. THE CONSENSUS in the defense establishment is that there is a need for a ground operation. As early as Monday, senior Military Intelligence officials, tasked with providing targets for the Air Force, were saying behind closed doors that the "air operation had exhausted itself," and that it was time for the next stage. That consensus seemed, momentarily, to be shaken on Tuesday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak leaked to reporters that he was in favor of reviewing a French proposal for a 48-hour suspension of IDF operations in Gaza. As soon as this hit the airwaves, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi released an unprecedented statement to the press denying that the IDF supported such a move. Later that day, along the Gaza border, soldiers from Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade, who had been stationed there since Saturday, began to curse the defense minister, whom they felt was thwarting their mission to invade Gaza on the ground. In the end, the security cabinet decided to reject the French proposal. A ground operation, officials said Thursday, would be launched in the "coming days." This not only reflects the tension between Ashkenazi and Barak but also, and more importantly, stresses the IDF's conviction that a ground operation is required for the operation to succeed. Even the head of the IAF, Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, is of that opinion. In a briefing to a Jerusalem think tank in mid-2008, he cited the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank - which brought IDF troops into every Palestinian town - as a potential solution for the rocket threat in Gaza. A Defensive Shield-like operation in Gaza is not currently on the IDF's agenda for a number of reasons, chief among them the concern that even if the IDF decided to conquer all of Gaza, who would replace it the day after? A multi-national force - like UNIFIL in Lebanon - is not running to enter Gaza, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not believed to be capable of enforcing his rule there. It is thus that, despite all of its problems and failures, the Lebanon model is what is serving as the basis for the current operation. After all, though Hizbullah is stronger and has more missiles and rockets than before the war, the northern border has never been so quiet. It is this kind of quiet - not the toppling of Hamas or the imposing of a new regime in Gaza - that Israel is hoping to achieve through Operation Cast Lead.