MIDDLE ISRAEL: Who’s afraid of a war of attrition?

Israel is not used to having size on its side, but in the Gaza conflict it does – and this may require strategies it never previously considered.

An Israeli soldier sits next to tanks at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli soldier sits next to tanks at a staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Having heard ideas other than his own mantra, to launch an ambitious military operation that would lead to the rapid collapse of Hamas, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman issued a warning: “Israel,” he wrote in his Facebook page, “should not be dragged into a war of attrition.”
That was Wednesday morning. By Wednesday night, it turned out that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon may actually have in mind just that – as the two, in a joint press conference, emphasized the need for patience and perseverance, stressing that defeating Hamas will “take time.”
The disdain for attrition is understandable. Such wars bring to mind demoralized troops, up to their knees in muddied trenches, surrounded by piles of casualties – day in day out, month after month, with no end in sight.
The most notorious association is World War I’s Battle of Verdun, which lasted for some 10 months in 1916 and took the lives of nearly a million Germans and Frenchmen. On that battle’s first day, German artillery fired a million shells from 1,400 cannon stretched along a nearly 13-km. strip. It was biggest single bombardment history had ever seen, all with the express aim of “bleeding France white” by luring most of its army into one salient, where the French army was to be dismembered.
In Israeli memory, what comes to mind is the War of Attrition that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser waged from late 1967 to summer 1970, when he accepted a cease-fire. It too was launched with massive artillery attacks and conducted along a static line, the Suez Canal, though it later involved many infantry, aerial and naval raids.
When it was over, Israel was looking at more than 367 dead soldiers and 1,000 injured. While characterized by many daring operations, including airborne infantry raids some 300 km. into Africa and a host of aerial clashes in which the Egyptians lost an aggregate 95 jets as opposed to the Israel Air Force’s 15 – the War of Attrition loomed as the swift Six Days War’s bitter antithesis: a bloody, protracted and inconclusive exercise in strategic futility.
Yet some wars of attrition ended entirely differently.
IN SPRING 1864, facing Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate armies in Virginia after having failed to defeat him with frontal assaults, Union Gen. Ulysses S.
Grant built a 48-km. fortification stretching from Petersburg to Richmond – almost exactly the length of the Gaza Strip, incidentally – thus obstructing supply lines to the Confederate capital and its army.
The consequent battle of attrition lasted 10 months, and ended with the South’s complete and final surrender.
Similarly, when the Soviets encircled the Germans in Stalingrad, they waited patiently until the besieged Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus’s Sixth Army ran out of supplies, and even then the Russians let the army surrender rather than massacre what was left of it.
And most memorably, from the Jewish standpoint, Roman general and future emperor Vespasian, when assigned the task of quelling the rebellion in Judea, did not immediately climb up from Caesarea to the well-fortified and densely populated Jerusalem.
Instead, he first journeyed to the Galilean periphery, collecting on the road many towns that preferred peace while subduing the few that chose war; proceeded to Transjordan, where more towns surrendered, while the rest were crushed; then ringed Jerusalem, letting it stew in its juice for so long that he had to hand its final assault to his son, Titus, due to events elsewhere in the empire. Giving attrition the extended time it required forced Vespasian to leave Judea before fully conquering it.
The strategic patience which the Romans displayed was the kind which Netanyahu and Ya’alon this week urged, and Liberman scorned. With numbers on their side, the Romans felt they had time, and therefore did not rush into battle. It was a wise, cautious and rewarding plan, one that modern military theory categorizes as a “strategy of indirect approach.”
But even after Vespasian’s departure, with Jerusalem on the palm of his son’s hand, Titus, too, did not immediately storm it. Having overlooked Jerusalem from Mount Scopus and learned that its defenders are divided, anarchic and fanatical, he decided to wage a war of attrition rather than launch an immediate assault. In fact, he first surrounded Jerusalem via another wall, preferring to tighten its siege and intensify its shelling by catapults before finally confronting its defenders. Judging by the results, this was the prudent choice.
In short, attrition has worked repeatedly throughout history – when waged by the party that was responding to aggression, and had quantity on its side. Conversely, when waged as part of an aggression and with insufficient manpower, as happened to the Germans at Verdun and Nasser along the Suez – attrition failed.
Gen. Grant outside Richmond, Georgy Zhukov outside Stalingrad and Titus outside Jerusalem could have each said in turn, as Liberman did at Gaza’s gates, “We cannot let the enemy drag us into a war of attrition.” Yet those sober generals did the exact opposite, as did Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain – when he let the RAF first focus on fending off the Luftwaffe’s relentless assaults, decimating its planes and wearing down its pilots, before shifting the focus to bombing Germany.
Obviously, things are in some ways more complex than these analogies suggest. Then again, in others they are actually simpler.
THE MAIN PROBLEM with an Israeli decision to choose attrition is that the Jewish state is used to seeing itself as the epitome of smallness, which in terms of territory and population it indeed is.
That is why Israel’s military doctrine, since it was first conceptualized in the 1950s, has been to shift any war into enemy territory. That, to be sure, is what Israel did in practice in all its wars. A war of attrition would be the prefect opposite of this ethos.
Yet in the current conflict, Israel is the party of quantity and this status, unfamiliar though it may be, is nothing to be ashamed of or deny.
This is not 1948, when we faced five invading armies; ’67, when we faced three; ’73, when we faced two; ’82, when we faced one and a half; or even the Second Lebanon War, when we faced a half-army.
The IDF now faces one city and within its semi-urban sprawl, one well-entrenched militia that wants Israel’s troops lured into Gaza’s narrow alleyways. The IDF, at the same time, has almost infinitely more arms, munitions, personnel, money and food, and is in a position to see and intercept whatever enters and leaves the enemy’s flatland – just as the Romans did when they encircled Jerusalem’s walls.
Speaking strictly militarily, this is a situation that demands siege rather than assault, namely: daily, systematic and indefinite bombing of every rocket launcher, bomb arsenal, munitions workshop and bunker; reflexive bombing of any location from which even a single mortar is fired at Israel; ongoing interception of any suspicious shipments into Gaza; and continuous raids, from the air, ground and sea, of Hamas’s commanders and troops.
Like the Germans at Stalingrad, the Confederates at Petersburg, the Egyptians at Suez and the Jews in Jerusalem, Hamas will be able to endure this for only so long.
To be sure, an Israeli decision to attrite Gaza rather than immediately storm it would be different from the Roman choice, because it would leave the Israeli population exposed to rocket attacks for the duration of the war. The people of Rome, by contrast, were frequenting its markets, baths and racing tracks, hardly aware that their armies were at the same time camped beyond the sea outside a town called Jerusalem.
Then again, the British were certainly bombarded – daily, heavily and in their capital city – when their leaders chose attrition. And they had no Iron Dome, and were indeed butchered by the tens of thousands, on the streets of London and elsewhere, while millions slept night after night in bomb shelters and subway stations.
Israelis, on the other hand, are being asked to run – in some cities outside the South and Center, only every once in a while – for a few minutes to shielded spaces while the bombs fired at them are intercepted in midair. This is, of course, no way to live, and it should be fought until total victory. But if victory requires enduring this kind of life for several months or even a year while the army does what is militarily prudent and efficient, then it is a price the public can be convinced to pay – provided its mindset is shifted from operation mode to war mode.
There is no need to formally announce that a strategy of attrition has been adopted, if indeed one has been, and such a statement would in fact be idiotic. It would not be idiotic, however, to say that since the war with Gaza will be protracted, the public’s endurance is part of the war’s test.
It would also not be idiotic to announce that because of this, schools in firing range will until further notice be teaching only where and when it is safe, but for longer hours, in rotations and for higher pay, while volunteers from across the country are called to come and help teach there; that all open-air concerts, fairs and soccer games are suspended, even outside firing range; that those along the border who feel safer in the hinterland are welcome to relocate, but Netanyahu and Ya’alon, for their part, are moving to Sderot, Kibbutz Nahal Oz or Kibbutz Kerem Shalom, and will stay there with their families as long as that is the demand of the latest battle for the Jewish state’s security, and its people’s peace.