Casualty intolerance

The reluctance to commit ground troops to battle betrays a terrible gap between Israel's leadership and its people.

Halutz base 298.88  (photo credit: IDF )
Halutz base 298.88
(photo credit: IDF )
One of the strategic misconceptions demonstrated by Israel's military and political leadership during the war against Hizbullah in the summer of 2006 was the exaggerated fear of casualties. Indeed, OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, complained after the war that the IDF had displayed "over-sensitivity" to loss of lives and disclosed the fact that one of the battles during the 2006 Lebanese war was called off because of a few casualties. Yet, given the clear threat posed by Hizbullah, there was enthusiastic public backing for offensive operations, even when military casualties were inevitable. A huge majority of Israelis lent full support to the war. They wanted an unequivocal victory and were ready to pay a high price for achieving it. Many who were living in bomb shelters during the war expressed such a view. Even parents who had lost a child in the war backed the operation's expansion. While the need to avoid reckless loss of human life is self-evident, Israeli society has in fact shown great resilience in war, as documented by several studies. It stood strong in the face of the terror campaign launched by the Palestinians in September 2000, designed to break the spirit of Israeli society. Similar determination and willingness to carry the brunt of the battle was exhibited by the Israeli home front during the recent war in Lebanon. The reluctance to commit ground troops to battle betrays a terrible gap between Israel's leadership and its people. Israel's political and military leaders mistakenly believe that Israeli society is tired of the protracted conflict and is unwilling to pay the price of continuous war. Ehud Olmert said as much in the past, reflecting a sense of weariness at the leadership level. Decision makers in the Oslo process, particularly Yitzhak Rabin, were also motivated by such sentiments and by a similar misperception of Israeli society. The Four Mothers movement that advocated unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon (probably one of the factors that led to the government's May 2000 decision to pull out) was an additional manifestation of the same syndrome. THIS MOOD, which has prevailed among Israel's political leadership since the 1990s, affected the military command during the recent war against Hizbullah, and casualty aversion became a main feature of Israel's military modus operandi. Academics argued that Israel, like other Western democracies, has difficulty waging war because of casualty aversion. However, such an assumption about the Western style of war, at times described as "post-heroic" warfare, is not grounded in fact. Actually, many studies show that casualty phobia is not a dominant characteristic of the US general public. On the contrary, the American political leadership can tap into a large reservoir of support for military campaigns that entail a high human price, provided that those operations have a chance to succeed. The public is defeat-phobic, not casualty-phobic. Moreover, mounting casualties are bearable if the goals of the military missions are seen as politically important. This is patently true of Israel as well. Strategically, Israel's reluctance to commit troops in battle is counterproductive because it signals weakness. The widespread perception within the Arab world that Israeli society is extremely sensitive to the loss of human life, invites aggression. It was largely this perception that motivated the Palestinians to start a terror campaign against Israel in September 2000. This view is also the basis of the "spider web" theory concerning Israel, propagated by Hizbullah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah - namely that Israel's emphasis on the value of human life as well as its self-indulgent Western values render it weak and vulnerable. The fear of military casualties and the subsequent hesitation on part of Israel's leadership to conduct military operations also constitute a violation of the basic social contract around which a state is built. In accordance with the social contract, citizens give up some of their liberties and are prepared to be taxed in exchange for the state's commitment to provide them with security. The state is a social institution whose raison d'etre is to provide its members with security by using its coercive organs, such as the police and the military. The Zionist rationale was founded on the desire to end the helplessness of the Jew in the Diaspora by building a Jewish state whose main function was to defend its Jewish citizens - by force if necessary. Recently, we have seen an incredible inversion of the Zionist and the statist rationale. There is greater tolerance of civilian casualties than of military losses. While foolproof defense is not always a realistic goal, the Jewish state seems to have difficulty in fulfilling its most basic function - providing security to its citizens. Four thousand Katyushas during the last summer as well as the continuous downpour of Kassams on Israeli settlements in the Northern Negev raise the question: Why should Israelis pay taxes to build and strengthen an army, if the state is reluctant to use the military force at its disposal for the protection of its citizens? The author is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.