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Lessons from the Gaza War (1)

This was the title of a research paper published by the Begin-Sadat Center, a leading think tank in Israel affiliated with the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University. The research of strategic intellectuals and academic and ex-military experts is directed towards Israeli decision-makers in military and civilian circles, foreign affairs establishments in Israel and abroad, the diplomatic corps, the press, the academic community, and leaders of Jewish communities around the world – as stated by the center on their official website.

The paper reviewed was written by Major General (Res.) Gershon Hacohen, who served in the Israeli military for 42 years during which he fought in several wars on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts before joining the Begin-Sadat Center as a senior research fellow. In the research paper, Hacohen was keen to provide a set of lessons learned from the recent escalation, which he rather called a “war”.

Typical of research papers, the paper under review starts with an “executive summary” which briefly states that, “The IDF’s [Israel Defense forces] defensive achievements against Hamas in the most recent war were groundbreaking. Yet for all its operational superiority, it will have a hard time defending Israel within the 1967 borders, especially in the event of a multi-arena conflict.” Hacohen explained that the recent escalation exposed Israel for the first time for what he called “the strategy of Qassem Soleimani” i.e. encircling Israel with a ring of fire from all fronts including domestically. “This time the Gaza arena, which erupts into war from time to time, turned the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem into a new focal point, thereby igniting nationwide riots by Israeli Arabs,” the author said.

Given this argument, the author seems to have taken a 180 degree turn. Maneuvering very cleverly, Hacohen overcame the reality that it was Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa that provoked action in Gaza and that it were the abuses against the Israeli Arabs that led them to the first-ever rise up to protest in substantial numbers that made it difficult for anyone to overlook.   

Hacohen then moves to a meta-analysis question: “What was surprising in this war?” 

He explained that, “In terms of operational preparedness, the IDF was ready to fight. At the same time, IDF intelligence admits there was a measure of surprise in the fact that Hamas initiated this round. The surprise lay in the new geopolitical framework, with Hamas centering the campaign on the issue of Jerusalem.” 

Hacohen then draws a comparison between the recent Gaza war and the wars he witnessed saying, “In the battles of the previous century, including the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, the launching of a war required prior deployment by the enemy with the attendant warning signs of the enemy’s intent. When Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser decided in May 1967 to move his forces into Sinai, the entry to Sinai and the process of deploying the Egyptian forces provided Israel with a warning period. Likewise, in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, there were overt signs of preparation for war — though in that case, unfortunately, IDF intelligence chose to ignore them. Since that time, intelligence assessment has relied on close and systematic monitoring of telltale signs. It is here that Hamas’ potential to surprise — and, even more so, Hezbollah’s — has brought about an essential change.”

Hacohen sees that, “Unlike traditional military organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah employ a logic that limits preparation time for a campaign. Most of their rockets and missiles are already routinely deployed at their launching pads. The same is true for a considerable part of their forces, who are primarily locals. The Shuja’iya and Jebaliya battalions, for example, are manned by residents of those neighborhoods, from fighters all the way up to battalion commanders. This makes the transition from routine to emergency conditions very rapid and allows IDF intelligence only a brief warning.” 

The paper also touched on another very critical point which I think is the main thrust of the military analysis it presents. The author states that, “Even under routine conditions, substantial parts of enemy combat forces are deployed at all times in a state of constant preparedness for action. The short time needed by the enemy to initiate hostilities, from the moment the leadership makes the decision to the operation itself, means surprise salvos of fire are always a possibility. This change challenges the basic assumptions of Ben-Gurion’s security concept, a cornerstone of which was dependence on a warning period. The shortening of warning time requires Israel to revise its security concept. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, in the new plan he formulated for the IDF’s operational approach, has indeed made changes to the traditional approach to defense. Also, under previous Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, resources were invested in upgrading defense, including the underground concrete wall around the Gaza Strip.”

In that part of the paper, we are introduced to a genuine review of the traditional Israeli approach to security, connecting it to the changes brought about by two chiefs of the army staff. Gershon confirms the importance of paying attention to this duly review and developing it within the framework of a comprehensive plan structured to provide remedies for what was experienced in the recent escalation, which placed the Israeli approach to defense under review against untraditional military organizations. In more than one place, Gershon made reference to Hezbollah and Hamas as examples of untraditional organizations that, he believes, should be studied.  

In the following part of his paper, Hacohen spoke of the weapons that were used, their effects, and the capacity of the Israeli military to face and intercept them. This will be the subject of next week’s article.

This article was originally published in Al-Dustour newspaper on 2 June 2021.

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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