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For Israel, defense may be the best defense

- September 23, 2014

An Israeli Iron Dome defense system missile is fired to intercept a rocket fired from Gaza over the city of Ashdod in southern Israel on July 8. (Abir Sultan/EPA)
The old mantra that offense is the best defense might no longer be true for Israel. Technological advances and political reality have turned this equation around: To increase the security of its people and gain diplomatically and politically in its struggle with Hamas, Israel would be better off relying strictly on its defensive capabilities.
During the height of the recent third round of intense violent exchanges between the Gaza-based Hamas and Israel, an odd spectacle was unfolding: In a news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz lamented that Hamas draws its power from the pictures of devastation in the Gaza Strip. Immediately after the news conference, however, Israel persisted with, and even intensified, its strikes on the heavily populated strip, thereby providing Hamas exactly what Israel correctly observed it wants. More devastation, more casualties, and more suffering in Gaza failed to break the ability and will of Hamas to continue its rocket and mortar campaign against Israel. It also significantly weakened Israel’s hands diplomatically and increased the political position of Hamas vis-à-vis its own people. And it certainly did not increase security in Israel.
But there was a silver lining for Israel, if only in the narrow military sense. Israel’s defensive operation was not just good. It was phenomenal. During the 50 days of the war, Hamas and other Palestinian organizations lobbed more than 4,500 rocket and mortars of various ranges at Israel and attempted infiltrations via the sea and underground tunnels, according to an estimate from Haaretz. Israel suffered 71 dead, only seven of them civilians. Most of the IDF casualties resulted from operating offensively within the Gaza Strip. Yes, there was also much material damage in Israel, and every person killed is a significant loss for his or her family and friends. Yet by any reasonable measure of war, Israel’s defensive loss was marginal.
Much of this impressive defensive performance should be attributed to the “Iron Dome,” Israel’s innovative missile defense system, which performed at levels of efficiency many experts predicted were impossible. The system was activated 733 times, and while accurate data may not yet be available, it is clear that the Iron Dome had a high rate of success. The Israeli anti-missile system prevented any major damage in Israeli cities and towns, especially those outside the immediate vicinity of the Gaza Strip, protecting the country’s most populated centers. But missile defense was just part of a larger defensive system that with few exceptions functioned very well. First, the “code red” alarm allowed people in the towns and kibbutzim of Israel’s south a few seconds to prepare for incoming rocket fire from Gaza. Second, in the region, every house or apartment has a fortified area to which people run when they hear the alarm. Third, schools and other public buildings are protected by fortified concrete structures above them. Fourth, during the war IDF radar and other surveillance allowed rapid and efficient reaction to attempts of Hamas infiltration by sea or through the cross-border tunnels. Working together these components of the defensive system kept Israel’s civilian casualties to a bare minimum.
The IDF used this defensive shield as an insurance policy that allows it an almost free hand offensively. During the 50 day war, Israeli bombers dropped 4,868 bombs on the Gaza Strip; more than 50,000 tank and artillery shells were fired, and large IDF forces engaged in fighting within Gaza’s crowded urbanized area. Over 2,100 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them civilians. Close to half a million Palestinians were displaced, and over 100,000 lost their homes. The very limited infrastructure in Gaza was virtually destroyed and damage is estimated in many billions of dollars.
But for all this offensive punch, Israel gained very little in the fighting: Hamas not only did not surrender, but by the time of the ceasefire, it kept on firing rockets and mortars at a rate comparable to that of the first days of the war. The cease-fire agreement merely stipulated conditions that were very similar to the status quo prior to the beginning of the war. Politically and diplomatically, Hamas gained more power. Before the war, the organization was losing support inside Gaza and had a hard time coping with the fall of its Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. It was not having a good year. The war changed all that. Yes, Hamas lost some of its fighters and commanders, as well as infrastructure and ammunition (mostly because it fired it on Israel). But it gained politically and diplomatically, mostly by standing its ground. If the past is any lesson, Hamas will be able to replenish its stockpiles of mortars and rockets, and be ready for the next round of violence when it comes. And a post-war poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates significant increase in support for Hamas among Palestinians.
Offensive operations possess two characteristics that make them more appealing to wider audiences. First, offense is often perceived to be more active and more in keeping with national pride than is defense. This usually transcends to a political bias toward offense. Defensive minded leaders are vulnerable to accusations of cowardice and weakness. Second, as discussed, for instance, by Barry Posen, militaries often have a built-in preference for offense, which increases organizational autonomy, operational predictability and budgets.
In Israel, the appeal of offense is even greater. Because of a variety of geopolitical factors, the state adopted offensive military doctrines from its early days, even when its strategic goals were often defensive. Through the years, the offense was ingrained deep in the IDF’s ethos and in the Israeli psyche more broadly ­– so much so that defensive operations per se are unimaginable to most Israelis. Further, when someone says, “Israel has the right to defend itself” he or she means that Israel has the right to retaliate or strike at the source of the threat to its security – not actually defending itself. During the last decade, largely as a response to the proliferation of missile technology by Israel’s rivals, strategists in Israel began to think of defense as a fourth pillar of Israeli security, joining offense, deterrence and intelligence. The Iron Dome is just one of a number of advanced defensive technologies that Israel has been developing with U.S. aid, such as the Arrow and David’s Sling systems. In Israeli strategic thought, however, defense is always perceived as a tool that enables a more efficient and less risky offense.
There is one precedent, however, to offset the purely defensive approach taken by Israel. During the 1991 Gulf War, Israel, though attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles, took no offensive measures. Under heavy U.S. pressure, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, from the Likud party, avoided an active offensive role in the war even in the face of significant domestic pressure. The diplomatic reward was significant: Israel’s staying on the sidelines allowed the United States to rout Saddam Hussein’s menacing army, Israel’s strongest potential threat at the time, with the active support of most Arab states.
So what might a defensive Israeli campaign look like? In response to a massive launching of rockets from the Gaza Strip, Israel would respond by mobilizing its truly defensive capabilities: People in the targeted area would remain in bomb shelters and fortified rooms, the Iron Dome would target missiles aimed at large population centers, and the IDF would augment its forces to guard the borders and try to intercept Hamas attempts to infiltrate by sea or tunnels. There could be casualties on the Israeli side, but these are likely to be fewer than in the last few rounds of war.
As opposed to these recent bouts of violence, Hamas is likely to face strong international pressure to stop launching rockets, which it would not be able to deflect as retaliation for Israel’s action. Internally, as well, Hamas would not enjoy the same support it has received from the residents of Gaza if it cannot portray its action as defensive. In all likelihood, these pressures would result in a much more speedy cessation of the firing from the Gaza Strip. And there would be no pictures of devastation on the Palestinian side. Israel, for once, would appear in the eyes of the world (and not only in its own eyes) as the just side, and would be able to reap the diplomatic rewards.
For sure, this strategy cannot prevail against all threats to Israel’s security. Facing more formidable adversaries, Israel may well have to augment it with offense. Defensive strategy, as well, will not provide a long-term solution to the problem. It will not by itself provide security to either Israelis or Palestinians. Israel needs to engage in serious and substantive negotiation, which Netanyahu has been reluctant to do. And it will have to actually reach workable and acceptable compromise; not negotiate forever. But for the short term, if Israel indeed wants to increase rather than decrease its citizen’s security, defense might for once be the best form of defense.
Boaz Atzili is an associate professor at the School of International Service at American University. He is the author of “Good Fences Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).