The Dilemma of Israel-Palestine War: Asymmetric Capabilities and Catastrophic Outcome

No matter what is the outcome of this latest war, one set of asymmetrical dilemmas will replace another in the coming years.
Keywords: War, Conflict, Israel, Palestine, Hamas, Terrorism, Asymmetrical, Dilemma, Convention, Gaza, IDF
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Why Hamas stormed Israel through a ground operation, applying a medieval strategy by sending 1,000 armed men who broke through the border fence at 15 locations, is a question that still eludes convincing explanations. Plausible reasons revolve around a) Jews were allowed to pray on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which was previously barred and which Hamas sees as an infringement; b) Hamas wanted to coerce Israel to make political and economic concessions by applying global pressure on Tel Aviv; and c) Hamas was used as a gun for hire by Iran as the Iranian regime is perturbed by the prospect of a cooperative agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Whatever was the motive or goal, Hamas has achieved unbelievable success against the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which was unimaginable until October 7. The massive terror strike stunned Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and overwhelmed the IDF, resulting in the killing of 1,200 people from 34 countries, with a majority of Israelis. News agency APF has compiled information about 200 foreigners who were confirmed dead by their national authorities. Additionally 242 women, children and elders were kidnapped and dragged back to Gaza as hostages. Israelis were shaken as never before in its 75 years of existence had a terror strike happened on such a scale.

A double whammy struck the Israeli intelligence agency as the IDF signed off a plan bsck in September 2022 to provide 20,000 permits to allow Gaza Palestinians to cross the border and work in Israel. Initial interrogation of Hamas operatives confirmed the fact that the attack plan was underway for more than a year. In other words, while Mossad was approving Gazan work permits to enter Israel, Hamas was preparing its cadre to make a foray inside Israel. In 2021, only 7,000 Gaza Palestinians were allowed to work or trade in Israel, which increased to 20,000 by October 2023. This system was working well until October 7. The general daily wage in Gaza is about US$ 17 per day while in Israel it is US$ 115 per day. The Gaza Strip, which is a 41 kilometres long and 6 to 12 kilometres wide, has a total area of 365 square kilometres, with a population of more than two million. It is almost one-fourth of Delhi in size..

The Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control from 1959 until 1967 when Israel took control of the region after the Six-Day War. It shares a 11-kilometre-long border with Egypt, with a 100-metre-wide buffer zone popularly known as the Philadelphia Corridor. During Israeli occupation, successive Israeli governments constructed as many as 25 Jewish enclaves inside the Gaza Strip.

As Israel and Gaza Strip could not reach any peace deal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon implemented unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip and North Samaria on 15 August 2005. Within a month of this unilateral disengagement plan, IDF installations and troops were withdrawn, and all 25 Israeli settlements were vacated to re-establish the pre-1967 Green Line status quo.

However, although the Gaza Strip was freed from Israeli control, its land border with Israel, sky and Mediterranean Sea coast remained under Israeli control while the rest of the 11-kilometre land border was under the sway of Egypt. Therefore, even though the Gaza Strip was freed from foreign regulations, its border, sky, and seashore remained within Israeli and Egyptian supervision. This has restricted free movement of goods and people, prompting critics to call the Gaza Strip an ‘open-air prison.’

Hamas, the Islamic group that draws its roots from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and was formed in late 1987, has refused to accept the existence of Israel and rejects all agreements signed between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, many of which remain unimplemented. Ever since the group ascended to power through the January 2006 legislative elections in Palestinian territories, Hamas refused to recognise Israel and to renounce violence.

The October 7 attacks succeeded due to the total failure of Mossad, which had recently submitted a report stating that Hamas was inclined to adopt economic incentives for its population rather than pursuing an Islamic agenda at the cost of economic progress. Acting on Mossad’s report, the government adopted various plans, which gave Hamas room to assemble its troops and strategise its attacks, while managing to keep the element of surprise until the exact attacks occurred.

Israel’s reliance on a new Western military theory about how to wage wars cost them dearly. That theory stands on the premise that the state employs a lean ‘standing manpower for defending the country and for offensive purposes, the country’s military needs precision-guided long-range aerial firepower and drone surveillance.’ Therefore, just in like the ‘Pearl Harbour’ episode, the proven but asymmetrical Israeli capabilities failed to garner desirable results while the balance tilted in favour of far inferior Hamas forces in the beginning.

Israel’s retaliation rests on its 1955 military manual titled ‘Retaliation Operations as a Means of Ensuring Peace’. The manual as explained by then IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan states that ‘We cannot always prevent the murder of workers in an orchard or sleeping families, but we can set a high price for our blood. A price too high for the Arab settlement, the Arab army and the Arab government to pay. … [Retaliation operations] are not for vengeance. It is an act of punishment and warning, that if that state does not control its population and does not prevent them from attacking us – the Israeli forces will cause havoc in its land.’

The unrelenting and unceasing IDF’s firepower pulverising Gaza’s settlements, razing large structures to the ground, vaporising the enormous tunnel network, and crippling civic infrastructure has been enacting a high price on the attackers by making the region an uninhabitable place. So far, the IDF has struck some 13,000 targets with a wide variety of ordnance, compared to Hamas’ 8500 rocket launches against Israeli targets. The IDF’s ground offensive, which started during the night of 27-28 October, enforces the assertion that the Gaza Strip must pay the price for daring to embark on asymmetrical military misadventure.

For Israel, its enemies spring from all directions. In support of Hamas, Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militant group, has conducted more than 100 attacks, reportedly killing at least 9 IDF soldiers. Other than that, the Iranian Shia group, Imam Hussein, which is comprised of militants from Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, has conducted a number of ambushes from across the Syrian border. The Iranian-supported umbrella group Al-Khashad a-Sha’aby or The Popular Mobilization Forces, which is comprised of 67 militant organizations has amassed some of its forces in Iraq, intending to cross the Syrian border to fight Israel. The Houthi rebels of Yamen, who are part of the Iran-backed ‘Axis of Resistance’ launched some missiles towards Israel from their territory, 1600 kilometres away from Israel.

The participation of a variety of fighters from different countries makes the asymmetrical war complex and complicated. The charges against Israel in its war against Gaza include ‘disproportionate’ use of force. But the dilemma about the rules governing armed conflict as expounded in the Hague Convention of 1907, which regulates laws and customs of war on land, is that ‘the right of belligerents to injure the enemy is not unlimited’. For Israel, the dilemma is further aggravated by the concern that ‘disproportionality’ and ‘unlimited’ injury clauses can lead to losing international legitimacy by breaching the terms under which national self-defence is valid and violating the principles of humanitarian law.

The large number of Civilian casualties on both sides and the civilian suffering in the Gaza Strip amounting to a catastrophe, owing to Hamas’s reliance on civilian shields has ignited an international uproar. No matter what is the outcome of this latest war, one set of asymmetrical dilemmas will replace another in the coming years.

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Dr Saroj Kumar Rath

Dr Saroj Kumar Rath teaches at the University of Delhi.

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