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How Israel Refuses To Learn Lessons From Ground Invasions Past

It’s surely no coincidence that the flurry of cease-fire talk between Washington, Jerusalem and Cairo over the weekend of July 25 was followed immediately by a deadly wave of Hamas tunnel attacks.

From the look of things, it appears as though Hamas was afraid Israel might be preparing, under American pressure, to declare victory and go home. That would deprive Hamas of its one clear pathway to a win in the three-week old conflict: goading Israel to hit Gaza harder and harder until the televised images of destruction created international pressure for a cease-fire, based on pity for the victims — that is, on Hamas’s terms.

The organization’s solution was to go all out with a dramatic series of tunnel attacks to remind Israelis what a deadly threat those tunnels represent. War takes many forms.

Up to that point the tunnel threat, though terrifying, was essentially hypothetical. There was the Gilad Shalit kidnapping, but that was back in 2006. In the past year the Israeli military uncovered at least four of the sophisticated, concrete-lined arteries. Several were turned into major media events to drive home the danger. But the shock quickly faded. Even in the current military confrontation, Hamas mounted only three infiltration attempts in the first 20 days, none particularly successful.

After a weekend of cease-fire chatter, though, Hamas managed twice in two days, July 28 and 29, to produce squads of gunmen emerging from the earth in force for major firefights with Israeli troops. Five Israeli soldiers were killed on the first day, five Hamas fighters on the second. The point was made. Israel kept fighting. Hamas was relieved.

The pressure on Israel to wrap things up and go home hadn’t come only from Washington. Voices in Israel’s defense establishment were warning that the government needed to decide quickly either to go all in or to get out. There were clear hints that getting out was the wiser choice. Yaakov Amidror, a former Netanyahu national security adviser, military intelligence veteran and leading hawk, said in a televised interview July 29 that there was no way to eliminate the tunnel threat with any finality unless Israel was prepared to reoccupy Gaza, “with all the cost that that entails.” He wasn’t sure the Israeli public was ready to pay that price.

Likud senior statesman Dan Meridor was more direct. “As much as it might disappoint civilians who don’t understand reality and its limitations,” he told the popular news site News10, “military operations have to aim for the possible, not the optimal.”

The current operation, Meridor said, “should have ended after two or three days.”

The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before. In the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and again in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January 2009, Israel sent troops into neighboring territory for what began as a limited action against terrorists but ballooned into something bigger. Both actions were launched in response to an attack by a fundamentalist militia — a Hezbollah kidnapping in 2006, Hamas rockets in 2008 — but quickly added the ambitious goal of eliminating stockpiles of rockets. Both went on for weeks as Israeli forces tried to land a knockout blow against determined militia opposition. Both ended up inflicting enormous damage on the neighboring civilian populations, bringing limited military benefit but enormous diplomatic damage. Operation Protective Edge threatens to repeat the pattern.

The repetition is particularly disconcerting in light of what happened after the Lebanon War. The Israeli government appointed a blue-ribbon commission that investigated the war’s missteps and drew clear lessons for the future. And yet, despite the commission’s stinging conclusions, many of the same mistakes were repeated in 2008 and again in 2014.

The commission, headed by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, criticized the government for launching a military operation without first adopting clear goals and planning an exit strategy based on those goals. Israel had two coherent options in Lebanon, the panel said: either a “short, painful, strong and unexpected blow” followed by quick withdrawal, or “a large ground operation, including a temporary occupation of the South of Lebanon and ‘cleaning’ it of Hezbollah military infrastructure.” The government went to war without deciding which goal to pursue. Instead it improvised, periodically expanding its goals and finally letting itself be “dragged” into a last-minute ground operation that proved unexpectedly disastrous.

There are numerous differences between Lebanon and the two Gaza operations. Israel in 2006 had an army that had long neglected basic readiness, was ill-equipped and under-trained. It had a cabinet and military command that didn’t know how to communicate with each other and a home front that was defenseless in the face of rocket fire. None of those is true today.

But some issues unnoticed by Winograd have grown worse with each successive campaign. Most important is Israel’s inability to find a way of defending itself without inflicting major damage on civilian populations. And closely related, Israelis’ obliviousness to — and increasingly, contempt for — international outrage at the resultant suffering.

This blindness has three distinct repercussions, each one harmful to Israel’s security. One is moral. Beyond the suffering itself, each new confrontation brings new levels of Arab and international anger, thanks to the growing sophistication of media. The anger, in turn, brings increased resentment among Israelis. Once Israelis expressed the resentment by shaking their heads and insisting the deaths of Palestinian children were the fault of terrorists who fired first. Today it’s expressed by street mobs yelling “Death to Arabs” and attacking bystanders. This coarsening is not a minor problem.

The second is diplomatic. War, as Clausewitz wrote, is the continuation of politics by other means. The point of winning a war is to weaken your enemies and achieve some advantage on the regional or global plane. But if the outcome of your military victories leaves you weaker on the global stage, then your victory is hardly a victory. Israel’s recent victories have produced economic boycotts, war crimes investigations and legal action against Israeli leaders. Israelis respond by complaining afterward, rather than factoring these dangers into their planning. That’s poor strategy.

The third is the blowback of Israeli-Arab tension on Diaspora Jewish communities. Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leaders reject any connection and insist anti-Jewish violence is just ancient hatred raising its head. That’s a mistake. Israel’s main Diaspora affairs think-tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute, has been warning for a decade with increasing urgency that this blowback must be part of Israeli policy debate. A report last April warned of “clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors raise the frequency and severity of harassment/attacks on Jews in locations around the world.”

Three months later Gaza erupted. Then came mob attacks on Jews in Paris and the firebombing of a synagogue in Germany. That, too, was no coincidence. War, as I said, takes many forms.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]

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