When you listen to the Pundits, you get the feeling that Israel did the right thing in going in to Gaza, but they have no possibility of winning. Kind of a bi-polar response. They point toward the Second Lebanon War as the justification of their weird prognosis.
There is one major problem with their analysis, everything !
The IDF is not the same military it was two years ago. In the war with Lebanon, both the defense minister and the Army Chief of Staff were WAY over their heads..both of them have been replaced.
Geographically Gaza is not Lebanon. The topography is not the same and just as important Israel can cut off supply lines to Gaza, in the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon they were constantly being re-supplied from the north (Syria and Iran).
This war has so many different elements that it cannot be compared to Lebanon. To the surprise of the talking heads, Israel has a good chance of winning the Gaza War:
Gaza Is Not Lebanon
by Thomas Donnelly & Danielle Pletka
The conventional wisdom about the incursion by Israeli ground units into Gaza, mirrored in Sunday’s Washington Post, is that “Israeli leaders run the risk of repeating their disastrous experience in the 2006 Lebanon war, when they suffered high casualties in ground combat with Hezbollah.” Apparently, reporters and pundits are even more prone to refighting the last war than generals: Gaza is not Lebanon; Hamas is not Hezbollah and, most critically, Israel now is not Israel in 2006.
To begin with, the physical and geographical differences between southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip could hardly be greater. And while Hassan Nasrallah and the Hezbollah leadership were under air attack in the outskirts of Beirut in 2006, the Hamas leadership has far fewer places to hide in Gaza city and elsewhere in Gaza. The initial successes of the Israeli airstrikes were not just a product of much better intelligence about Hamas (though it’s probable that Israeli intelligence had done a superior job of exploiting differences amongst Hamas and West Bank leaders to improve its targeting), but also reflect simple facts of proximity and smaller scale. The terrain makes perhaps an even greater difference in ground warfare. The hills of southern Lebanon are not only naturally defensible terrain–each village providing an excellent fortified fighting position–but helped to channel Israeli armored columns. A good percentage of Israeli combat deaths came from a handful of successful ambushes.
Gaza is also an inherently isolated battlefield. Whereas Hezbollah could be resupplied not from northern Lebanon, Syria, and even from the sea, Gaza is surrounded by Israeli walls and a closed border with Egypt. And the Israeli Navy dominates the coastline. As long as Egypt restricts movement into and out of Gaza, the Hamas leadership and forces are trapped in a very small pocket. Israel’s moves on the ground have capitalized on this essential fact. Within the first hours of their thrust into Gaza, the IDF appears to have been able to cordon off Gaza city and the other larger villages to the south. Hamas is now further isolated into smaller pockets, and press reports indicate that their larger command and control structure is falling apart.
Hamas and Hezbollah are also profoundly different beasts. While neither is really the “non-state actor” as popularly understood, Hezbollah is a much more robust and state-like organization, while Hamas is only a notch above its roots as a terrorist group, and has failed to capitalize on its control of quasi-independent Gaza to organize or modernize. And further, while both are Iranian proxies, the duration, depth and strength of Tehran’s investments in Hezbollah far exceeds its investments in Hamas. (It’s also worth noting that Hamas is a Sunni group, and though sectarianism is an imperfect guide to alliances in the Middle East–as our experience in Iraq should make clear–it does contribute to the fact that Iranian ties with Hezbollah are more organic than with Hamas.) In addition, the Lebanese state’s weaknesses make it a free zone in which the Iranian Quds Force has been able to conduct rigorous paramilitary training and rearm its proxies freely. Hamas has operated under a much more watchful Israeli eye. Iranian military assistance and training to Hamas has been effective only in limited areas, and has itself lacked the scope of effort Hezbollah has enjoyed; whereas Hezbollah armed and trained and (with North Korean aid) built infrastructure for many years to fight as it did in 2006.
The result was a Hezbollah built to be a very tough opponent for the IDF. In 2006, as Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey Friedman found in a recent study for the U.S. Army War College, some of the firefights in Lebanon lasted for more than six hours, and involved Lebanese village militia as well as Hezbollah “regulars.” We shall see how much the Israelis do to collapse the several pockets of Hamas they have created in Gaza, although it is worth noting that, as Hamas forces are isolated, the opportunity to bring air and artillery fires to bear in a relatively precise way will return. To be sure, there may be some close urban combat, but if the IDF maintains a methodical approach, they can slowly eviscerate Hamas militarily. Thus far, the casualty exchange ratios thus far are nothing like Lebanon; according to the War College study, the Lebanon war resulted in 53 Israeli civilian deaths from Hezbollah rockets and 119 soldiers killed in action. Thus far, Hamas is showed no ability to affect Israeli maneuvers along the main roadways used to cut through Gaza–although these ought to have been generally predictable avenues of attack–nor do there seem to have been many defense-in-depth positions, at least any that have halted or slowed Israeli progress. It’s one thing to retreat into the warrens of Gaza city or other towns as Hamas appears to be doing, but Hezbollah conducted a much more active defense; also its leadership around Beirut was at less immediate risk. The Hamas defenses, thus far, have been systematically ineffective. Biddle and Friedman rightly concluded that Hezbollah has become a more traditional and conventional force, and that this development accounted for much of its improved tactical performance in 2006.
Hezbollah also acted like “regulars” in the sense of wearing uniforms. This is not simply a legal nicety or fashion statement (though their black garb is designed to intimidate their opponents), but a measure both of internal cohesion and the relationship of the military to the state–again, it is better to think of Hezbollah as a “proto-state” rather than a “non-state.” Indeed, Hezbollah’s recent agreement with the Lebanese state enshrines this status. Also, since one of the primary requisites of a legitimate state is defense of territory and people, it would seem that Hamas is losing its “domestic” propaganda war in a way that Hezbollah did not. Likewise, on the mythic “Arab street,” Hamas’s performance can only be found wanting in comparison to Hezbollah; the echoes of past Arab failures against Israel may return to haunt the Palestinians. It is worth remembering that Hezbollah’s “victory” was not simply that it survived, as popular understanding has it, but that it put up a respectable military performance in defense of its territory. Indeed, it would be fair to say that first among the Arabs, Hezbollah severely dented the historic Israeli deterrent in 2006.
Further, one of the likely reasons that Hezbollah’s cohesion and its popular support in southern Lebanon was more deeply rooted is that it performs a number of its state-like functions well, at least by local standards; the strength of the Hezbollah civil “state” contributes to military effectiveness.
Finally, the Israelis seem far better prepared this time around than in Lebanon 2006. Domestic political expectations are low–for Israelis, this is another incidence of “frontier warfare,” not dissimilar from American Indian-fighting, where the expectation is to “treat a condition” rather than “cure” it by producing a conclusive outcome. Strategically, they’ve also clearly worked things out with the Egyptians (and indeed other Arab governments) who seem happy to see Hamas crushed, though it’s hard to say how long that will hold. Notably, Fatah and Hezbollah also appear to be sitting this one out.
Hezbollah’s inactivity is especially interesting, despite Nasrallah’s fulminations: Nasrallah, and even the Iranians, likely realize that victory is not in the cards for this round. More importantly, Hezbollah’s decision to steer clear underscores its own independence. Better to join a winning war. Even the Iranian regime, while engaging in its typical verbal posturing, has done little of material value for Hamas. Tehran is also likely considering the value of joining a losing fight that might also remove what they may regard opportunities to be explored with the Obama administration. Stand by for pundits to start explaining how we need Tehran to resolve the Gaza mess.
Militarily, the Israelis seem much better organized, conducting combing and coordinated air and land operations, and committing adequate forces from the start rather than feeding forces into the fight in a piecemeal fashion. They’ve also been more patient, a very necessary virtue. And while the “end state” is uncertain–which most Western analysts argue is a big problem–it’s not at all clear that the IDF can’t just retreat behind the border barriers when they perceive they’ve reached the culminating point of diminishing returns. Is a lawless Gaza worse than a Hamas-ruled Gaza? Sure, Hamas will probably reestablish a level of control in Gaza, but who’s to say there won’t be a short if nasty and brutish struggle for power in the aftermath.
A decimated Hamas will also ask a strategic question of Tehran: They may try to rearm a reconstituted Hamas, but inevitably will do so with little confidence in the value of their Hamas proxy. Israel would reap a huge deterrence windfall if the outcome demonstrates a limit to the value of Iranian sponsorship. It seems that two possibilities await: that Iran calculates that Hamas is a disposable asset, worth jettisoning in hopes of a rapprochement–a short-term deal if not a Grand Bargain–with America. That would be the smart game. But past habits are hard to break, and no doubt the Revolutionary Guard Corps and its training cadres will be salivating to try to remake Hamas more in the Hezbollah style, to fight for keeps in the next go round.
Indeed, it is worth wondering how this might have played out if Iran had demonstrated a nuclear capability by now. The Arabs would likely be less supportive of Israel. Maybe even the Europeans would have weighed in sooner against Israel. Possibly even the Israelis would have been deterred from striking at Hamas, and certainly they would have thought twice before acting. But none of this is clear; war is, sometimes, the least bad choice. Iranian nuclear weapons may deter direct attacks on Tehran, but will they protect its proxies? Let’s hope not, because that is a question that will likely be asked again.