Home inFocus Counterterrorism (Summer 2010) Lessons from Israel on Asymmetric Warfare

Lessons from Israel on Asymmetric Warfare

Shaul Shay Summer 2010

The wars that have characterized the last century were drawn-out asymmetric campaigns between states and non-state actors (semi-states or terrorist organizations). State armies were built – conceptually, organizationally and structurally – upon the premise that they would face other state armies. Conflicts of the modern era, however, are characterized by the dissolution of the state monopoly over wars, and the increased involvement of non-state actors in warfare.

In most cases, states seek to preserve stability and the status quo, while non-state actors attempt to bring about change. The “weaker” side usually engages the enemy in a war of attrition (terrorism and guerilla warfare) whose purpose is to win over hearts and minds, since the war cannot be won by physical means.

In the geopolitical climate of the twenty-first century, the stronger side is finding it hard to capitalize upon its absolute advantage. More often than not, its military success leads to a political and public relations failure. The perception that states almost never succeed in totally defeating guerrilla insurgencies has become a fixture of military discourse. U.S. Army Lt.-Col. Robert Cassidy, an expert in counterinsurgency warfare writes, “big powers do not necessarily lose small wars; they simply fail to win them.” In fact, while the big powers often win many tactical victories on the battlefield, in the absence of a threat to survival, their failure to quickly and decisively attain their strategic aim results in the loss of domestic support. And that loss in domestic support eventually causes the state to lose the overall war.

Since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israel has fought five asymmetric battles against non-state actors: the First Lebanon War in 1982, the First Intifada from 1987-1993, the Second Intifada (the al-Aqsa Intifada) from 2000-2005, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Operation Cast Lead from 2008-2009. After each battle, Israel improved its tactics so as to better retain domestic support during the next conflict.


In August 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, terminating its civilian and military presence there. Hamas exploited Israel’s disengagement, claiming it as a victory of their terrorist tactics over the state of Israel. Their public endorsement of terrorism clearly demonstrated that it was the preferred tool for achieving their political goals. In June 2007, Hamas executed a violent and bloody coup d’état in the Gaza Strip, persecuting leaders and members of the rival Fatah movement and the legitimate ruling body, the Palestinian Authority (PA), neutralizing the PA’s military and political power and establishing a radical Muslim entity in its place. The new entity, aided and abetted by Iran and Syria, continues to conduct an ongoing terrorist campaign against Israel and operates separately and in defiance of the PA—the legitimate authority in the West Bank. Since 2007, Hamas has fortified the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against residential communities in southern Israel.

Following Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, the frequency and intensity of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel increased dramatically. In 2008 alone, nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip, despite the existence of a six-month lull, or unwritten truce (Tahadiya), between Hamas and Israel, which Hamas and other terrorist organizations used to rearm and prepare for the next round of hostilities. In fact, between June 19 and December 19, 2008, when the Tahadiya was in full-effect, over 538 Qassam rockets and mortar shells slammed into Israel, with most of the rocket fire occurring during November and December 2008. On December 19, 2008, Hamas unilaterally terminated the lull and resumed using the Gaza Strip as a launching pad for terrorist activities.

Operation Cast Lead

On December 27, 2008, the IDF launched a military operation against Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. The operation came after Israel exhausted all other alternatives, including warning of an attack if the rocket and mortar assault continued. The operation was limited so as to accomplish the following, precise objectives:

To stop the bombardment of Israeli civilians by destroying and damaging the mortar and rocket launching apparatus and its supporting infrastructure, and to improve the safety and security of Southern Israel and its residents by reducing the ability of Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza to carry out future attacks.

Operation Cast Lead commenced with aerial operations against the Hamas terrorist infrastructure, as well as rocket and mortar launching units. The Israel Air Force (IAF) targeted military objectives, including the headquarters from which Hamas planned and initiated operations against Israel, command posts, training camps, and weapons stores used in the planning, preparation, guidance, and execution of terrorist attacks. In carrying out its strikes, the IAF used sophisticated precision weapons to minimize harm to civilians, given Hamas’s practice of basing their operations in densely populated areas. The extensive precautions adopted by Israel to protect civilians during this conflict — often at the expense of military advantage and at the risk of Israeli soldiers — sought to meet the most demanding standards of modern military operations.

On January 3, 2009, despite initial reluctance, the IDF commenced a ground maneuver in light of the continued rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians. Moreover, reliance on aerial strikes alone would have likely resulted in significant numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties. Ground forces entered the Gaza Strip with naval and air support. The objectives of this maneuver included undermining Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, taking control of rocket and mortar launching sites, and reducing the number of attacks on Israeli territory.

The IDF expanded its ground incursion on January 10, 2009, plunging deeper into the Gaza Strip, with the objective of dismantling terrorist infrastructure and taking control of rocket launching sites in the heart of Gaza’s urban areas.

After 22 days, Operation Cast Lead ended on January 17, 2009, when Israel implemented a unilateral ceasefire. Subsequently, IDF troops began withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, completing on January 21, 2009, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1860. Since then, and even during the operation itself, Israel has continued to provide and facilitate humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip.

Asymmetric Warfare

Operation Cast Lead represents a striking example of the complex and challenging asymmetric conflicts in which states – and democratic states, in particular – are increasingly finding themselves.

In asymmetric conflicts, democratic states – who typically uphold certain moral values – are forced to confront non-state actors who do not consider themselves bound by legal or humanitarian obligations. Despite propaganda to the contrary, Israel values human life, while non-state actors, such as Hamas or al-Qaeda, frequently abuse humanitarian principles as a deliberate strategy, placing both their own civilian population and that of the defending state at greater risk. That terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah operate from densely populated areas illustrates this fact.

Similarly, non-state actors know their highly populated terrain well. In this way, the actors can build secured defenses without the state’s knowledge so as to retain an element of surprise when a battle breaks out. Abu Obeida, spokesperson of the Hamas-run Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, described this new challenge facing the IDF in December 2007:

Our defense plan is based, to a great extent, on rockets which have not yet been used and on a network of ditches and tunnels dug under a large area of the [Gaza] Strip. The [Israeli] army will be surprised when it sees fighters coming up out of the ground and engaging it with unexpected equipment and weapons.

In addition, democratic states are constrained by their societies that wish to avoid the sacrifice necessary to win. As Gil Merom explains in How Democracies Lose Small Wars:

…Democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory… Essentially, what prevents modern democracies from winning small wars is disagreement between state and society over expedient and moral issues that concern human life and dignity…. Achieving a certain balance between … the readiness to bear the cost of a war and the readiness to exact a painful toll from others—is a precondition for succeeding in war.

Therefore, non-state actors’ lack of morality, knowledge of terrain, and readiness to bear the cost of war provide them with a distinct advantage in the battle against states. The question remains: Even with this disadvantage, can a democratic state win an asymmetric war?

Lessons Learned

While states cannot alter their opponent’s disregard for human life or their knowledge of the terrain, they can better prepare their people for war. This will be the key for democracies’ success as they face the future of warfare.

During Cast Lead, the IDF utilized the lessons it learned from previous asymmetric wars. As a result, Israel attained its desired goals in a short period of time during the operation, while incurring a radical reduction in Israeli military and civilian casualties as compared to past wars. Therefore, the war was far more tolerable for the Israeli public, and Israeli society unified behind its government before, during, and after the operation.

First, Operation Cast Lead’s objectives were clear and realistic, and communicated to the public. Israel knew that to achieve its objectives, it was important for Hamas to pay the price without Israel exceeding the rules of international law and war norms, and without the result being prolonged occupation of the Gaza Strip territory. The IDF created a plan to meet Israel’s needs from the onset and when the military segment of the operation ended successfully, the political leadership translated the military achievements into the goals set before the start of the operation.

In addition, unlike the perception of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel’s ground operations to stop the rocket fire were completed successfully and with a small number of losses. Hamas was often afraid to engage the IDF during Cast Lead and, as a result, withdrew its forces from the areas in which Israel was operating.

Finally, the IDF enhanced civilian defenses prior to the operation. Improved early warning loudspeaker systems and the dispersal of thousands of easily accessible shelters radically reduced Israeli civilian casualties during the operation.

As a result of the swift operation, Israel reduced rocket launches from Gaza dramatically, restored deterrence, and offered a significant blow to Hamas’s military infrastructure.

Israeli Action and International Reaction

During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF made many efforts to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage. The IDF placed over 165,000 telephone calls to Gaza residents, warning them of rocket strikes. In addition, Israel distributed 2.5 million leaflets instructing Gaza civilians to stay away from terrorists and weapons storage sites. Israel also evacuated 38 Palestinians for medical treatment, including two children. Indeed, British Colonel Richard Kemp, veteran of the Afghan war, said, “the IDF did more to safeguard civilians than any other army.”

Nevertheless, criticism and the demonization of the IDF and Israel were rife. At the global diplomatic level, Israel failed to counter the negative international reaction to the civilian casualties and the damage to Gaza’s infrastructure. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the end of the operation:

Sometimes, civilians are also killed, but there is no army that carries out its missions with such integrity, professionalism and devotion, and that tries so hard to avoid harming non-combatants.

Unfortunately, Israel’s raid into Gaza sparked an international uproar, which resulted in the UN commissioning a fact-finding mission into the monthlong operation. The resulting Goldstone Report was highly rebuked for its bias, yet it is problematic for another, often unmentioned reason: The report holds the IDF to Geneva Convention standards of symmetrical inter-state war fighting. But this type of warfare is no longer the standard. Wars are increasingly asymmetrical and are fought against terrorist enemies that fail to abide by Geneva’s rules. For this reason, the Conventions should be amended to fit the changing times.

The Next Battle

On January 6, 2009, Israel announced that it had successfully tested “Iron Dome,” a defensive weapons system designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets of the types used by Hamas and Hezbollah. As “Iron Dome” and “Magic Wand” (which will intercept longer-range rockets and be operational in 2012) take their place in the IDF’s arsenal, Israel will enter a new military era in its efforts to win asymmetric wars.

In the future, Israel may have to face similar situations in Gaza, Lebanon, and other arenas. As such, Cast Lead presented an opportunity for Israel to utilize lessons learned in previous wars, as well as to learn new lessons and to develop the strategy, military doctrine, and forces needed to deal with such scenarios. As a lesson from Operation Cast Lead, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi recently announced an even greater reliance than previously on battlefield legal counsel in future operations and wars.

Four years after the Second Lebanon War and one and a half years after Operation Cast Lead, it can be concluded that the wars achieved a deterrent effect. Rocket fire from both Hamas and Hezbollah has drastically decreased. However, both sides are undoubtedly preparing for the next round of violence. The only question that remains is: Will Israel be prepared to win domestic support during the next battle?

Col. (Res.) Dr. Shaul Shay is Israel’s former Deputy National Security Advisor.