TUSCALOOSA, AL — MAY 19, 2021 — The current fighting in Gaza rapidly approaches total war intensity. Strategy for Hamas has always involved the total war objective of annihilating Israel. For Israel, fighting Hamas and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and Syria, involves a long, protracted but limited war of attrition. This may be changing. Hamas and Hezbollah use terrorism and guerilla warfare as a form of attrition to wear down Israel while simultaneously exploiting world opinion by depicting Israeli retaliation as heavy-handed. This cannot continue in perpetuity because fighting a limited war against an enemy with total war objectives favors the side willing to go all the way. The total war objective of a Jewish-free Palestine favors Hamas.
The Hamas handbook clearly states its objective: No Jews from Haifa to Ashkelon, from Jerusalem to Joppa. To many Jews, it’s reminiscent of Reinhard Heydrich outlining the “Final Solution” at Wannsee in January 1942. The lessons of the Holocaust are burned into the soul of Israel. A final solution is not amenable to a political resolution. Israel is a sovereign nation established by the United Nations 73 years ago. While many Palestinians are willing to accept that, Hamas has no intention of reaching a political compromise with a Jewish state. There can be no compromise for a Hamas determined to obliterate Israel.
Hamas uses terror as a tool. It started with suicide bombers infiltrating Israel to blast cafes and buses. Self-detonations led to the closing of border check points. Israel responded with an anti-infiltration barrier: a wall that worked. Then came rocket attacks, at first homemade missiles with little effect before Iran started furnishing rockets able to reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with greater destructive power. Within a week, Hamas fired over 3,000 missiles into Israel with an estimated 9,000 rockets remaining to be fired. In the past, after running out of rockets and conducting a few suicidal raids from tunnels dug into Israel, Hamas called for a ceasefire while mobilizing media to depict Israeli retaliation as indiscriminate and overly harsh. For Hamas, this is standard operating procedure. For Israel, it is lunging at the toreador’s cape; a futile effort inevitably ending in death. Advantage Hamas.
This three-generation old war has become a struggle of enmity and hatred with survival at stake. If, as is possible, Hezbollah opens a second front supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, this will become Israel’s war of survival. While costly for Israel, this kind of war goes to an operational level where Israeli advantages in technology and firepower work well. Advantage Israel.
Israel’s relatively limited manpower is its greatest liability. It cannot win a perpetual war of attrition. Nevertheless, history teaches that aerial bombardment can harden the will of subject populations. Indiscriminate rocket attacks will coalesce Israelis and harden their resolve for whatever casualties may come. Additionally, universal military training also works to Israel’s advantage because most able-bodied Israelis—including women—served in the armed forces. Israel is a nation of well-armed citizens. In a war of survival, the advantage goes to Israel.
Urban combat is horrendously bloody. Israeli bombing and artillery strikes have created rubble-strewn streets useful for channeling invading forces into ambush kill zones where armor is more easily neutralized. Furthermore, urban combat is multi-dimensional. Hamas will command the rooftop “high ground” to attack from above while also forcing Israeli infantry into house-to-house fighting at the street level. In downtown Gaza, Hamas can move forces across rooftops. At the subsurface level, Hamas will attack the Israelis from tunnels and sewers. That is why the Israelis are attacking tunnel systems.
Israel also must win the media battle. Israel’s enemies—and they are legion—are already saddling the Jewish state with indiscriminate attacks on civilians. While this is exactly what Hamas is doing, it is also adept at flipping the propaganda tables. If possible, Israel must put an electronic prophylactic over Gaza. If not, bombing a building housing the Associated Press office offers a less elegant alternative. Israel cannot afford worldwide images of dying children and mothers along with caskets of heroes being carried through the streets of Gaza. Controlling the narrative is fundamental.
# # #
—Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.