O Captain! My Captain!

Eleven years have passed since the earthly wanderings of Ariel Sharon were terminated by the April 2006 stroke that put him hors de combat. For eight long years after that he lingered. Tied to life support apparatus, occasionally moving an eyelid, but never once regaining consciousness. As time goes on, fewer and fewer people even remember his name. Where did he come from, what role did he play in Israeli history, and how is he likely to be remembered?


Ariel Sharon was born in 1928, the son of a farmer who worked the land to the northeast of Tel Aviv. During the first weeks of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence the young Sharon found himself defending his very home against Iraqi troops who had come all the way from Baghdad. So well did he do that he was given a platoon to command even though he had never attended officer school.

In May 1948, during an attack on a fortified police station near Jerusalem, Sharon commanded the lead platoon. Wounded in the groin and unable to walk, he was carried back to friendly lines on the shoulders of a comrade who had gone blind. Many years later, visiting the battlefield to explain the episode to me and about a hundred of my students, he added, with a wink, that he had not always been as big as he later became.

Soon after the war he left the army to study law. However, in 1953 he was brought back by the then deputy chief of staff, General Moshe Dayan who charged him with organizing and command a newly-established commando unit. The task of 101, as it was known, was to strike into the neighboring countries, principally Jordan and Egypt but occasionally Syria as well, from which terrorists crossed into Israel, robbing and murdering civilians living close to the borders. Later it was merged with a paratrooper battalion that carried on in a similar way. Sharon quickly proved an effective, if headstrong and brutal, commander. Repeatedly exceeding his orders and killing far more few Arabs than his superiors had expected (or so they claimed), his raids caused an international furor that reached all the way to the United Nations.

In the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian War he commanded an elite paratroop brigade. First he drove into the Sinai Peninsula to link up with one of his battalions that had been dropped near the strategic Mitlah Pass. Next, violating explicit orders, he sent another battalion to enter the Pass itself. Later, to justify himself, he argued that the move had been necessitated by reports about an armored Egyptian brigade which was coming at his paratroopers from the north. Perhaps so; the ensuing battle led to his brigade suffering one quarter of all Israeli casualties in that campaign.

Following this episode Sharon’s progress up the military hierarchy was brought to a halt Only in 1963 did he return to favor; the man who promoted him was then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin. In the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War Sharon commanded a division. Leading it in a model operation he captured Abu Agheila, the most important Egyptian fortified perimeter in the Sinai. Later, while serving as Commander, Southern Command, from 1969 to the summer of 1973, he waged the so-called War of Attrition against the Egyptians on the Suez. He also brutally put down a Palestinian Uprising in Gaza, killing hundreds and tearing down thousands of homes in the process.

By the time the October 1973 War broke out Sharon was no longer in uniform. However, he was called back to command a reserve division against the Egyptians. With it he crossed the Suez Canal, all but encircling the Egyptian Third Army making a decisive contribution to the outcome of the war. The men who fought with him gratefully remember the steadying effect of his voice as it came through on the radio amidst the chaos of burning tanks, exploding shells, and the screams of the wounded. Perhaps it was to reassure them that, during the war, he always had a vase with flowers standing on his desk.

By 1974 Sharon was out of the army for good. When Likud came to power in 1977 he became minister of agriculture under Menachem Begin. With Begin’s backing, used his position to increase the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank from 15,000 to 100,000 within just four years.

In June 1981 he became minister of defense. In June 1982 he launched the enormous war machine now under his command into Lebanon, Israel’s weak neighbor to the north. The declared objective was to end terrorism which had been coming from that country for over a decade past. The undeclared and much larger one, to help the Lebanese Christians set up a government that would turn it into an Israeli protectorate. But victory proved elusive; the outcome was a terrorist campaign fought first by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon, then by a militia known as Amal, and finally by Hezbollah.

In March 1983, held responsible for failing to prevent his Christian Lebanese allies from massacring as many as 3,000 men, women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, he lost his post. By that time so unpopular had he and the war become that the troops, adapting a well-known children’s ditty, were chanting the following rhymes:

Aircraft come down from the clouds

Take us far to Lebanon 

We shall fight for Mr. Sharon

And come back, wrapped in shrouds.

He did, however, remain in parliament. As Likud’s political fortunes rose, fell, and rose again, now he carried a ministerial portfolio, now was left out in the cold. As before, he strongly opposed all concessions to the Arabs. Including the 1993 Oslo Agreements with the Palestinians which were signed by his former commander and then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. In September 2000, following the failure of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO chief Yasser Arafat to reach agreement at Camp David, Sharon, by demonstratively visiting the Temple Mount, helped trigger off the Second Palestinian Uprising. Early in 2001 he took over as prime minister. In 2002 he consolidated his power by winning the elections. Meanwhile his efforts to suppress the uprising involved quite a bit of brutality, culminating in the attack on the West Bank City of Jenin in April-May 2002.

Whether Sharon was already thinking of giving up at least some of the occupied territories will never be known. At the time, he repeatedly said he was no de Gaulle. However this may have been, his hand was forced. To put an end to terrorism, the Israeli public demanded that a fence be built between themselves and the Palestinians. A fence did in fact go up around the Gaza Strip, and over the years has proved very effective in stopping the suicide-bombers who, at the time, formed the most serious threat of all.

From that point on there was no turning back. Israel evacuated the Strip, and Sharon made no secret of his intention to evacuate parts of the West Bank as well. When this led to a revolt among the members of his own Likud Party he left it, founded a new one of his own, and prepared for new elections. The rest, as they say, is history.  


Looking back on Sharon eleven years after his political demise, what can one say? Like most Israelis, he spent his entire life in a country that seldom knew anything like peace. Between the ages of twenty and forty-five he was almost always in uniform. Rising from the ranks, he was a highly aggressive and original commander who was constantly in the thick of battle. At least one of his operations, the attack on Abu Agheila, is widely regarded as a classic. None of this could prevent him from being disliked by his superiors, colleagues, and immediate subordinates some of whom accused him of dishonesty and undependability. He was, however, liked by his men and well-known for the way he took care of them.

Sharon’s role in 1973 War and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre, will forever remain the subject of debate in Israel. It is, however, overshadowed by his record as prime minister which is even more controversial. At the time when he first proposed, then carried out, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip Israel’s hawkish right, including many of his fellow Likud members, launched vicious attacks on him. So vicious that they may well have helped bring about the stroke that finally killed him. Later the wind shifted. By now, even some of his greatest opponents see the withdrawal for what it was. To wit, a smashing success—even though the occasional rocket is still coming in.

No other man could have done it. Had he lived, almost certainly he would have withdrawn form parts of the West Bank as well, or at least tried to do so. Not because he liked Palestinians. But because he believed, quite rightly in this author’s view, that stationing Israeli troops and civilian amidst a hostile population could only lead to an endless waste of lives and treasure. He would also have completed the security fence around the West Bank—something his successors Olmert and Netanyahu, for various reasons, never did.

To Sharon, the following lines apply:

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

                   But O heart! Heart! Heart!

                   O the bleeding drops of red

                   Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                   Fallen Cold and dead.

Gaza Agonistes

A decade after the last Israeli troops and settlers left Gaza, the withdrawal remains controversial in Israel. The former Israeli settlers there bewail their loss of the wonderful lives they claim to have led in the Strip; right-wingers rail against “Sharon’s crime” and try to use it as “proof” that any move in the West Bank would also be a failure. Time to look backward and take stock.

Some eighteen months have now passed since Israel’s last “war” with Hamas in Gaza came to an end. Since then the border, lined as it is with an electronic fence that has proved all but impenetrable, has been largely calm. Primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. First, the Israeli Iron Dome system’s success in neutralizing Hamas’ most important weapons, i.e. the rockets, was beyond all expectations. Second, the damage the Israelis inflicted on Gaza during the six weeks of Operation Protective Edge was vast; sufficient, it seems, to have taught Hamas a lesson. One which, looking back, could and should have been taught much earlier.

Ever since the Operation ended, says Israeli minister of defense Moshe Yeelon, Hamas had not fired even one bullet at Israel. That does not mean this have been absolutely quiet. Some incidents were provoked by all kinds of splinter organizations. Others were staged by individual residents of the Strip who, acting more or less on their own, decided to see what they could do by firing at Israeli patrols or trying to set up IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). In response the Israelis, obeying their reflexes, launched air strikes, occasionally killing and injuring a handful of people. In response the organizations in question, also obeying their reflexes, either launched rockets or fired mortar rounds at the neighboring Israeli kibbutzim. Amidst the occasional exchanges of fire, throughout 2015 and going into 2016 not a single Israeli was either injured or killed by anyone or anything coming from, Gaza. To be sure, luck played a role in this. Just one round or rocket hitting, say, an inhabited apartment would have changed the statistics. Still it is hard to believe that it is the only factor involved.

Looking further back, almost six years have passed since the Navi Marmara tried to break the Israeli maritime blockade of Gaza and was stopped at the cost of nine self-appointed Turkish do-gooders killed. People, incidentally, who came armed with every kind of edged weapon one could think of. At the time, the organizers threatened that the Marmara would merely be the first of many flotillas to come. Yet not only has nothing of the kind happened, but the Turks have lost much of their clout in the Middle East and are no longer in any position to bully anyone.

Back in the summer of 2006, the victory of the “extremist” Hamas over the “moderate” PLA in Gaza left most Israelis, and many non-Israeli as well, aghast. This author was one of the very few to argue that, in the long run, two weak governments, neither of which can speak for the Palestinian people as a whole, would almost certainly be better for Israel than a single relatively strong one. I still see no reason to change my view.

idf-trucks-keremshalom-novFigures on the Gazan economy are both hard to come by and unreliable. In part that is because, the two pieces of land, i.e. the Strip and the West Bank, are often seen as part of the same Palestinian economy. Still the CIA World Factbook claims that the economy grew 7 percent in 2012 and 6 percent in 2013. In 2014, due to Operation Protective Edge, it suffered a steep decline; however, UNSCO figures suggest a resumption of growth in 2015. In the lead are sectors such as construction (which went up by no less than 449 percent!) transportation and storage, agriculture, forestry and fishing, wholesale and retail trade, and mining, manufacturing, electricity and water.

Looking ahead into 2016 the PMA (Palestinian Monetary Authority) forecasts a growth of 3.3 percent. Not bad, considering the ongoing world-wide economic recession. Part cause, part consequence, of the expansion is the fact that 900 heavy trucks, crammed with merchandise of every kind, now enter the Stripe from Israel every day. To many Israeli right-wingers they are a thorn in the eye. But not one which is likely to disappear any time soon.

To be sure, both sides have been diligently preparing for the next round. Hamas has built more rockets possessed of longer range. They are now able to cover practically the whole of Israel and hit their targets much more accurately than before. Hoping to capture prisoners (hostages) if and when the next round takes place, Hamas has also been busy digging tunnels under the border. The Israelis on their part have been working on methods to detect tunnels—a surprisingly difficult task, it turns out. They are also trying to improve their early warning systems and missile defenses further still. Yet amidst all this both sides have repeatedly assured one another that escalation is not what they want. For the moment at any rate, and up to a point, live and let live seems to be the motto.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank and Israel itself hardly a day passes without some incident in which both Israelis and Palestinians (but mainly Palestinians) are killed or injured. So obvious is the reason that every half wit (but not Israeli right-wingers) can see it. In the case of Gaza, the two peoples are separated; in that of the West Bank, they are not.

Could Gaza serve as a model for the West Bank, or, to begin with, parts of it? Let’s start by putting aside all sorts of religious and ideological claims. In the world of strategy they do not count; nor is there any prospect of them convincing anyone except for part of Israel’s own population. Only one thing should count. To wit: how will Israel be stronger? With the West Bank or without it?

The main strategic argument right-wing Israelis use against a withdrawal from the lands in question is that doing so might lead to rockets being fired from them into Israel. But that is nonsense. Rockets and mortar rounds started coming from Gaza years before then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the Strip to be evacuated. Had the various militant Palestinian organizations in the West Bank wanted to, they could have used similar tactics long ago.

So it is up to Jerusalem to decide what it wants. Either an indefinite prolongation of the existing situation, with all its nasty implications for the country’s demographic balance, democracy and its standing in the world; or the erection of a wall and a withdrawal from occupied territory. Practically all of it, I would suggest. Including large parts of East Jerusalem which are purely Arab. Such a withdrawal would not necessarily have to be carried out all at once. One could start with the districts where Jewish settlements are thinnest on the ground and proceed from there, using each stage to see whether quiet is preserved and the time ripe for the next one.

After all, what does Israel have to lose? Except for the knifings, of course.

The Facts of the Case

Perhaps I should start this article with a little cautionary tale. Years ago I was teaching a course about the history of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I had just said that the kingdom of Jordan already had a Palestinian majority when a young student raised her hand and asked me, very politely, how I knew. To my shame, I must confess that the question took me by surprise—here in Israel everybody and his neighbor had been saying this for years, as they still do.

When I recovered I told her she was right and offered her a deal. She would look into the matter and do a research paper about it. In return, I would release her from the final exam. She agreed, and a few months later I received the paper which neither confirmed not contradicted my original claim. It did, however, draw my attention to some facts that I, and presumably many others as well, had never thought about. First, there was and is no accepted definition of a Palestinian. One reason for this is that there are several different kinds of Palestinians—old ones, medium ones and new ones, all depending on the date at which they had arrived in the Kingdom. Second, Jordan being the only Arab country that has granted the Palestinians in its territory citizenship, there were many mixed marriages with offspring, making the question as to “who is a Palestinian?” even harder to answer. Third, the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior for its own reasons is keeping a very tight hand both on definitions and on figures, with the result that nobody knew

Another personal story. Back in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, my son had an American girlfriend who lived in Utah. One evening we were sitting in front of the TV when the phone rang. It was Christine. “Jonathan, there has been shooting in your town. Are you alright?” It turned out there had indeed been a few shots; but even though our town is rather small she, living on the other side of the world, knew it before we did.

These incidents made me reflect, as never before, on information, numbers, and our frequent tendency to accept them without further thought. For example, the accepted number of those who died in the American Civil War is 600,000. That, however, conceals the fact that 400,000—fully two-thirds of the total—were not killed in action but succumbed to disease. When a violent coup overthrew the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauceşcu back in 1989 some otherwise reputable Western news organizations initially spoke of over 60,000 dead. How they ever arrived at that number remains a mystery to the present day. In the end, based on hospital reports, it turned out that the real figure was probably in the low hundreds.

In 1943 Colonels Klaus von Stauffenberg and Hennig von Tresckow estimated that “tens of thousands” of Jews had been killed. Both men had served on the Eastern Front. Both were leaders of the German resistance to Hitler and later paid with their lives for trying to blow him up. They certainly cannot be accused of trying to minimize what was not yet known as “the Holocaust;” yet by that time the true number of victims was already running into the millions.

Some of the discrepancies are the result of different definitions used by different people and organizations for different purposes. Others grow out of insufficient information amidst the usual confusion—the fog of war, as it is known. Others still represent deliberate fabrications. A very good example of the last-mentioned problem emerged in the spring of 2003 when the Israelis entered and partly demolished the West-Bank city of Jenin. A video camera, mounted on a one of those ubiquitous little machines that were then known as RPVs (remotely-piloted vehicles) and now as drones, caught a Palestinian “dead” man accidentally falling off the stretcher on which he was being carried, getting up, and walking away. Enough said.

And now, to Gaza. As the two sides seem to be moving towards some kind of agreements, things start to happen. Videos of IDF units being fired at from schools, mosques and hospitals are now available for anyone to watch. Foreign journalists who spent the last few weeks in Gaza are explaining how Hamas operators prevented them from doing their job, confiscated or broke their equipment, blacklisted them, and occasionally threatened them. Such tactics have always been common in war; why anybody can think that Hamas, a terrorist organization, should not use them escapes me.

Errors apart, and there undoubtedly have been some, the IDF has no incentive to deliberately target noncombatants. Why should it, given that doing so will not advance its goals and subject it to even more international criticism than that under which it is already laboring? To the contrary very often it uses leaflets, telephone calls, and even small missiles—so-called doorknockers—to warn people that their house or neighborhoods are about to be attacked and order them to leave. Probably no army in history has done more.

The IDF does not publish either the criteria it uses to decide whom to kill or the number of “terrorists” versus “civilians” it has killed. Under the policy known as “targeted killings,” some of the dead are identified by name. Since the main Hamas operatives have long gone to ground, though, their number is much too small to make a statistical difference. The rest are armed men who die either when they are caught in known Hamas facilities, such as command centers and rocket-factories, or else during the act of launching rockets or firing at IDF troops.

On the Palestinian side the best available single source is Hamas’ minister of health, Dr. Ashraf al Kidra. He works in a crowded office where he and his staff receive as many as 700 telephone calls a day, most of which carry information about fresh attacks. Each evening he holds a sort of press conference in which he spells out the figures for the preceding day. His data in turn form part of those collected by the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva which receives the reports of various NGOs in Gaza. As of the morning of 9 August the Office has reported some 1,843 deaths, including “at least” 1,354 noncombatants.

There are, however, problems with these numbers. First, as several international news organizations have noted, the percentage of women and children among the dead is much too small to justify the claim that the IDF is firing “indiscriminately.” The population of Gaza is the youngest in the world. Therefore, had the IDF indeed been firing “indiscriminately,” then women and children should have formed about 70 percent of the dead. In fact even the Palestinian data show that the figure is much lower. Second, Hamas, like so many similar organizations around the world, does not a regular army form. Many of its operatives do not wear uniform except when it suits them. As a result, to turn a dead “combatant” into a “noncombatant,” all one has to do is remove his weapon before filming him and informing Dr. Kidra. That, some foreign journalists have reported, was precisely what Hamas did. Conversely, the group with proportionally the highest number of casualties are young men aged 18 to 29—precisely those most likely to be killed in any war, big or small.

The moral? Beyond re-conforming the urgent need to treat “the fact of the case” with extreme caution, I am afraid there isn’t one.

My Country at War

My country has just gone through a war. This was not the kind of war where (on the Israeli side) there are very many casualties; let alone one in which it is a question of life and death. Nevertheless it was war. So let me try to tell my readers a little about the way an ordinary citizen experienced it.

Israelis have always been a nation of news junkies. As one would expect, during wartime this is even more the case. Many people checked the news several times an hour. Almost everybody did so several times a day. The media dealt with little else. Modern war is enormously wasteful in terms of ammunition and the present one is no exception. But compared to the number of images displayed, words uttered, and ink spilt, that of bullets, shells and missiles fired was as nothing.

Many of the images, words and ink were occasioned by the rockets. There is no defense against the short-range mortar shells and they have caused quite some casualties. That apart, though, the alarm system functioned very well. Depending on how far from the Gaza Strip one lives or works, the time one has to seek shelter varied from about thirty seconds to a couple of minutes. Israeli houses built after 1991 are obliged by law to provide a so-called mamad, a room made of reinforced concrete and provided with a heavy steel window. People, presumably the majority, who inhabit older structures had to be content with strairwells etc. Drivers caught on the road were told to “stop safely” on the shoulders (which quite some roads do not have). Though doing so was against the regulations, many used the opportunity to get out of their cars and watch the show in the sky. How typical.

As I have written before, the combination of effective civil defense and the by now famous Iron Dome system explains the small number of civilian casualties. In fact more people were killed and injured while rushing to shelter than by the rockets themselves. The impact varied with distance. Most heavily hit were the twenty or so kibbutzim along the border. They became ghost villages, deserted by practically all their inhabitants except for a handful of caretakers. Towns within a 25-mile range of the border, such as Ashkelon, were targeted sufficiently heavily to make normal life all but impossible and force the evacuation of children. Elsewhere the impact was sporadic, even negligible. Further to the north there was hardly any impact at all.

Each night the Army spokesperson announced the number of soldiers who had died that day. It has long been the Israeli method not to release names until the families are informed. Informing them is the task of so-called Hiob Patrols. Though their composition varies, normally they consist of an officer, a physician and a rabbi. They receive special training for the job. Seen from the outside the system seems as well-thought out and as humane as it can be made. What it feels like from the inside only those who participate in it or receive the news it brings know.

Each day there were funerals, a few of civilians, the majority of soldiers. Most dead soldiers were young, even very young. War has always been, and still remains, what the Germans call Kindermord. How does one describe the pain? The military funerals followed the normal rules, more or less. However, ceremonial has never been the strength of the Israeli army or, for that matter, the rather undisciplined character of the people in which it is rooted. During previous conflicts TV used to show the dead soldiers’ comrades crying like babies over the graves. This time they did not do so. Good.

In much of the country life was and remains far quieter than usual. There was less traffic. Normally driving from Jerusalem to Mevasseret Zion (the town where I live, some four miles away) can take half an hour and more. During the war one could cover the road in a few minutes. Supermarkets, restaurants, movie houses and hotels were half empty. Nor is it only Jewish facilities that suffered. A town like Abu Gosh, a mile away, which in ordinary days makes it living by catering to Jerusalemites on Saturdays when their own everything is closed, was also hard hit. Safety considerations forced the cancellation of many cultural events. Almost every day one heard of some foreign artist or group that decided to skip.

Crime seemed to go down. The number of patients visiting doctors definitely went down. War has a way of making people forget many minor and some major problems. By way of compensation, quite some cars suddenly sprouted flags. Normally they are limited to the days before Independence Day. One saw signs carrying slogans such as “Mevasseret Zion hugs its solders” and the like.

Intolerance, even fanaticism, was and remains in the air. Some self-appointed vigilantes tried to shut up their less hawkish opponents. More than one person who dared say anything against the Israeli Operation, or in favor of the Palestinians, was disciplined and fired. Considering that it is the first duty of universities to protect freedom of speech, one of the ugliest incidents took place at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. When a faculty member dared say that he was sorry not only for Israeli children but for the Palestinian ones as well, he was formally reprimanded by the dean. To be fair, a kindergarten mistress who wrote “death to the Arabs” on Facebook is also supposed to be tried for incitement.

Here and there words turned into violence as Jews attacked Arabs and Arabs, Jews. Thank goodness, though, the number and scope of such incidents has been limited. Furthermore the situation is better than in Gaza where there has never been any form of democracy and where Hamas simply executes whoever dares protest against it.

What will the outcome be? Here I can only repeat what I have been saying ever since the war broke out. The war will end with a triumph for Hamas. Not in a military sense, but in the sense that they will be able to push through some of their political demands. To this I would add, as I wrote last week, that such an outcome would not necessarily be bad either for Israel or for the Middle East. Eventually it might lead, if not to peace then at any rate to calm.

A final word. Since 1990 or so Israel’s feminist lobby has become one of the most virulent on earth. Probably this is not unconnected with the fact that, while the country still has its problems, the days when it fought for its existence against overwhelming odds are long gone. The Israeli army in peacetime is 25-30 percent female. Since there are few female reservists and few of them are ever called up, in wartime the figure goes down very sharply.

Nobody doubts that female soldiers do their jobs properly. Still the war caused attention to be focused almost entirely on the fighting formations, and rightly so. It is they who suffer casualties and deserve to be celebrated. As the fact that no female Israeli soldier so far has been killed shows, where there were bullets there were no women and where there were women there were no bullets. As a result the feminist “discourse,” consisting of endless complaints about everybody and everything, suddenly became muted.

Unfortunately it won’t last.



Stuck in Gaza

The good news is that, here in Mevasseret Zion not far from Jerusalem, things have been less exciting than during the first week of Operation “Firm Rock.” The same applies to many other Israeli cities located relatively far away from Gaza. Possibly this is due to the fact that Hamas has a problem with its long-range rockets which, owing to their size, are harder to conceal and take longer to launch. The bad news is that elsewhere, and especially in the Israeli districts that surround the Gaza Strip, the rockets keep falling. Thus it would appear that the struggle, which has now lasted for two weeks, is far from over.

In this situation it is interesting to take a fresh look at what Clausewitz—I assume readers of this website will know who he was—has to say about wars of this kind. As I have written elsewhere, most of On War is couched in terms of the classic division of labor between the government that directs, the armed forces that fight, kill and die, and the people who pay and suffer. Still the maestro did include a short chapter—five pages out of over five hundred—dealing with what he calls “the People in Arms,” (Volksbewaffnung), AKA terrorism, AKA guerrilla, AKA insurgency, AKA asymmetric war. Drawing upon the wars in Russia, which he witnessed in person, and in Spain, which he did not, he lists the following as “the only conditions under which a general uprising can be effective:”

  1. The war must be fought in the interior of the country.
  2. It must not be decided by a single stroke.
  3. The theater of operations must be fairly large.
  4. The national character must be suited to that kind of war.
  5. The country must be rough and inaccessible, because of mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local methods of cultivation.

To which one might add:

  1. A country that borders on another from which the terrorists/guerrillas/insurgents can be resupplied and which will afford them refuge when they need it.

To what extent does the war Hamas is waging against Israel meet these conditions, and what are its prospects of gaining a victory? To answer this question it is perhaps best to change the order in which Clausewitz proceeds. Let us start with condition No. 2 as the most obvious of all. Elsewhere in On War Clausewitz says, quite rightly, that war consists of the interaction between the belligerents. A war that is decided by a single stroke to which the opponent has no answer is, by this interpretation, not a war at all. So weak is Hamas that, starting on the first day of the war, it and the people of Gaza whom it claims to represent have been taking roughly a hundred casualties for every one the Israelis suffered. Nevertheless, of the latter ending the struggle by a single blow there can be no question.

For as long as guerrilla and its relatives have existed, one very important way of making sure the struggle cannot be decided by a single stroke is to rely on No. 6. Alas for Hamas, in this respect its situation is well-nigh hopeless. The sea- and land routes to and from Gaza are blocked by the Israeli navy and army respectively. The Egyptians, who police their own border with Gaza, do the rest. Only the fact that the Israelis allow 200 or so truckloads per day to cross keeps Hamas and the population of Gaza going. Israel has even deployed a field hospital where the sick and wounded of the other side can be treated. But for these and similar measures hunger and disease would have spread very quickly. The probable outcome would have been the disintegration of Hamas rule and the creation of chaotic conditions like those prevailing in large parts of Iraq.

All this enhances the importance of proposition No. 4 (the role played by national character.) As both the history of the Arab-Israeli wars and the two Gulf Wars have shown, Arabs are not very good at waging modern conventional war against similar opponents. The question why this is so deserves to be considered in depth but is beyond the scope of the present article. Arabs have, however, done much better in waging guerrilla struggles. Even without considering wars such as the one in Yemen (1962-70), during which they chased away the British, they have forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon and the Americans, from Iraq.

Whatever else may be said about the current war in Gaza, so far Hamas troops—not the leaders, who hide in bunkers deep underground—have been fighting courageously in spite of the overwhelming odds they face. Here and there, as in their attempts to penetrate Israel either by sea or by way of tunnels that pass under the border, their courage has been well-nigh suicidal. In part because the Israelis, who have good cause to worry about international reaction, do their best not to inflict too many civilian casualties, the population of Gaza has also been holding up well. Judging by events so far, if a ceasefire is finally established it will not be because the population forced Hamas to accept it.

“The theater of operations must be fairly large,” reads proposition No. 3. Generally speaking, that is true. A large territory will make it hard for the counterinsurgent to focus on one point while affording the insurgents many opportunities to escape, disperse, and hide. But by no stretch of the imagination can the Gaza Strip, 32 miles long and just 6.8 wide, be considered “large.” In the entire Strip, there is probably not a single target the Israelis, had they wanted to and been prepared to take the necessary casualties, could not have reached in an hour or less. To say nothing of the ever-present fighter-bombers and drones that can reach those targets in minutes if not in seconds. That is why, in Operation Firm Rock, proposition No. 2—regarding the inaccessibility of the country in which the guerrillas must operate—is as important as it is. Though in this case it is urban terrain and its plentiful civilians, not “mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local methods of cultivation,” which obstruct the Israelis.

Considering these factors, which side is more likely to win? In the absence of a ceasefire, the outcome is likely to be a struggle of attrition from which the side with the last ounce of willpower will emerge triumphant.

Yet there remains one very important point Clausewitz does not mention. Henry Kissinger, with Vietnam in mind, once said that the counterinsurgent, as long as he does not win, loses. The insurgent, as long as he does not lose, wins. Even if—which, at the moment, seems unlikely—Israel succeeds in forcing the other side to accept a ceasefire based on a return to the status quo ante, Hamas leaders will be able to claim that taking on the worst its enemy can do, standing like a firm rock, and surviving represents a triumph which will enable them to look into the future with some confidence.

And in making this claim they will not be very wrong.

Under Fire

My wife and I live on our own in a townhouse a few miles west of Jerusalem, within range of the rockets from Gaza. Several times over the last few days the alarm was sounded. We react by leaving the living room, which has glass doors facing the garden. Should a rocket explode nearby, then flying shards will cut us to ribbons. So we move into the stairwell which, made of reinforced concrete, offers good protection. We are lucky to have it, for my wife has just had her knee operated on and could not run if her life depended on it. I suppose something similar would apply to hundreds of thousands of others both in Israel and in Gaza. We wait until the sirens stop wailing—a hateful sound—and we have heard a few booms. Then we check, on the news, whether the booms originated in rockets being intercepted by Iron Dome or in such as have not been intercepted hitting the earth. A few telephone calls to or from our children, and everything returns to normal until the next time.

And so it goes. One gets up each morning, sees that the surroundings look much as usual, heaves a sigh of relief, and prepares for the coming day. Yet for several days now, much of Israel has been under fire. That is especially true of the southern part of the country. Over there ranges are short and incoming rockets smaller, harder to intercept, and much more numerous. There are several dozen wounded—most of them hurt not by incoming rockets but while in a hurry to find shelter. As of the evening of Tuesday, 19 July, following eight days of fighting, just one Israeli, a civilian, has been killed by Hamas fire.

Several factors explain the low number of casualties. First, the rockets coming from Gaza are enormously inaccurate. They hit targets, if they do, almost at random. Second, the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system works better than anyone had expected. The system has the inestimable advantage in that it can calculate the places where the rockets will land. Consequently it only goes into action against those—approximately one in five or six—that are clearly about to hit an inhabited area. The outcome is vast savings; in some cases, realizing that the incoming rockets are not going to hit anybody or anything, the authorities do not even bother to sound the alarm. Third, civil defense seems to be working well; people obey instructions and are, in any case, getting used to this kind of thing. Fourth, as always in war, one needs luck.

In turn, the small number of casualties and the limited amount of damage inflicted has enabled the government of Israel to keep the lid on its own actions in the face of extremist demands. Fewer than two hundred people in Gaza, about a hundred of them civilians, have been killed. Given how densely populated the Strip is, and that the Israelis claim to attack several hundred targets each day, that is a surprisingly low number. It suggests a degree of control and precision never before attained or maintained in any war in history. But while the Israelis have been extremely effective in avoiding collateral deaths, the impact of their strikes against Hamas’ short-range rockets in particular is limited. Many targets known to harbor military installations but located in or under hospitals and schools have not been attacked at all. Others were hit and destroyed, but only after IDF operatives called their inhabitants or used a small missile to warn them and order them to get out. Strangest of all, throughout this about 200 trucks keep crossing from Israel into Gaza every day. They carry food, fuel, and medicines without which the Strip could not survive for long.

But Israel’s lucky run will not last forever. Sooner or later, a Hamas rocket that for one reason or another has not been intercepted is bound to hit a real target in Israel and cause real damage. Imagine a school or kindergarten being hit, resulting in numerous deaths. In that case public pressure on the government and the Israel Defense Forces “to do something” will mount until it becomes intolerable.

What can the IDF do? Not much, it would seem. It can give up some restraints and kill more—far more—people in Gaza in the hope of terrorizing Hamas into surrender. However, such a solution, if that is the proper term, will not necessarily yield results while certainly drawing the ire of much of the world. It can send in ground troops to tackle the kind of targets, such as tunnls, that cannot be reached from the air. However, doing so will almost certainly lead to just the kind of friendly casualties that the IDF, by striking from the air, has sought to avoid.

Whether a ground operation can kill or capture sufficient Hamas members to break the backbone of the organization is also doubtful. Even supposing it can do so, the outcome may well be the kind of political vacuum in which other, perhaps more extreme, organizations such as the Islamic Jihad will flourish. Either way, how long will such an operation last? And how are the forces ever going to withdraw, given the likelihood that, by doing so, they will only be preparing for the next round?

And so the most likely outcome is a struggle of attrition. It may last for weeks, perhaps more. Humanitarian efforts to help the population of Gaza, however well meant, may just prolong the agony. In such a struggle the stakes would hardly be symmetrical. On one hand there are the inhabitants of Gaza. Increasingly they have their lives turned upside down by the constant alarms, strikes, and people who are wounded or killed. On the other are those of Israel who, though their lives have also been affected, have so far remained remarkably calm and resilient under fire. Though some areas are badly affected, the Israeli economy has also been holding up well.

Perhaps because the number of Gazans killed and wounded is fairly small, international reaction, which is always hostile to Israel, has been relatively muted. One reason for this appears to be that no outsiders have what it takes to push either side towards a ceasefire. In a struggle of attrition it is the last ounce of willpower on both sides that will decide the issue. So far, it does not seem that the willpower in question has been exhausted on either side.