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Israel: the illusions of militarism

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
4 June 2002

Any independent assessment of the Israeli armed forces would initially conclude that they are remarkably strong, that they are supported by an unusually large defence expenditure, and that Israel should be able to defend itself against any likely threat. With a Jewish population of just over 5 million and a GDP of $99 billion, Israel spends about 10 per cent of its GDP on defence. Contrast this with Britain, with a population of nearly 60 million and a GDP of $1,400 billion, spending barely 2.5 per cent of its GDP on defence.

Israel’s armed forces are almost as large as those of Britain, and its reserve forces are twice as large as Britain’s total regular forces. It maintains nearly 4,000 tanks, compared with 600 for Britain, it has the most powerful air force in the Middle East and it is a nuclear power with at least 100 nuclear warheads that can be delivered by aircraft or by the Jericho missile.

Israel’s armed forces have traditionally been geared towards rapid manoeuvre warfare against neighbouring Arab states, with an air force capable of providing high levels of air defence combined with long-range strikes. This latter capability is being upgraded with the deployment of advanced F-15I and F-16I strike aircraft from the United States. Israel is also deploying its own anti-ballistic missile system, the Arrow, developed in close association with US aerospace companies.

In several wars with neighbouring states, Israel’s armed forces have proved themselves to be both competent and effective, but not on all occasions. Operation Peace for Galilee, the invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut in 1982, resulted in a huge loss of life among Palestinians and Lebanese, certainly over 10,000 people killed in a matter of months. But it also led to an occupation of much of Lebanon that was largely abandoned after three years in the face of guerrilla warfare from Hezbollah militia.

Then, as in more recent years, the Israeli army faced a war of attrition that continued in the face of its own use of massive firepower. In the first intifada at the end of the 1980s, Israel found that many in its conscript army reacted negatively to the use of the army as a vigorous instrument of public order control in the occupied territories.

All this serves as a context for the problems that Israel now faces in maintaining its own security, problems that are more intractable than most analysts would contend. During April 2002, the Sharon government embarked on a wide-ranging offensive military operation in the West Bank. The stated purpose was to defeat the suicide bombers and to reduce Yassir Arafat to an irrelevance. But it was also apparent that a key aim was to destroy substantial parts of the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Much of the latter was accomplished, to the obvious displeasure of several European states that had been aiding the PA, but Arafat survived his detention and appeared to emerge with a greater standing. In addition, it is painfully obvious to the Israeli public that the military operations have singularly failed to halt the wave of suicide bombings.

Moreover, Israel has lost substantial international support outside the Middle East, especially in Europe, with much of this stemming from its operations in Nablus, Jenin and Bethlehem. In the Middle East itself, Israeli military operations have been extensively reported, not least on the satellite news channels, and this has produced a mood of bitterness directed towards Israel and its putative champion, the United States.

In the United States itself, though, support for Israel remains strong. A perception has gathered strength that the Israeli domestic experience of suicide bombings is much akin to the devastating attacks on New York and Washington last September. Furthermore, these bombings have resulted in continuing domestic support for the Sharon government, with its only possible replacement, a coalition headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, likely to be even more hardline.

The IDF: fighting the wrong war?

In the recent military operations, it has become apparent to strategists within Israel that, for many years, the IDF has been planning for the wrong war. This may seem an extraordinary statement but it has to be appreciated that the IDF made minimal incursions into Hebron, one of the key cities of Palestinian resistance on the West Bank. It has also limited its operations into the densely packed refugee camps of Gaza to occasional forays.

The IDF experienced unusually heavy losses in the bitter fighting in Jenin, yet the refugee camp there was one of the smallest in the region. Moreover, the destruction brought about by the IDF operations caused an international outcry.

The reality is that Israel has concentrated for years on defence plans that are based on protection from external attack, whether it be from guerrilla groups in Lebanon or so-called “second and third ring opponents” such as Iraq and particularly Iran. These plans have entailed intelligence gathering, extensive air defences, long-range strike aircraft and a highly manouevrable army. What the IDF has not done is to concentrate on urban warfare.

Again, it may seem far-fetched even to suggest that the IDF has vulnerabilities. After all, it is extraordinarily strong and well equipped, and it has been facing poorly armed irregulars and militias in the occupied territories that are controlled by innumerable checkpoints and strategic roads. On the face of it, to talk of IDF limitations seems to be nonsense.

Perhaps so, but it is already painfully obvious that the use of massive firepower inevitably kills many people, and even the strongest forms of media control cannot prevent the images of destruction being spread across the region. It is also obvious that Palestinians remain resilient in the face of severe economic hardship, let alone deaths and injuries, and the suicide bombings continue.

The military operations in April have already displayed a wide range of limitations. The IDF faces an urgent need for more helicopters and unmanned aircraft, together with all-weather precision-guided weapons. It has relatively few troops trained in urban counter-insurgency, one of the most difficult military activities of all. The IDF is also deeply reluctant to commit ordinary infantry to such operations, especially when it is facing determined Palestinian guerrilla groups who have little to lose and may even be prepared for suicidal defensive tactics.

The IDF are perfectly capable of using overwhelming firepower against presumed centres of guerrilla activity. This was a method used repeatedly in Beirut in 1982, leading to many thousands of deaths. However, in the occupied territories, this is not possible, given the international outrage that would follow.

As a result, the IDF is urgently seeking the technologies and weapons to engage in the policy of precision strikes in dense urban environments. To put it bluntly, it does not have adequate forces for such action. Three examples illustrate its limitations. Israel has long had a policy of developing small drones for intelligence gathering. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used extensively in recent weeks, but they are unarmed, unlike some of the US drones used in Afghanistan. The Israeli UAVs may identify a guerrilla group as a target, but by the time a helicopter or strike aircraft is brought in to attack it, the group has disappeared.

Another example is the type of weapon with which the helicopters are equipped. This is typically a missile designed for anti-tank warfare in open country, rather than for use in dense urban environments. The IDF also has a shortage of all-weather precision-guided weapons, so there are many periods when it may not have the ability to attack given targets.

Israel’s change of tactics

More than two months after the military operations started, it is worth reflecting that they have not been extended to the heartlands of opposition in the occupied territories. There have been brief incursions into towns and cities, such as Jenin and Nablus, in response to further suicide attacks, but Hebron and Gaza remain outside the full field of operations.

What, then, will be the approach of the Sharon government? One point to recognise is that, if there are any major incidents in Israel leading to heavy loss of life, then the IDF will be ordered into cities such as Hebron and Gaza, whatever the difficulties and international consequences.

That apart though, there are two developments currently under way. One development is to re-equip and retrain elements of the IDF to make them more effective in urban counter-insurgency. This would involve a much heavier concentration on “remote” offensive action involving UAVs and helicopter gunships. However effective this would be, there is no doubt that future military operations will inevitably lead to many more Palestinians being killed, with the inevitable regional and wider international reactions.

The second development is an extraordinary tightening up of security throughout the occupied territories. The extent of this is only now beginning to appear in the western media, but it far exceeds most of the limitations of the past. Basically, it is a plan to encircle and isolate the eight major towns and cities of the West Bank. These include Ramallah, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Hebron, and even Bethlehem, with its proximity to Jerusalem, and Jericho, down in the Jordan Valley and away from most of the areas of conflict.

According to the plan, residents of each encircled urban area will not be allowed to travel outside these areas without an IDF permit, valid for a month at a time and limited to daytime only. This will, in effect, create a permanent curfew outside the cities and towns. Furthermore, any goods entering or leaving these controlled areas will have to be unloaded on one side of a checkpoint and reloaded on to other trucks across the checkpoint. In addition, no one with Palestinian papers will be allowed into Israel itself, and this is even to include East Jerusalem, the base of many of the aid agencies working with Palestinian communities.

These stringent measures are being introduced, according to Israeli sources, to counter suicide bombings and other tactics, but they are creating a form of apartheid that Palestinians claim is every bit as repressive as the South African pass laws. Furthermore, they are likely to fundamentally damage the Palestinian economy, already in deep recession with rampant unemployment, shortages of many supplies, and 500,000 people requiring international food aid.

The Israeli economy as a target?

Israel anticipates that the combination of these severe new security measures along with changing IDF tactics will enable it to control the Palestinian intifada. But past experience suggests the opposite. What appears much more likely is that the harsh Israeli security policies will do much to strengthen the position of the more radical Palestinian militia groups, leading to more bombings within Israel.

However much the IDF tries to control the occupied territories, it cannot close them off from Israel altogether, not least because of the extensive network of Jewish settlements that stretches across the West Bank. Israeli territory therefore remains vulnerable, and more attacks will ensue, motivated by the desperation of many Palestinians.

Given the current make-up of the Israeli government, and with Netanyahu seeking his opportunity, there is little likelihood of a change of policy. Moreover, the effects of the suicide bombings are so traumatic within Israeli society that they lead to more support for the government and an even greater desire for harsher military responses. For the radical Palestinian groups, this is precisely what is intended, as they seek a greater confrontation. But for most Palestinians, it makes their predicament even worse.

In all of this, there is a missing element in the analysis, the possibility that groups among the Palestinian militia may be developing a new tactic, of targeting the Israeli economy rather than its people. Over the past eighteen months, Palestinian paramilitary actions have involved three components: direct conflict with IDF units, attacks on settlers, and suicide attacks in Israeli cities. Rarely have there been any attempts to target the Israeli economy directly, although the impact on tourism, a significant part of the economy, has certainly been substantial, if indirect.

This may well have changed on 23 May. On that day, while most attention was focused on the aftermath of a suicide bombing at Rishon Letzion on the previous night and the Israeli killing of three Palestinian militants in Nablus, a bomb was detonated by remote control under a fuel truck parked at Israel’s largest fuel depot at Herzliya near Tel Aviv. The truck was parked close to a large fuel storage tank and the bomb set fire to the truck, but the resultant blaze was extinguished before it spread to other parts of the depot.

No single group was immediately identified as responsible. The attack came shortly after Israeli security officials were said to have uncovered a plan to blow up the Azriel Towers in Tel Aviv, the tallest buildings in Israel.

Global precedents

The significance of these developments may be substantial if it indicates that Palestinian paramilitaries are starting to develop a new tactic. While this may be new as far as the Palestinian/Israeli confrontation is concerned, it is certainly not new in terms of paramilitary actions elsewhere in the world.

From 1992 to 1997, the Provisional IRA (PIRA) engaged in a series of economic targeting campaigns in Britain, including three massive bombs in London, another in Manchester, frequent and highly disruptive attacks on road and rail communications, and even attempts to disrupt electricity, gas and oil supplies.

The attacks on the central business district of London caused huge consternation at a time when London was competing with Frankfurt as the financial centre of Western Europe. While successive governments persistently denied that the PIRA campaign was a source of concern, there were many indications to the contrary, even to the extent of a much greater commitment to a peace settlement in Northern Ireland.

Many other paramilitary groups have used economic targeting and, in some cases, it has had a pronounced political effect, not least in Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) have targeted business centres, Colombo Airport, oil facilities and electricity supply lines.

What may now be starting to happen in Israel is the recognition by some Palestinian paramilitaries that such methods may be more effective in their impact on the Israeli mood than the suicide bombs in cafes, markets and bars. If this is so, then the bombing attempt on the fuel depot near Tel Aviv may prove to have a considerable long-term significance.

Moreover, if Palestinian paramilitaries seek to combine suicide bombing with the use of truck bombs, then the consequences could be extreme, as events in Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s demonstrate.

Late in 1995, the Sri Lankan army launched a massive assault on the LTTE, taking its northern stronghold of Jaffna. It was a hollow victory since the LTTE forces melted away and resorted to a devastating response in the heart of Colombo. On 31 January 1996, just seven weeks after the fall of Jaffna, a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives up to the entrance to the Central Bank, in the heart of Colombo’s central business district.

The massive bomb killed nearly 100 people and injured 1,400. Many key buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, including the bank itself, the Celinko Insurance Building, the Colombo World Trade Center, the Air Lanka offices, the Bank of Ceylon, the Ceylon Hotels Corporation Building and several hotels. The bombing had a considerable impact on business confidence, a problem reinforced by a further attack on the Colombo World Trade Center two years later.

For the Israeli security authorities, their current policies of increasing control over the Palestinian population, coupled with revised military tactics, may give them the impression that they are in a position to maintain control. It is at least as likely that they may be facing quite different forms of attack.

If so, then the consequences could be extreme, confirming the belief of some security analysts that there is no alternative to a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians, not least because the potential for greater violence is much more substantial than is commonly recognised.

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