Israel’s thirty-three day war with Hizbollah in July-August 2006 saw the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) experience multiple difficulties, especially in confronting paramilitaries on the ground in southern Lebanon. As the fighting continued, the Israeli airforce turned more and more to striking at Hizbollah’s infrastructure. But the latter was closely integrated into the Lebanese economy, with the result that considerable damage was inflicted on the country as a whole. The same pattern was seen in Israel’s Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2008-09 (this time lasting fifty days), though many fewer IDF personnel were killed than in 2006.
The IDF has studied these two operations, and adapted in three ways. The first is to put far more emphasis on training its regular soldiers in urban counterinsurgency operations against well-entrenched and determined opponents. This training - especially of elite units such as the Golani brigade - has been intense. It includes making use of the mock Arab town, Baladia, built for the IDF in the Negev by the US army corps of engineers (see "A tale of two towns", 21 June 2007).
Ther second is a sustained programme to re-equip the army with weapons designed specifically for urban combat. The leading example is the Micro-Tavor TAR-21 assault-rifle developed and produced by Israel Weapon Industries. The TAR-21 is already deployed with special forces and elite brigades; by 2018 it will equip all army units, including reservists.
The third and far the most significant adaptation has been by spending billions of dollars on the Digital Army Program (DAP): a complex initiative to provide comprehensive real-time integration of data between all branches of the armed forces and the intelligence, surveillance, coordination and command systems. Israel is hardly alone here, for several states seek to achieve the same result. The US has been doing it on a much larger scale, and shares much of its US experience with Israel. The DAP, which is centred on the Tzayad digital command-and-control network, relies heavily on US technology (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel Lauds New Capabilities in Gaza", 16 August 2014).
Behind all this effort is the belief that, if the IDF has to engage with groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, it will be in a very much stronger position to do so than in Lebanon in 2006 or Gaza in 2008-09.
A past reloaded
What, then, of the past seven weeks of conflict, which ended with a ceasefire on 26 August 2014?
The message from the IDF has been clear - the new system has been a success, enabling the Israeli forces to be able repeatedly to counter Hamas actions. Such a view can be expected from the IDF and the Israeli government, but the reality is rather different. For even with some of the most sophisticated methods and technologies available anywhere in the world, the ground war in Gaza has been chastening for the IDF.
The IDF losses have been far higher than in 2008-09, with sixty-four killed and 450 wounded, many of the latter maimed for life. Throughout the ground offensive the IDF found it singularly difficult to counter the abilities of the Palestinian paramilitaries; one of the incursions into Israel through an infiltration tunnel led to the deaths of five young Israeli sergeants and the capture of one of the much-lauded TAV-21 assault-rifles (which then received prominent display by Hamas propagandists).
Indeed, it is probably a reasonable assessment that while the IDF has worked hard and spent substantial resources to redevelop its urban counterinsurgency abilities, Hamas has actually learned faster (see "Problems ahead for Gaza after Pyrrhic victory in Gaza", The Conversation, 15 August 2014).
The results could be seen towards the end of the seven weeks of fighting, after the IDF's withdrawal from Gaza, when it launched further airforce attacks on what was described as Hamas infrastructure. These destroyed six high-rise blocks, and hit numerous factories and warehouses as well as fuel-supply, electricity-generation and sewage-treatment facilities.
Many of the targets were connected to Hamas's organisation in Gaza, as well as contributing to the severe overall toll of Palestinian losses (over 2,100 killed, 11,000 wounded, and nearly a third of the population displaced). The tactic is also similar to the final days of the war over Lebanon in 2006 and, earlier, the second intifada in the West Bank in the early 2000s. At that time, the IDF sought to cripple the Palestinian Authority's ability to govern the areas under its control by targeting administrative headquarters and NGO offices. The ministries of local government and education, and even the Palestine statistical bureau, were among those ransacked and had their records destroyed (see "Israel's strategy: the impotence of arms", 11 April, 2002).
Today, the tactic will have little effect as Hamas acquires the considerable resources needed to rebuild Gaza, almost certainly helped by Qatar and some other western Gulf states. Hamas will likely be rigorous in efforts to maintain control, as seen in the execution of men and women in Gaza deemed to have been collaborators with Israel in the war. At the same time, Hamas retains substantial support in Gaza and finds increasing sympathy in the West Bank, a source of great worry to the Palestinian Authority.
A future foretold
In Israel, the post-conflict position of Binyamin Netanyahu is different. The response to the announcement of a long-term ceasefire has been notably downbeat, with Netanyahu himself condemned for achieving little, if anything, to advance Israel's war aims. The prime minister's personal standing dropped from 82% around 22 July (two weeks into the war) to 38% at its end.
The Israeli government's dilemma is that, without a full-scale and long-term military occupation of Gaza, it can neither stop the rockets nor prevent more infiltration tunnels being constructed. The latest conflict shows that such an endeavour would be hugely costly to Israel's own forces, lead to further decline in its already diminishing international standing, and result in thousands more Palestinians being killed (see "Why Israel lost", 5 August 2014).
The conflict is deeply asymmetrical. Israel has far superior force that it can use to pummel Gaza, including now the practice of network-centric warfare. Yet Israel now has more to worry about than its Hamas adversary.
The eventual consequence of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of October 1973 was to bring the hawkish Likud to power. In time, the war of 2014 may have an equally big effect on Israeli politics.