The recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza is being hailed as a significant step forwards on the road
map to peace in the Middle East. Is it however, really a case of a political concession being made to
disguise a military reality?
Imagine you’re an Israeli army reservist called up for your annual tour of active duty. After leaving
behind office or factory you find yourself guarding settlers on the West Bank, or maybe involved in
some punitive raid on a refugee camp. All part of the routine. Well, not exactly. The backbone of
the Israeli Defence Force is its armour. Thousands of tanks need crews: drivers, gunners, signalers
and mechanics, all trained for that kind of warfare rather than playing policeman in the West Bank.
The trouble is, there’s not time to retrain. Vulnerable Israeli soldiers simply have to get on with it.
Some armies develop a reputation for being good at particular types of warfare. The Israeli
Defence Force is noted for its skill at fighting under desert conditions. However as recent
experience in the Occupied Territories has shown, the IDF has proven so far incapable of making
the transition to a different kind of warfare and this is not the first time.
What is happening in the Occupied Territories shows parallels with events in southern Lebanon
where Israel was in occupation for twenty years. An army which had earlier deployed
overwhelming firepower in its invasion of the country, found itself being harassed by Hezbollah
guerillas who used roadside bombs and rocket attacks to maintain a steady trickle of Israeli
casualties. The fighting in the Occupied Territories suggests that the politicians have learnt little
from this experience and the IDF hasn’t had the chance. The sight on our television screens of
aircraft being used to strafe targets in urban areas and battle tanks on the streets of Bethlehem,
suggests that the IDF has failed to evolve a proportionate response to Palestinian militancy. The
aim of using aircraft and tanks may be to minimize military casualties but the evidence suggests
that it is not working and in terms of hardening opinion against Israel, their use has been a disaster.
Worse, when soldiers become reliant on this kind of support, individual initiative fails to develop.
In the town of Jenin 13 Israeli soldiers died in 2002 when they entered a booby trapped
building. Israeli soldiers were quoted as asking why they were required to clear the narrow
alleyways of the Jenin refugee camp house by house, instead of the job being done by aircraft. The
answer is because unless military commanders are allowed to pursue a scorched earth policy, then
there comes a time when soldiers have to operate on foot in the way that they’ve always done.
Israeli politicians avoid the term ‘police action’ because to acknowledge that’s what it is means
restricting their forces to a proportionate response. Unfortunately the IDF isn’t up to it and
ironically it is their soldiers as well as Palestinian civilians who are paying the price.
As any professional soldier will confirm, fighting in a built up area is seen as the most difficult and
dangerous form of warfare. Northern Ireland was a good example, and there were no tanks
and aircraft to call upon. In the Occupied Territories the use of equipment designed to achieve
military superiority on the battlefield, has paradoxically begun to enhance the weaknesses of
the IDF soldiers on the ground. In the words of Israel’s best known military historian, Professor
Martin Van Creveld, ‘he who is wise should never engage the weak for any length of time’.
Unfortunately the IDF have done just that. As a consequence the Palestinian fighters have begun to
to find ways around their military weakness. The suicide bomber is perhaps the most terrifying
example but there are others. Recently two Merkava battle tanks were disabled, suggesting that
even the heaviest weaponry is now becoming vulnerable. Worse still for the ordinary soldier were
the deaths of seven of their colleagues in a sniper attack. The effect on military morale can be
imagined, since this suggests a leadership failure of the worst kind, by the man in charge on the
Various commentators have noted that the IDF has failed to develop effective methods for dealing
with rioting and low level guerrilla warfare, relying instead on a heavy-handed response which has
made a bad situation much worse. Soldiers like to learn from each other. Why then has the IDF
failed to note the Northern Ireland experience? The answer is likely to be that structurally the IDF is
ill suited to making the change. Israel has a conscript army and in the days when the threat came
from neighbouring countries, homeland defence was all the motivation her soldiers needed to hone
their professionalism. The IDF still fields 3,900 tanks. This means large numbers of soldiers trained
to operate these. Turning this homeland defence force into soldiers capable of carrying out a police
action would be difficult enough in a professional army. For the IDF relying on the call-up of
reservists to swell its numbers it is impossible. A man taken from the office or factory for a
month’s duty has to be thrown into the conflict. There is simply not the time or the opportunity to
retrain for internal security duties.
Is it in fact the case that Israel has chosen to withdraw from Gaza for reasons of military reality,
rather than political expediency?