Lessons from Gaza: The power of any high-tech military is way less than it seems on paper

By Gary Brecher , written on July 12, 2014

From The News Desk

Editor's note: The UN has called for a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The following article was written by Gary Brecher, and first published in 2012 by NSFWCORP (now part of Pando). It remains remarkably relevant today.

What’s going on in Gaza is war, but not the kind any commander from the past would understand. On paper, Israel should be winning easily, because they’ve got the weapons, the numbers, the organization. The weapons Hamas is firing into Israel are primitive things, unguided rocket artillery, the kind that couldn’t hit the ground if it wasn’t for the law of gravity. On the other side, the Israelis get the best weaponry the US can give them.

But it’s not that simple. Israel may win this battle, but it’s lost the war already. You see that in the confusion the IDF shows about what to do. They’ve tried stomping hard on Gaza. In late 2008 through early 2009, “Operation Cast Lead” sent IDF troops and planes smashing into this tiny overpopulated slum. They killed 1400 Palestinians, and it didn’t do much but make everybody sick to their stomachs — including even some Israelis, once they got over their initial gloating.

Now you’re seeing the IDF doing its usual mix of Heavy + Cautious: launching 300 air strikes but not doing anything decisive. No matter what Israel does in the next few days, there’ll still be 1.7 million pissed-off people jammed into Gaza. It’s like kicking aimlessly at somebody tied up at your feet: they won’t stop trying to get loose, and when they do, you’re not going to be happy. Logically, in classical military terms, it’s simple: you’d massacre or expel the whole population. Israel doesn’t quite have the ruthlessness to do that, but they have enough to keep hitting Gaza, killing some of the people they want dead and, since it’s a crowded slum with a huge birthrate, a lot of women and kids who are just hunkering down trying to survive.

There’s a lesson here that the typical war nerd, obsessed with high-tech hardware, could learn if they wanted to: the effective combat power of any high-tech power is way less than it looks like on paper.

In a situation like this, the real winner is likely to be the Gazans. But they will win ugly—very, very ugly, and very slow, with a lot of funerals and horror. It’s a good grim proof of the old guerrilla-warfare line: “Victory will go to those who can endure the most, not those who can inflict the most.” And there’s no doubt about who wins that contest. Gaza is a place that’s basically been driven insane. Imagine a strip of land about 20 miles long and five miles wide, with the sea on one side and the IDF on the other, with 1.7 million people festering in some of the world’s nastiest tenements, with no entertainment except the dream of getting a little payback on the people keeping you penned up.

If you want to follow the situation, the best site is the BBC Live feed.

It’s one of those situations they call “rapidly evolving,” which means the war is on. Sort of. This is another point most US war nerds are real slow catching onto: there’s no line between all-out peace and all-out war any more. In fact, all-out war is very, very rare. What you get is war by gesture, the kind of gesture that kills a few hundred, or thousand people, but does nothing to change the strategic picture. And when you have a tribal war, which is all this is, the strategic situation is more or less the demographics.

Gaza has one of the highest birthrates in the world. Israel has a mid-range birthrate, but the freakish thing about it is that it’s the West Bank settler-maniacs and the Haredi, the so-called “ultra-Orthodox,” who don’t even serve in the IDF, who have the highest birthrates. Exactly the people Israel and its American supporters don’t want to see outbreeding the secular “mainstream” Israeli Jews.

So Gaza is going to get more and more crowded, more and more angry, more and more willing to take 30 casualties for the chance to inflict just one on the Israelis. That’s about the rate it’s running now, 30 Arab casualties for every Israeli casualty—and you need to realize, that might be absolutely OK with the people in Gaza.

The Palestinians were simple peasants once, easy to lead, terrible fighters. Israel had lots of chances to deal with them, but they had a mandate—nothing worse than a mandate—and didn’t need to make a deal with anybody. Now it’s too late. There isn’t always a good solution at this point in the game. Maybe ten moves back you could’ve won, but not now.

We can talk about hardware, like the Fajr 5 missiles Hamas is firing at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as long as you keep in mind that this is not about hardware. First, the name: “Fajr” is the dawn prayer, the first and worst when you’re trying to get some damn sleep in any Muslim country. God, how I hated that 4:43 a.m. prayer when I was living right next to a mosque with a sound system that must’ve been run by AC/DC’s convert roadies.

Kinda weird naming a Thud-type missile after a prayer, but then Reagan called his new ICBM the “Peacemaker,” which is kind of a heavy sense of humor too, so who am I to criticize?

The Fajr 5 is an Iranian model with a range of 75 km, which puts both Israel’s big cities, Tel Aviv (where the liberals hang out) and Jerusalem (where the hardliners live) in missile range. I mean, think of that: we’re talking about a place so crowded and insane that a 75km range puts both of the country’s major cities in range—and those missiles are being fired from a giant slum where 1.7 million people are jammed up on the world’s dirtiest beach.

This is about those people, not rocket science.

Now, with that in mind, it’s true that the Fajr 5 is a big improvement on the Qassam rockets Hamas has been making in basements. Those things are just tubes with propellant and something that passes for a warhead. You point them more or less in the direction of the nearest Israeli settlement over the border, move them into somebody’s backyard in Gaza City and hope you won’t be blasted by one of the Predator drones the IDF has zooming like flies in the skies over Gaza, and launch it. It usually lands in a field or the desert, occasionally in or near one of the southern cities, and way more unusually actually kills somebody.

And when Hamas sends a volley of these useless rockets, the IDF responds with very advanced, very lethal guided weaponry. So Israel wins? No, not at all. This is a new kind of war. We aren’t talking about Stalingrad here. This is something new. If Israel used everything it has, well…remember, Israel is supposed to have about 200 nukes. They could wipe Gaza out. They won’t. What they’ll keep doing is sticking pins in Gaza, driving them more and more insane, making sure these people have nothing to do except have lots of babies whose big ambition is to be a martyr for Hamas.

By the time you read this, the IDF may already have started a ground attack on Gaza. I don’t know if they will, or, if they do, exactly how they’ll do it. All I know is that it won’t work.

A war gamer would say it’s simple: you use your superior weaponry to kill everyone in Gaza, lance it like a boil. Well, that’s not gonna happen. Off the table.

OK, then, you kill the bad guys and try not to kill too many good guys. Nope; there are no good or bad guys in Gaza, just goin’-on-two-million people who’ve been harassed and humiliated and driven clean out of their minds till they’re ready to see their own neighborhood flattened on the off chance they might take a few of you with them.

OK, then, you win them over.

Nope. Just plain nope.

This article was first published in 2012.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for NSFWCORP/Pando]