There are many similarities between Israel’s ongoing Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and its Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. In both cases, Israel is bombarding and inserting ground troops into territory from which it had withdrawn on the understanding that withdrawal would lead to peace; in both instances, withdrawal, in fact, was seen as a sign of weakness and actually precipitated further rocket attacks upon Israeli cities, in the north in the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in the southwest, especially the town of Sderot, in the case of Hamas in Gaza.
There are of course significant differences. Gaza is a small, dense, and urban area about which Israel has an intimate knowledge and good intelligence, while Lebanon is geographically larger and less dense in population, and Israeli intelligence on Hezbollah has always been weak when compared with its grasp of the workings of Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian groups. Significantly, too, there is pressure on Israel to restore its credibility as an unbeatable military force, much diminished by the nebulous and ultimately unachieved goals set for the Lebanon war two and a half years ago.
Hamas is also, in military terms, a less formidable enemy than Hezbollah and lacks an explicit connection to Iran, with the training, intelligence and weaponry that the latter provided in the 2006. Already, communications for Hamas have been reduced to walkie-talkies, as cell phone coverage has been destroyed and much of the landline infrastructure as well. Opposition to the IDF is also hampered in Gaza by the intense hostility between Hamas and Fatah. Even in the midst of an open conflict, Hamas is diverting time and energy to pursuing its feud with Fatah, accounting for at least some of the rapidly mounting Palestinian casualties in Gaza.
Air power was a major feature of the Second Lebanon War. The promotion of Dan Halutz, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, to the position of chief of staff of the IDF was a significant factor in this heavy reliance upon aerial bombardment. Prior to his appointment, only one other chief of staff had been drawn from a service other than the army. While there is no question that Halutz was a stellar Air Force commander, the tools and mindset he brought to his leadership of the entire IDF was not ideally suited for that role.
During his term as the most senior officer in the IAF, Halutz established himself as an innovative thinker who successfully adapted air power to Israel’s security situation, which was and remains unique among countries possessing advanced and reliable air forces. It was under his guidance, for example, that helicopter gunships and jets were routinely used for precision attacks, both against buildings and in targeted killings of terrorist leaders. This reflected not only his commitment to acquiring an up-to-date fleet, but also to inter-service cooperation. It was not uncommon for a targeted killing to be carried out within hours, sometimes minutes, of military intelligence identifying the target’s location.
Yet these targeted killings, and the pinpoint destruction of buildings that were carried out extensively in the Second Lebanon War, are illustrative of the weakness of relying too heavily upon air power. Just as targeted killings — which minimized Palestinian civilian casualties, prevented the deaths of Israelis at terrorist hands, and used the smallest and most focused force feasible — were nonetheless criticized broadly on the international stage, so too were attempts to destroy crucial bridges and roads, pivotal to crippling Hezbollah, painted as wanton Israeli destruction, rather than the quite limited measures they actually were.
Proponents of air power in most countries (many of whom are senior air force officers and strategists, and thus have an interest in bolstering their service’s profile) have often argued that air strikes are an efficient and fairly safe way of waging war, with very low casualty rates for the side making the air strikes, and a quick and complete devastation of the enemy a likely outcome. Its critics argue that these very qualities make it inhumane: that the low rate of air force casualties compared to those killed by bombing is disproportionate, and that the speed with which enemy infrastructure is destroyed creates humanitarian crises.
In the Second Lebanon War, these shortcomings of air power dominated the media narrative and, to some extent, actually characterized Israel’s approach to the war. Halutz, for instance, was harshly criticized for allegedly ordering that ten buildings be destroyed in Beirut for every missile that was fired at Haifa in July of 2006. Whether or not this directive was actually issued or put in place, the currency gained by this accusation stems from the perception in some quarters that this is exactly the problem with air power: that it is used for collective punishment and retaliation, and that it exacts a toll on the enemy with a speed and relative lack of reciprocal threat unimaginable using ground forces. Clearly, Israel’s use of air power in the Second Lebanon War exacerbated its public relations problems, and helped it to lose the war for international opinion.
It was also militarily less than successful. While images and accounts of chaos and destruction in south Lebanon permeated the media, in reality Hezbollah was dealt only a temporary blow, from which it quickly recovered. While retaliatory strikes were carried out against buildings in Beirut and south Lebanon, Israel deliberately held back from destroying the Lebanese electrical grid or water infrastructure. This minimized the suffering of civilians but also made it easier for Hezbollah to continue operations. Less justifiably, the senior Israeli leadership dithered over an attack on a group of Hezbollah leaders in south Beirut, which could conceivably have decapitated the organization, until the opportunity had passed, as documented by William Arkin, an expert in civilian casualties of warfare.
The question that must be asked as the Gaza war against Hamas enters its third week is whether Israel learned from those mistakes and is deploying air power more effectively from both the military and public relations perspectives. Certainly, the objectives established for the war are more modest; while in 2006 he spoke of defeating Hezbollah, as well as recovering the two soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the war, in December Israeli PM Olmert said that the purpose of Operation Cast Lead is to “restore normal life” to residents of southern Israel.
In terms of targeting, the IDF seems to be deploying air power more conservatively and with an eye to damaging Hamas’ ability to make war on, or even harass, southern Israel. Many senior Hamas personnel have been killed, weapons stores and missile launchers have been destroyed, and the tunnels to Egypt through which Hamas will try to rearm are being systematically destroyed. While so far no long term strategy for isolating, democratizing, or even reoccupying Gaza has been set out, the medium term goals of crippling Hamas in Gaza and destroying its ability to use rockets against neighboring communities have been realized. As well as choosing targets with an eye toward strategy rather than retaliation, the IAF is believed to be using new bombs which yield both a smaller radius of destruction and a greater ability to penetrate fortifications, making them well suited to pinpoint attacks on buildings and tunnels.
And finally, Israel — recognizing the systemic bias of the major newspapers — seems to be making an effort to put out its story effectively and reaching out to blogs and through the internet. Most notable is its establishment of an official YouTube channel for the IDF spokesman, with videos showing, among other things, the bombing of weapons storage sites and missile launchers.
The Israeli government is adapting to the reality that however great its military power, and however just its cause, its long term strategy must depend at least as much upon winning journalists’ minds as upon defeated Hamas fighters. While the IDF and IAF appear to have learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War, the reality of a battle against a terrorist organization is that, like Hezbollah, Hamas could absorb a crushing military defeat and by any conventional measure lose this war. Yet it could still achieve victory, as its position as Fatah’s replacement and the ideology that links it with Iran and attracts it supporters from around the world is further reinforced.