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Israel Is Losing

In Fourth Generation war, states defeat themselves.

Credit: Anas-Mohammed

This column is written after the failure of the first ceasefire in Gaza and the resumption of fighting. At present, Israel is losing. More, it is defeating itself. If that sounds strange, it isn’t. In this kind of war, Fourth Generation war, states usually defeat themselves.

To understand why, we need to dip into a bit of military theory. Fourth Generation war is war between a state and one or more non-state entities, of which Hamas is an example. In most cases, including this one, the state is physically vastly stronger than its enemy.


Hamas is pitting hand-held weapons and bottle rockets against Israeli tanks, jet bombers, artillery, etc. That disparity is why Israel is losing. What works for the state at the physical level of war works powerfully against it at the moral level. In effect, Israel has turned itself into Goliath. How many people cheer for Goliath?

Despite powerful images of Israeli tanks and planes blowing up buildings in Gaza, the physical level of war is weaker than the moral level. That is especially true when talking about strategy. Strategy, in turn, trumps tactics. In Fourth Generation war, states normally win at the physical/tactical level at the cost of defeating themselves at the moral/strategic level. It is very difficult for states to escape this trap because their superiority in the former is the cause of their defeat in the latterIsraeli military historian Martin van Creveld calls this “the power of weakness.” As an example, he argues that the only reason the British Army did not lose Northern Ireland is that it suffered more casualties than it inflicted.

The longer Israel continues physically destroying Gaza the sooner its strategic defeat will come and the greater will be its magnitude. The potential consequences of strategic defeat include:

First, instead of destroying Hamas, the war ends up strengthening it. Forty percent of Gaza’s population is fourteen years old or younger. Thousands of young men will soon be of fighting age and after what they have been through, their greatest desire will be to join Hamas and fight Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu will have played the sorcerer’s apprentice for Islamic terrorism.

Second, Israel loses the inflow of money, arms, and ammunition it needs to survive. That support depends on Israel’s image; if it makes itself a moral pariah, as it is doing, it will get cut off. As with the earlier Crusader states, a cessation of outside support will mean extinction.


Third, Israel’s wise strategy of building good relations with neighboring Arab states will be dead. Already, the governments of Arab countries that have established relations with Israel are under pressure from the Arab street. Their own legitimacy is at stake. At some point, they will have to choose between breaking with Israel or risking replacement with radical, Islamist regimes. Were the latter to happen, Israel could end up surrounded by an alliance of Arab states backed by Iran coupled with non-state entities such as Hezbollah and Hamas. That would be strategic failure on a grand scale.

America’s strategic position in the region is also at stake. Widespread boycotts of American firms and products are spreading in the Arab world. Arab publics know Israel’ s continued devastation of Gaza is fueled with American bombs, missiles, and artillery shells. They also know the White House could order Israel to stop the bombing and shelling. It has less understanding of the political realities that make such an order unlikely.

As a foreign policy realist, I am not wringing my hands over the humanitarian aspects of Israel’s war in Gaza. Rather, I am warning of the very real strategic effects of the humanitarian situation. The faux-realist Netanyahu government in Israel ignores those effects at its peril

Another, more prudent course beckons. Israel could cease the physical destruction of Gaza. Then, it could reimpose an airtight blockade while opening a corridor through which anyone in Gaza is welcome to leave. Water, food, medical care, etc., would immediately be given to all who pass through the corridor. Women, children and the elderly would go to the West Bank; fighting age males would be sent to camps in the Negev for further sorting and processing.

Meanwhile, after everyone who wants to leave Gaza has left and the few remaining people, presumably all members of Hamas, have starved, Israel would bulldoze what remains of Gaza into the sea. It’s mostly wreckage now anyway.

I have been to Israel. I found the country fascinating and I liked the people I met there. I have Israeli friends. I do not want to see Israel destroy itself. But that is what it is now doing, led by a man who has long been described in Israel as a tactical genius and a strategic idiot. The latter is now shining through as brightly as the face of Moses. If the Knesset fails to replace him or Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t find better strategic brains than his own, Israel’s long-term prospects are not bright.