The Next War Will Be More Brutal.
By ISABEL KERSHNER
TEL AVIV — In the year since Israel launched its devastating military offensive against Hamas in Gaza, the country’s political and military leaders have faced intense international condemnation and accusations of possible war crimes.
But Israel seems to have few qualms. Officials and experts familiar with the country’s military doctrine say that given the growing threats from Iranian-backed militant organizations both in Gaza and in Lebanon, Israel will probably find itself fighting another, similar kind of war.
Only next time, some here suggest, Israel will apply more force.
“The next round will be different, but not in the way people think,” said Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former chief of Israel’s National Security Council. “The only way to be successful is to take much harsher action.”
Such talk has raised alarm among some critics in Israel, but so far it has stirred little public debate.
Both the three-week campaign in Gaza, which ended on Jan. 18, and Israel’s monthlong war in 2006 against the Shiite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon have brought relative quiet to Israel’s borders.
Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the chief of Israel’s military intelligence, said the source of the quiet was “not the adoption of Zionism by our enemies.” The main factor, he recently told an audience at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, is Israeli deterrence, starting with the war in Lebanon and continuing with the Gaza operation that the Israelis called Cast Lead.
But decisive victory against irregular forces has been elusive. In the military’s assessment, the calm is temporary and fragile; Hamas and Hezbollah are said to be rearming, making another confrontation only a matter of time.
While the Israeli military has a clear advantage in fighting conventional armies, it is still adapting to the new and complicated demands of asymmetric warfare. The military says it is contending with enemies who fight out of uniform and hide behind civilians, intentionally firing rockets out of populated areas into densely populated areas of Israel.
Israel’s objective, according to Gabriel Siboni, a retired colonel who runs the military program at the Institute for National Security Studies, is to shorten and intensify the period of fighting and to lengthen the period between rounds.
Israel was accused of using disproportionate force in Lebanon, particularly after it flattened the Dahiya district in Beirut, a Shiite neighborhood that housed the command and control headquarters of Hezbollah. Over the month, more than a thousand Lebanese were killed.
But Israeli experts say that as long as the targets are legitimate ones, the whole point is to try to overwhelm the enemy with maximum force.
The destruction of Dahiya “sent a message to Hezbollah of the consequences” of confrontation, Mr. Siboni said.
The campaign in Gaza, intended to halt years of rocket fire against southern Israel, left up to 1,400 Palestinians dead, including hundreds of civilians. The human toll, as well as the extensive destruction of property, prompted a United Nations mission led by an internationally renowned judge, Richard Goldstone, to accuse Israel of deliberately attacking civilians and of violations of the international laws of war.
Israel rejected the Goldstone report as biased and fundamentally flawed. Israel says that while mistakes were made, it chose its targets on purely military merits and went to extraordinary lengths to warn civilians in Gaza to leave areas under attack.
But one of the abiding difficulties is defining the enemy when it is embedded among the population, whether as the sole power in the area, like Hamas in Gaza, or as a militia operating within a sovereign state, in the case of Hezbollah.
In the 2006 war, which was precipitated by a deadly cross-border raid by Hezbollah, Israel bombed the Beirut airport, a strategic bridge linking north and south Lebanon and some power supplies. But Israel said it was doing so only to hamper Hezbollah’s war effort, and it directed the brunt of its attacks against the militia.
Now, with Hezbollah playing a more active role in the Lebanese government, Lebanon could be held more responsible for Hezbollah actions against Israel, Israeli security officials and experts say.
Mr. Siboni said the idea was to inflict such damage that the other side would ask whether confrontation was worthwhile.
Military officials strenuously deny that Israel plans to hit economic or civilian infrastructure to cause suffering to the local population, in the hope of turning it against the war.
Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, chief of the Israeli military’s Operations Department, told reporters at a recent briefing in Tel Aviv that the army would not shoot at targets that had no proven link “with any form of terror.” But, he added, “we are going to use fire.”
General Kochavi said that Israel would never deliberately fire on civilians but that civilian buildings containing weapons or rocket launchers would be bombed after residents had been warned to evacuate.
With the war in Gaza, however, the distinction between military and civilian infrastructure seemed to become increasingly blurred.
Among the targets destroyed in Gaza were the parliament building and the central prison. The Goldstone report said that it had found no evidence that these locations made an effective contribution to Hamas’s military effort, and determined that the Israeli attacks on them were a violation of international law.
Israel never claimed that the parliament building was being used to store or fire weapons. But after Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Israel says, the parliament building became part of the Hamas infrastructure, and therefore a legitimate target to be destroyed.
David Benjamin, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves and a former senior adviser in the Israeli military’s legal department, said that Israel did not need to “buy in” to Hamas’s definitions of what was military and what was political. Israel considers all of Hamas a terrorist organization. The distinction, Mr. Benjamin said, is “artificial in my view.”
But he acknowledged that the bombing of the parliament building was “debatable” as far as the law was concerned. “Of all Cast Lead, maybe this is the only area where the army has been pushing the envelope,” he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the Goldstone report was viewed in Israel as a “political threat that needs to be thwarted politically,” but there was no sign, he said, that it had led to military restraint.
Critics both inside and outside Israel denounce what they — and at least one senior Israeli Army commander — have called the “Dahiya doctrine,” referring to the intention to inflict immense damage and destruction, an approach that would inevitably lead to civilian deaths.
A recent report by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, a local advocacy group, pointed to what it called a “significant change” in the Israeli military’s combat doctrine. It said the shift was legally and politically dangerous and cast a “moral stain” on Israeli citizens, and it called for public debate.
But Israeli officials and security experts contend that other Western countries are facing similar challenges in their conflicts abroad. What must change, they say, is not the Israeli military’s conduct but the interpretation and application of the laws of war by the rest of the world.
In the meantime, Mr. Siboni said, Israel’s wars “may produce more Goldstones, but that may be the price you have to pay.”