As of this writing, Israeli forces have penetrated Gaza city and are on their way to taking northern Gaza. Tactically, they are succeeding, as state forces usually do against 4GW opponents. In the process, they are losing at the moral level, also as state forces usually do. The result promises to be that, at the strategic level, Israel will defeat itself. That is the 4GW trap.
Martin van Creveld calls this the power of weakness. Physically, Hamas is far weaker than Israel. It has no fighter jets, no tanks, and little artillery beyond mortars and bottle rockets. Israel has all of these things and it is using them freely. This turns Hamas into David and Israel into Goliath.
Van Creveld illustrates the 4GW trap with a parable. If a child is behaving horribly in public, an adult can get away with giving him one good wack. But if the adult tries to administer a prolonged beating to the child, onlookers are soon horrified. They intervene, the police are called, and the man is arrested. He has committed a crime.
The horror generated by Hamas’s brutal massacre on October 7 gave Israel the initial moral advantage. But the news cycle moves on. Now, what the world is seeing day after day is Palestinian civilians, including women and children, blown apart by Israeli bombing, dragged lifeless from buildings Israel has collapsed, deprived of food, water, and medicine, with no safe place to flee to and winter soon coming on. Israel has become the adult beating up a helpless child.
At present, Israel seems to be saying, so what? What are you going to do about it? No Arab state will fight Israel because it cannot win; Israel has nuclear weapons. Hezbollah is so far staying out, in part because Hamas is Sunni and Hezbolla is Shiite and also because it has a lot to lose; its vast rocket force is a “fleet in being” that protects it only so long as it is not used. Iran is fighting through its proxies, which is both safer and more effective because it cannot do more on its own than strike Israel with some V-2s.
The moral level of war operates more slowly, but also more powerfully. Israel is alienating not just governments but ordinary people all over the world. Israel is a state that can only survive with external support. It needs money from overseas, weapons from other countries, and markets for its products. If external support stops, it is just a matter of time before Israel goes under. That is the ultimate defeat at the strategic level.
The moral level also intersects the operational level. With extensive American help, Israel has been fundamentally changing its relations to its Arab neighbors. It has ententes with Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, and Morocco. It was on the cusp of a similar arrangement with Saudi Arabia. The development of normal relations with these countries gives Israel new markets, new allies (discreetly) against Iran and also against Islamic 4GW entities, and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Now, the moral defeat Israel is inflicting on itself in Gaza puts all these relationships in danger. Those countries’ governments face pressure that grows daily as their populations get angrier with Israel. At some point, their own legitimacy will be at stake. Either they will have to return to a policy of hostility toward Israel or risk overthrow. Either outcome defeats Israel at the operational level, thus feeding her destruction through isolation at the strategic level.
The strategy for Israel I outlined in my last column was designed specifically to avoid moral defeat. So long as Israel refuses to take the moral level of war into account, regardless of what is happening on or under the ground in Gaza, Hamas is winning.