In the latest dust-up between Israel and Hamas–a few hundred dead is not a war–Israel once again appears to have triumphed. Hamas suffered around ten times as many casualties, and property damage ran at about the same ratio, or perhaps better, for Israel.
However, this assessment is open to question. In my view, the actions of both Hamas and Israel were driven by domestic politics, as is usually the case in foreign policy. Hamas’s real target was the PLO, which had just for the umpteenth time, canceled elections Hamas was likely to win. By attacking Israel, Hamas deepened its support on the West Bank and diminished further the almost gone legitimacy of the PLO. That’s a win. Israel’s disproportionate response was part of Netanyahu’s drive to remain Israeli Prime Minister, since if he is not in that job there is a good chance he will go to jail for corruption. So far it’s a win for him.
But if we look at the conflict between Israel and Hamas through the lens of Fourth Generation war, we see, emerging wraith-like from the rubble, what looks like a strategic victory for Hamas. How so? In 4GW, the most valuable target is the enemy’s homeland. Sometimes, as on 9/11, it can be struck physically. More often, and more potently, the goal is to hit it on the mental or, better still, moral level. The ideal attack bypasses the enemy’s defenses completely and goes straight for his soft underbelly.
That Hamas seems to have achieved, and not with its rockets. For the first time, Israelis fought each other in the streets, Israeli Arabs vs. Jews, in a spillover from the external conflict. That spillover is Hamas’s chi, while the rockets vs. bombers war was the cheng. In 4GW, and in 3GW as well, the chi, not the cheng, is often decisive. Hamas did not win a decisive victory this time, but its success in generating civil conflict in Israel points the way toward a strategy that could win decisively: exacerbating tensions within Israel to the point where it is not just Israeli Arabs fighting Jews, but Jews fighting Jews.
Until I went to Israel, I did not realize how deeply Israeli Jews are divided. Like most Americans, I thought history and Israel’s fragility combined to create unity. Once there, I quickly encountered divisions that are shockingly visceral. The main gulf is that between secular Jews and the ultra-orthodox. Both sides regard the other with bitter disdain, and outbreaks of physical clashes are not unknown. Among the non-ultra-orthodox, further divisions create more potentially dangerous fissures.
Let me add that I enjoyed Israel. I liked the place and the people. I have Israeli friends. I do not want to see Israel destroyed, from within or from without. But the Israeli military still operates within a state vs. state mental framework and doesn’t get 4GW. That is dangerous anywhere, and especially so in Israel’s neighborhood. I write this column to draw their attention to the danger.
To win decisively, Hamas must find ways to ramp these frictions up. That is a tall order, and so far there is little evidence that Hamas is led by deep strategic thinkers. For that we should all be thankful. But any such strategy would focus at the moral level of war, where the Netanyahu government seems almost entirely blind. To use Martin van Creveld’s analogy, it is an adult giving a small child a prolonged beating in a public place. Oddly for Jews, it does not seem to realize that in the end, Goliath always loses.
In terms of their primary objectives, both Hamas and Netanyahu won. Hamas ramped up its legitimacy, as the only people willing to fight Israel, compared to the PLO, and Netanyahu is still Israel’s Prime Minister. But in the Israel vs. Hamas conflict, Hamas has reason to think it won strategically. It hit Israel’s unity at home, moving its internal conflict beyond the political system to fighting in the streets. It is typical in 4GW for states not to have the internal unity they tend to presume in wars, at least short ones. But few states grasp this or any other aspect of 4GW. If Israel and the IDF do not come to grips with Fourth Generation war soon, Hamas and its other 4GW enemies may win big.
PS: The IDF might want to take a look at The Fourth Generation Warfare Handbook, with special attention to “the grid”. It might help them get off the track of losing by winning.