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Many of those who have little tolerance for Hamas, or even agree that it should be dismantled, still disagree with the way Israel is doing it. While the shortcomings/evils of the Israeli actions in Gaza are widely publicized and discussed, I wonder, what examples Israel could have followed in the wake of October 7? (taking similar situation, similar combat conditions, etc.)

Remarks:

  • I understand that some will interpret this question as an attempt at justifying Israel. However, I think that this discussion is necessary for the sake of both Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, in absence of positive examples, Israelis seem to conclude quite logically that, since they get blamed regardless of what they do, they are just better off adopting the harshest solutions.
  • Battle of Mosul and Battle of Raqqa were mentioned in the comments; I found an article from early October, describing the challenges that Israel would have faced in Gaza in comparison to these battles: Gaza’s Urban Warfare Challenge: Lessons from Mosul and Raqqa. Detailed comparison with the perspective of four months hindsight could be a possible answer.

Related: Reasons for high number of casualties in 2023 Israel-Hamas war

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  • This is biased merely by the mention of military operation and the assumption that the solution is war. If domestic terrorists launched an attack in the US, then the FBI and other civilian law enforcement organizations would investigate and detain terrorists (although looking at e.g. Waco it might not be peaceful).
    – Stuart F
    Mar 19 at 13:49
  • It's also impossible to answer without specifying what Israel's objectives were or should be. To free the hostages, detain and prosecute Hamas leaders, kill or detain all Hamas members, destroy all resistance and disarm the Gaza strip, completely crush any Palestinian hopes of statehood, or achieve a lasting peace with justice and human rights respected?
    – Stuart F
    Mar 19 at 13:51
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    @StuartF your first comment is based on the assumption that Israel+Gaza+WB are a single state (rather than Israel and occupied territories). Not everyone shares this view. For your second comment - the Israeli objectives were quite clearly formulated: destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages. Mar 19 at 14:14

3 Answers 3

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+500

TLDR: the only "simple" solution was not to go in and leave Hamas in power after 10/7.

Everything else was going to be a mess and if you want certainties, go look at other answers. There were never any clean solutions available (no, choosing the weeks after 10/7 to "see the light" and negotiate a hithertho avoided settlement with its very perpetrators is not a "solution" in a democracy. No government would survive that, let alone Israel's unstable coalition system).


First things first: the 10/7 attack was a set of large scale, deliberate, atrocities knowingly perpetrated by Hamas against civilians, at close range. With that out of the way, this answer focuses on analyzing Hamas tactics as an irregular, guerrilla, military force, albeit a ruthless one.


Second : let's establish what Gaza is not and what makes it unique.

this makes this question hard to answer, but should also instill a healthy skepticism towards cookie-cutter comparisons

  • Gaza is not a traditional guerrilla zone of action, with a local population facing off against a more industrialized, but remote, state's military that can leave. Unlike Vietnam or Afghanistan (80-89,01-21), the Israelis are stuck in the immediate vicinity and Hamas is on the record as wanting them out of Israel.

  • Gaza is not Fallujah or Mosul either in the sense that 2M people are concentrated in 345km2 and they have nowhere else, in their country, they can be evacuated to. This is exclusively an urban operation, with civilians stuck in place. Evacuating civilians is the first thing a military concerned about the civilian losses, whether for humanitarian or PR reasons, would aim to do. Makes the operation easier.

  • Gaza is not Ukraine wrt refugees. Candidate host countries, whether regional or Western, are understandably wary of letting masses of Gazans in. The same host countries may reasonably doubt that those refugees will ever be let back in by Israel and may not want to assist Israel in long term expulsions. Finally, Western countries, while not "helpful" to Israel by taking in refugees are not engaged in the same course of action as they are with Russia.

  • Gaza is not, and should not be expected to be, a clean and conventional war with deliberate separation of civilians from combatants. Wars run the gamut from Mosul's ISIS first herding civilians into buildings at gunpoint and then opening fire. To civilians tearfully waving off GIs on D-day to fight the Nazis far away. In between however, you have Mao's "the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea". Guerrilla wars have always been about, if not human shields, at least blending in with the population. The many guerrilla wars lost by the West have all faced this pattern. Where exactly Hamas sits on that continuum is a matter of opinion but they would be foolish, as a guerrilla force, to engage in open battle with the IDF.

  • The IDF is not "the coalition" in Mosul. There are no convenient locals to bear the brunt of the dirty infantry work while plentiful smart ammo can be used by the militaries of thier allied industrial states. States that are not themselves at risk of any attacks for which they need to conserve said ammo. The timeline is also hyper-compressed. They are also not like NATO's enlisted professionals in Afghanistan, people who either come from traditional military families or from underprivileged background and whose losses are thus somewhat abstract for the larger Western civilian populations. No, the IDF are conscripts and reservists, in a small country where their losses will be keenly felt.

  • Unlike Northern Ireland or Spain, or even Peru with Shining Path, Gaza is not an area where the threat can be managed with a police, rather than military approach. Gaza is a separate "country", under the control of Hamas. That its status as a country and the treatment of Gaza's residents by Israel is controversial (that's putting it lightly) at the best of times does not alter the 2 previous sentences.


So, what did Israel probably take inspiration from?

Grozny

Grozny 1, 94-95 is justly infamous for things a competent military should not do. Russia split up its forces, was overconfident and left their tanks to operate on their own. It was a bloodbath and it is clear the IDF is not operating their armor in the same way.

Grozny 2, 99-00 involved Russia basically leveling the city at a distance with artillery. Gaza looks disturbingly similar.

In the same vein, the 2006 Lebanon War showed the vulnerabilities of IDF armor and Israel is clearly taking no chances.

Mosul 2016-2017

First let's start out with a casualty screenshot lifted from wikipedia.

This was a long planned assault, against a city where ISIS presumably didn't get much goodwill from the population it terrorized. The coalition could be expected to be generally benevolent towards Mosul's residents and great care was taken to maximize the amount of people that could be coaxed out of the city in advance.

enter image description here

sidebar - civilian casualties

Since we are on that subject, and since it would be a grave omission not to mention the contentious subject of IDF restraint wrt civilian lives and protected areas like hospitals and schools...

  • Denying food and life necessities to civilians is against the Geneva conventions. That it would greatly facilitate operations against enemies that could not commandeer some of those supplies does not change that fact.

  • Claims about IDF behavior run from the pure evil end of the spectrum: "genocide!" to the pure good : "the IDF is more careful than any army in the world wrt civilians", as a commenter once claimed here.

The subject is certainly contentious and can't be just waved away. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is among the most destructive in history, experts say

In just over two months, the offensive has wreaked more destruction than the razing of Syria's Aleppo between 2012 and 2016, Ukraine's Mariupol or, proportionally, the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II. It has killed more civilians than the U.S.-led coalition did in its three-year campaign against the Islamic State group.

My opinion is that I have no real way to know. The IDF is operating under extremely challenging and fluid conditions, where false flags, fake surrenders, un-uniformed enemies and suicide bombs are probably common occurrences. We can certainly expect them to privilege long distance fires over taking direct infantry casualties. Are these casualty counts reflective of deliberate neglect for civilian welfare? Or the result of the afore-mentioned unique challenges that mean that combat operations will take place in crowded areas?

The IDF, while quite possibly not exercising sufficient oversight on revengeful field units and while also quite possibly too accepting of "collateral damage" also has a vested interest in keeping Israel looking clean enough to finish the Gaza operation on its own terms.

For Hamas it seems clear that defeating the IDF in the field is not feasible. Rather, their chief hope is that the IDF will be called off, as it has in the past, due to international revulsion at civilian losses. If you accept Hamas as a ruthless and competent, adversary they quite possibly don't want to minimize civilian casualties.

If you take any one unit from either side, it would probably know of some alleged war crimes from the other side, as well as possibly some from its own personnel. What it would not know about would be possible war crimes from its own side in other units.

At the end of the day, everyone very opinionated about who is in the wrong vs who in the good this has my bullshit meter blinking red. The only thing we know for sure is a lot of people are dying.

NATO's example.

In a guerrilla situation, everyone you kill has a cousin or brother that you risk will join the guerrillas when you kill them. So you want to kill whom you need to, but every death also carries a cost to your goal of pacifying the overall population. You may save a soldier's life today, by bombing an apartment block with a sniper in it. But if your soldiers are still getting shot from the surrounding blocks 10 years later, the calculus is less obvious than it seems at first.

So, as stated in another answer, the IDF might be better off to take the, relative, restraint of NATO forces in Afghanistan as an example. Rather than the model displayed in Afghanistan 80-89 or in a certain "special military operation". However, bear in mind that the average Gazan is certainly more hostile towards the IDF than the average Afghan was towards NATO.

Back to Mosul

Mosul is about the closest equivalent we'll find to Gaza. There were a lot of "could have done better" is the post-action assessments of civilian losses. Flip side: the tactics used by ISIS also underscore why it is easy to assume negligence when civilians are killed, if you don't know the specifics (no, I am not claiming to know Hamas behaves same way towards Gazans).

I found an interesting passage researching this answer in Five Operational Lessons from the Battle for Mosul.

It's worth quoting in its entirety because of the last paragraph. Gazan civilians have been under Hamas rule for almost 20 years and, unlike Mosul residents' attitude towards other Iraqis, additionally have very valid reasons to dislike Israel. Their collaboration can certainly be coerced or they can be outright sympathetic. They are still civilians, until they take up arms.

IS used Mosul’s civilians to extend its operational reach—both in duration and distance. In 2014, IS seized Mosul and large portions of Iraq using a small military force enabled by population support. Sympathetic individuals, Baath-affiliated groups, and captured government facilities provided information, sustainment, and even combat power to allow the IS attack to seize and then consolidate gains further and faster than anyone anticipated.57 During the two years IS occupied Mosul, it invested significant resources and manpower to control the population’s attitudes, beliefs, and actions through a combination of intimidation and incentives because IS would need population support to sustain its defense of Mosul.

When the coalition attacked in strength, IS’s regular military force consisted almost entirely of light infantry maneuver and short-range fires capabilities. All other warfighting functions were performed by civilians—local and foreign—contributing population support within Mosul’s DUE.58 Mission command was facilitated by civilian couriers who provided assured communications. Intelligence came from civilian human and open-source intelligence analysis. Civilians dug communications tunnels and trenches, drove bulldozers to build berms, and served as mobile protection platforms to deter coalition strikes. Civilian households distributed all classes of supply to small units and provided medical support, and civilian labor manufactured weapons including precision UAS-IEDs, vehicle-borne IEDs, and suicide vest IEDs from commercial off-the-shelf components.

Exit interviews with refugees indicate that much of this population support may have been involuntary, yet their physical contribution to IS’s war effort was critical to the duration and effectiveness of IS’s operational reach. IS harnessed the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Mosul’s economic footprint to produce and distribute supplies with minimal manpower, providing an extremely favorable tooth-to-tail ratio that allowed them to project more combat power further than a similar conventionally organized and sustained force. On the opposite side, the same civilian population did comparatively little to enhance coalition operations. Once liberated by the legitimate government, civilians escaped to safety and the coalition expended resources and combat power to secure and sustain the civilians: soldiers distributed supplies, provided medical care, and constructed shelters, adding to a net reduction in coalition operational reach.


What Israel could take as inspiration in the future

Northern Ireland

Concrete Hell: Urban Warfare From Stalingrad to Iraq unexpectedly covered The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which the author considered relevant to discussing urban warfare.

What he did not cover, but is also relevant is how the Good Friday Agreements managed to stop the conflict after the military component of the insurgency had been contained (with the help of some distinctly terrorist-ey behavior from pro-UK loyalists). The UK had a strict policy of not negotiating with terrorists, yet peace quickly took hold once they did.

Yom Kippur 1973

Paradoxically, not a few historians credit the gain in prestige by the Egyptians from their much better performance at the outset of the conflict to allowing them the confidence - with considerable cajoling, prodding and bribery - to engage in a peace process with Israel.

By restoring pride to Egypt and a sense of proportion to Israel, it opened the way to the Camp David peace agreement in 1979. Fifteen years later, Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan. In the ensuing years, the Jewish state would weave discreet economic and political ties with other Arab countries, from Morocco to the Gulf states, as demonization [of Israel by the Arab states] began to give way to realpolitik.

If Israel does manage to remove Hamas from power, it should look at those as examples it could follow and enter genuine negotiations from a position of strength. And so should the Palestinians.

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  • 2
    Re Northern Ireland. The thing that ultimately defeated the IRA was its infiltration by MI5 and 6. Could you just imagine how the world's press would have reacted if, after an IRA outrage, Britain had sent its army into the Republic of Ireland and killed 25,000 Irish citizens, claiming it was trying to put an end to the IRA who were hiding out there - and shifted the whole population of Dublin to the south-west peninsula, with no food and water. If Israel wants to be considered a mature member of the international world order - it is going to have to start behaving like one.
    – WS2
    Feb 9 at 22:51
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    Regarding humanitarian supplies - they are controlled by UNRWA, which is not completely impartial here, and Israel accused it of stalling deliveries. There are also reports about Egyptian abuses at Rafah crossing. Feb 10 at 6:40
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    Another thing: turn the other cheek theory seems implausible to me - governments are not humans, who can indulge in revenge or exercise restraint, depending in their wim. Rather these are organizations mandated to perform certain functions - like guaranteeing security of the population. It is not clear how any security assessment could justify not responding to Hamas. It is also an open question whether Hezbollah and Houthis actions were a part of coordinated attack - which significantly alters the calculs. Feb 10 at 6:53
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    @RogerV. Israel open says they are maintaining a siege on Gaza. The total amount of food and other life necessities is insufficient due to actions by Israel. What little there is is badly distributed by UNRWA but that doesn't change the fact that it is not enough. The argument of this answer is that Israel going in with force may guarantee security in the short term but looks actively bad for long term security. Turning the other cheek tends to work much better in the long term.
    – quarague
    Feb 10 at 7:35
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    @quarague Turning the other cheek tends to work much better in the long term. - any examples? I'd rather say that it didn't work vis-à-vis Nazis, and it didn't work with Hamas - which was boosted by its terror attacks in comparison to the PA, which tried to negotiate. Neither do I see Hamas following your gospel. Feb 10 at 8:31
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Depends whom you're asking. If you asking Russia, China, Qatar or any of the countries that have been more of less vociferously asking for an immediate & permanent ceasefire, no continued military action is justified. (Some of them have even refused to condemn Hamas.) Now whether they'd have a concreteley different response if they were in Israel's shoes... some of them I'd wager not, considering [the war in] Chechnya etc.

But if you're talking about those who do condemn Hamas, their criticism of IDF's approach has varied from the mild criticism the US had that Israel demolished too much stuff in northern Gaza, using too many big bombs, to the more [IMHO] unclear statements of the French government, just complaining about Israel killing children and "urg[ing] them to stop this bombing". Probably the only thing of those that comes close to an actual model is the US style of complaints, which points to an anti-ISIS style campaign. (US sent some of the people who had experience with that to advise Israel.)

Of course, if Israel had somehow managed to have a more-or-less friendly Palestinian faction on their side in this war, like the US managed in their campaigns against ISIS, they'd be in much better position to get less rhetorical flak, because exposing someone else's ground troops mostly means you can use less firepower yourself (and if some Muslim allies die, it's much less on an issue on the home front.) But that would have required Israel to manage the whole Palestinian situation differently in the long run, which may or may not have been a realistic thing, depending on your knack for alternative history.

FWTW, more recently some present and former US officials have chimed in on this, e.g.

Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Israel’s “total victory” against Hamas was unlikely. Then on Monday, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. C.Q. Brown, the Joint Chiefs chair, chided Israel for failing to protect civilians in Gaza and to prevent Hamas from storming back to places it once controlled. [...]

“Not only do you have to actually go in and clear out whatever adversary you are up against, you have to go in, hold the territory and then you’ve got to stabilize it,” Brown told reporters. If that doesn’t happen, it “allows your adversary then to re-populate in areas if you’re not there, and so that does make it more challenging for them as far as being able to meet their objective of being able to militarily destroy and defeat Hamas.” [...]

“Everybody gets the fact that you have to destroy Hamas … but then what?” said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who was the head of U.S. Central Command at the height of the fight against the Islamic State. [...]

Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command from 2019 to 2022, said Israel hasn’t deployed a large enough force to clear, capture and hold dense urban areas inside Gaza. In those insecure areas, “people are probably going to try to flow back in” and Hamas will then move in and reestablish a presence there.

“That’s classic guerilla strategy,” he said.

A key part of the U.S. plan to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria was relying on a partner force to secure areas after the military operation was complete, said Votel, the other retired general. “Unless you do that, you are going to find yourself going back into these areas and reclearing them and re-fighting them,” Votel said.

Finding a reliable partner force is not an easy feat, particularly in Gaza, but Votel criticized Israel for not reaching out to Arab nations to help with the “day after” scenario early on in the operation.

“There should’ve been more deliberation upfront about how they were going to do that part of the campaign, and now they are where they are,” he said.

And that opinion seems somewhat shared by IDF commanders:

[Netanyahu's] top military commander, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Herzl Halevi, was quoted in local media bemoaning Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to a “day after” plan in the Gaza Strip that would help reckon with the security and political vacuum in the war-ravaged territory. Halevi echoed the frustrations of many Israeli security officials, who see Hamas fighters resuming operations in areas of Gaza where they were supposed to have been neutralized.

“As long as there’s no diplomatic process to develop a governing body in the Strip that isn’t Hamas, we’ll have to launch campaigns again and again in other places to dismantle Hamas’s infrastructure,” Halevi was quoted by Israel news network Channel 13 as saying during private meetings over the weekend. “It will be a Sisyphean task.”

[...] All such ['day after'] measures, though, appear to be contingent on a revival of a track toward an independent Palestinian state. That’s something Netanyahu has spent his career working to undermine [...] and his far-right allies in government explicitly oppose.

To give Netanyahu some benefit of the doubt here, maybe other Palestinian tribal forces don't dare to help/cooperate with the IDF while Hamas still has those intact/sizeable battalions in Rafah. (The Israeli press had some such stories, of Hamas cracking down on tribal elements.) I guess we'll find out in a few weeks if the destruction of those Hamas battalions, in the ongoing Rafah offensive will make a difference, in that respect, of allowing some other Gazans to forge a different relationship with Israel. Time will tell.


An overwhelming proportion of the Israeli public doesn't consider the Palestinian casualties disproportionate, by the way, as a Jan 2024 poll found:

An absolute majority (88%) also justifies the scope of casualties on the Palestinian side when considering the goals of the war.

N.B. that actually refers to Israeli Jews. Overall (incl. Arabs) the figure was 73% (and most Arabs thought the Palestinian casualties were too high).

enter image description here

Therefore, other than bowing to international (& internal minority) pressures, there's no reason for the IDF to have proceeded differently, except perhaps to use even more firepower and conserve their forces better (see 2nd part of that answer that regards Israeli casualties as too high, and a related Q.)

FWTW, the more recent disagreements between the US and Israel are something like this

"Instead of a pause to reevaluate the campaign and see what adjustments are needed, instead of a focus on stabilizing the areas Israel has cleared so that Hamas doesn't resurface, the Israeli government is talking about a major military operation in Rafah," Sullivan said.

The Israeli public probably doesn't care as much about "stabilizing the areas Israel has cleared" though; a recent poll (March 10) found that 74% [of Israeli Jews] want an operation in Rafah. It's true that that poll Q wasn't presenting that option in contrast with anything else, so it can also be interpreted 'ceteris paribus'.

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  • depending on your knack for alternative history - I don't think there are alternative facts. On the other hand, their interpretations clearly differ - between countries, between periods in the same country, and even between a layman and a historian in the same country. This assertion is easy to confirm by browsing fir a couple of hours a history section in any big Barnes& Noble. Feb 8 at 12:18
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    @RogerV. Alternate history is not a synonym for (the Trumpian) "alternative facts". I suppose I could have written "counterfactual history" to be more clear. Feb 8 at 12:19
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    ... although the latter notion more narrowly presumes a single/specific event turned out differently, which ain't too clear to me what that could have been in this discussion. Feb 8 at 12:28
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    Well, there are several different histories of the Arab-Israeli conflict. One need not necessarily deny the facts, but simply select those that a brought forward (like Balfour or McMahon), how they are interpreted (Balfour promises creation of a Jewish state or just the opposite?), and which euphemisms one uses ("the role of the armed struggle" vs. terrorism, war of independence vs. Naqba, etc.) Feb 8 at 12:39
  • You're right to highlight the recent criticism coming in as a result to Israel having to re-clear previously secured areas. Great luminaries such as Petraeus have chimed in with "clear, hold, build" reminders. However... Afghanistan was not Iraq and Gaza is most assuredly not Iraq. Petraeus had Sunni tribes to bribe and cajole against Al-Quaeda and a population fed up with terrorists. Petraeus could also rightly say the US would eventually mostly leave. The IDF has little to offer to Gazans or Arabs unless there is a wider settlement, at a political rather than tactical, local, level. May 22 at 18:17
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While this question is clearly asking for opinions (because no 2 situations are alike), it can be answered by stating an authoritative opinion.

Instead of offering my own, I'll defer to the opinion of an expert and say

None. There are no examples Israel could have followed.

John Spencer is a former military officer, a West Point instructor, and a published author on the subject of urban warfare. Here's how he lists the highlights of his career:

Serving over twenty-five years in the active Army as an infantry soldier, Spencer has held ranks from Private to Sergeant First Class and Second Lieutenant to Major. His assignments as an Army officer included two combat deployments to Iraq as both an Infantry Platoon Leader and Company Commander, a Ranger Instructor with the Army’s Ranger School, a Joint Chief of Staff and Army Staff intern, fellow with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group, and Co-Founder, Strategic Planner, and Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point.

Here's his take on Israel's Gaza offensive:

"The pace of the IDF's advancement above and below ground is historically fast. The Gaza theater cannot be compared to any other in modern military history in terms of the size of the challenges it poses...Hamas' strategy is based on time and tunnels - they hope that Israel will exhaust its time resources by focusing on the tunnels."

He also directly contradicts the claims that Israel is bombing "indiscriminately" or that Israel is not doing enough to prevent civilian deaths:

IMO Israel has implemented more measure to prevent civilian casualties in urban warfare than any other military in the history of war. This includes many measure the U.S. has (or has not) taken in wars & battles but also many measures no military in the world has ever taken.

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    Basically, you just hunted around till you found an expert that said exactly what you wanted to say: "Israel has implemented more measure to prevent civilian casualties in urban warfare than any other military in the history of war". The level of impartiality of those statements can be judged mathematically: 30k+ deaths, many of which are certainly not armed Hamas and a population many observers fear is facing malnutrition, if not worse. Feb 10 at 16:11
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica if hamas had 1,000,000 combatants, the civilian casualties would be even higher. And if they had less than 30,000, the civilian losses would been lower. I don't know of a better expert on urban warfare than someone who teaches it at West Point, who publishes books on it, and who comments on it on multiple tv networks. I am not enough of an expert on it myself to judge. Civilian deaths are tragic, and have to be minimized, but that doesn't mean sacrificing military objectives. I get that it's a nasty calculus. But it's all there is.
    – wrod
    Feb 10 at 21:49
  • Ok, i could link an article I found w 2 "US high level experts" arguing either point: enough restraint vs too many 2000pounders. I will however concede one very important point: you could be right. Israel could very well be putting in more restrictions than other countries have done historically. In immediate tactical and awareness circumstances much worse than other countries have had to contend with, historically. That would be consistent with both point of views. Feb 11 at 7:12

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