Facing the Challenge of Hamas’ Asymmetric Warfare

Warfare that targets civilian lives must be made unacceptable

As the recent hostilities in Gaza demonstrate, Israel stands at the forefront of a new kind of warfare. Israel is not alone in the need to confront radical forces that include terrorist organizations and oppressive regimes who deliberately seek civilian casualties on all sides as the core element of their military strategy; this is a long-term battle that other liberal societies will ultimately have to fight. Sooner or later most free democracies will face the same challenge that Israel is struggling with today: how to defend themselves from ruthless, barbaric enemies who deliberately place civilians in harms way, without undermining the basic values upon which open societies are based.

Hamas’ strategy is to force Israel into a lose/lose situation by rejecting the basic norms of warfare, which seeks to protect civilian populations. By indiscriminately firing rockets from heavily populated areas in Gaza into Israel’s major cities, Hamas confronts Israel with a terrible choice: either allow rocket fire to continue and putting its civilians at risk, or attack Hamas’ weapon depots which are deliberately placed in and around civilians. The first option is unacceptable to any democracy. But so is the second: military operations that result in the deaths of Palestinian civilians is morally heart-wrenching for the Israeli public and isolates Israel internationally. This is precisely why Hamas welcomes the death of its civilians by the Israeli military, which it uses to isolate Israel internationally, and demoralize it internally.

According to noted Haifa University Professor Dan Schueftan, the ideal Israeli military response to rockets targeting its cities has two components: The first is to gather accurate intelligence on where Hamas rockets are located. The second is to execute pinpoint attacks that target these weapons and Hamas’ command and control structure – and to warn civilians in advance.

But because weapons are hidden in schools, mosques, hospitals, playgrounds and tunnels that run underneath residential buildings, and Hamas has threatened Palestinian civilians who flee targeted areas, it impossible for Israel to respond without incurring civilian deaths. This is a challenge any liberal society in this situation would struggle with.

​Hamas’ deliberate efforts to erase the distinction between military and civilian targets depart from the methods of waging war to which democracies are accustomed. They are forced upon Israel for a basic reason: Hamas does not attach high value to the lives of the people they ostensibly govern. To the contrary, like other extremist groups, Hamas celebrates death because of the potential for triggering media images and outrage which undermine Israel. It is this asymmetry between free societies and terrorist organizations such as Hamas – the first values human life above all, the second actively seeks the death of people on both sides – that lies at the heart of this conflict and presents Israel with agonizing military choices.

​Israel’s war with a terrorist organization committed to the death not only of its proclaimed adversaries but also of its own people has far reaching consequences. While Israel has reached peace accords with neighboring countries – Egypt and Jordan – and may be able to reach similar agreements with other sovereign neighboring states, the Arab world is currently convulsed with instability and radicalism that has given rise to a number of groups and regimes whose methods are rooted in inflicting terror.

In Syria, the government is gassing its people with chemical weapons. Over 50,000 Syrian civilians have been slaughtered in the past three years by government forces and radical fighters like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – which is ideologically similar to Hamas. In Iraq, ISIS has threatened Christians to convert to Islam or die – after proudly disseminating video footage showing them beheading thousands of Iraqi soldiers. As Israelis watch closely how this kind of barbaric violence is being inflicted on civilians throughout the Arab world, they can only imagine what fate Hamas, whose charter explicitly calls “the obliteration of Israel,” has in mind for them when it built hundreds of tunnels leading into its territory.

It appears that Israel, and the region as a whole, is destined to cope with this type of challenge for the foreseeable future. And despite the complacency and even hostility to Israel on display in some democratically-governed countries, this danger will, sooner or later, confront other democracies, even those far from the Middle East. Hamas, Hizballah, their patron Iran, al Qaeda, and other jihad groups are sworn enemies of the West and liberal democracy. They are constantly seeking ways to undermine the strength of the free world. Forms of aggression first used against Israel have inevitably been turned against other countries: airline hijackings, suicide terrorism, and now the use of civilians as human shields.

Terrorists are watching the Gaza war closely to see whether Hamas’ tactics are successful: if so, other radical organizations will employ them. Israel’s challenge is to make this kind of war, with its deliberate effort to produce civilian casualties on both sides, unacceptable, while at the same time protecting the values it, along with other democracies, cherishes.

That is why the civilized world has a vested interest in the Israel’s success – painful and difficult though it is.​