Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Senseless in Gaza

Does anybody have a good idea of where the conflict between Israel and Hamas is going?

“War is nothing but a continuation of politics by other means.” The famous observation was that of Carl von Clausewitz. To most he is an obscure and long dead military theorist, but in contemporary defence circles, the late major general remains much revered for his ability to understand conflict in terms of an interweaving of strategy with politics and philosophy. Having looked the elephant in the eye via extensive combat experience in the Napoleonic campaigns, Clausewitz wrote and thought as did many of his contemporaries in the Enlightenment age. The conduct of war was not determined by some divine being but by the actions of men, their political decisions and human insight.

He was one of the founders of the modern staff college system, still with us today, which saw officers professionally trained in the direction of war, replacing earlier models of nepotism and haphazard genius. It was his well-educated and politically connected wife, Countess Marie von Brühl, who was behind the General’s success. The couple moved in the highest circles, socialising with Berlin’s political, literary and intellectual élite. After he died in 1831, she collected her husband’s unfinished lecture notes and thoughts, editing and publishing them as Vom Krieg (On War) in 1832.

The wider context, where the terms “politics” and “policy” were used interchangeably, taught that conflict should not be seen as having purpose in itself: “War is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument, a continuation of the political process, an application by other means … the political process does not end with the conclusion of the war … Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa.”

In Gaza today, both sides have forgotten their Clausewitz, if they ever read him. In early October, the extremists’ cart (murder and hostage taking by Hamas) was placed firmly in front of the Palestinian horse (policy for Gaza’s future). However, Western military observers, brought up on Clausewitz, are equally troubled that Israel may be making the same mistakes. The just and justifiable military response by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to October 7th appears to have no overarching vision: invade Gaza, but then what? A political end state of an effective system of governance and reconstruction for Gaza, to justify the military campaign to eliminate Hamas, has yet to be enunciated. Pronouncements refer only to a vague and indeterminate post-conflict period of military occupation. Neither Israel, with the consequent drain to its economy, resources and threats to its personnel, nor unaligned Palestinian civilians, let alone the horrified international community looking on, will welcome this. In short, all sides have thrown Clausewitz’s teachings out of the window.

Other military concepts which appear to have been overlooked include that of the Three Block War. It was first described by US Marine General Charles Krulak in 1999 to illustrate the complex range of challenges likely to be faced on a contemporary battlefield. He argued that modern militaries needed to be trained to conduct heavy-metal action, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid distribution, possibly simultaneously, in a notional space as small as three city blocks. The role of junior leaders, whose decisions could have a strategic effect, would be paramount. They would become “strategic corporals”. Somewhere along the way, for both sides in Gaza, requirements to keep peace and issue aid appear to have been ditched.

In the 21st century, armed with a mobile phone, everyone is a journalist

Does any of this military theory matter? Well, many international political and military responses are directed by these underlying doctrines. The Israel–Palestine strife, which is motivating huge protests on Western streets for one side or the other, is not the same as war in post-Soviet bloodlands of Ukraine versus Russia. Israelis and Palestinians both consider themselves invaded, yet each are haemorrhaging international support on account of their conduct of military operations. Whilst traditional warfare is fought in open fields or deserts, combat in densely populated areas has two major drawbacks. They are full of civilians with nowhere to hide, and they are saturated by global media. In the 21st century, armed with a mobile phone, everyone is a journalist. Whether the internet is on or off, phones will still capture the strife for later on. At present, the wider world has taken to interpreting ugly urban warfare viewed on their social media streams in terms of steps taken to endanger or protect civilian life, rather than military objectives.

The struggle around Gaza’s hospitals is a good example of this. Israel’s PR machine, normally a well-oiled affair (goodness knows, they have had enough experience through the years) seemed blissfully unaware it was losing the media battle by restricting its talk to the destruction of military targets, rather than minimising casualties and saving lives. Until the truce, the IDF’s British-born Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner’s daily briefings had a Vietnam-era “body count” feel about them. It is not his fault. Having worked in military media operations myself, l know he will be at the end of a long chain of command, his every word directed by higher authorities. In this era of smart munitions, though, the international community cannot understand why there are so many civilian deaths, the “collateral damage” of targeting policies.

Palestinians are fully aware of this, which is why so much of their news cycle has been focussed on defenceless newborns, suffering with their mothers in hospitals without medicines or power. The West was also uneasy at Israel’s seeming defiance of the military principle of proportionality in war. Faced with an alleged 14,000 Palestinian deaths to 1,400 Israelis killed, Paris, Berlin, London and Washington D.C. felt that despite the viciousness of the October 7th attacks, never mind years of niggling rocket attacks, Israel was still obliged to keep unnecessary casualties to a minimum, whilst alleviating the developing crisis in southern Gaza, where the majority of two million Palestinians have now fled.

Are there Hamas command centres, bunkers, arsenals and tunnels beneath Gaza’s schools and hospitals? Certainly. Should they and their defenders be eliminated? Of course. Regardless of cost, though? There you have the conundrum. For Israel, no price is too high for its future security, threatened ever since independence on 14 May 1948. For outside democracies, however, there are limits to state directed violence. Hence, there was pressure via Qatar for a truce and prisoner exchange. This was excellent news, not just because of the loved ones returning home from captivity — Israelis and Palestinians — but because outsiders hoped the longer the cessation of hostilities, the greater the reluctance to return to armed conflict. This was the thinking behind the 1918 Armistice and more recently the 1998 Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement. This has largely seen armed conflict replaced by admittedly highly-charged political debate, but peace on the streets has still become the norm. It is far too soon to talk of peace in Gaza, but the switch of media focus to welcoming home captives on both sides put pressure on military commanders, whilst no doubt preparing for further conflict, to at least let the process of truce and prisoner exchange play out. In gaining at least three Palestinians for every Israeli returned, the respite was to Hamas’ advantage. However, we need to be aware that both sides are committed to the doctrinal destruction of the other. Gaza resembles a Stalingrad-style struggle for the very soul of each nation, and thus the bullets are flying again.

The West has other doctrinal concerns, too. In the conduct of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drone attacks on militant commanders elsewhere, soldiers and statesmen have been taught to respect jus in bello, the rules to be followed in battle. These are international humanitarian laws that govern the behaviour of parties during an armed conflict. They sit beside its twin, Jus ad bellum, the justice of resorting to force of arms, the conditions under which states should go to war in the first place. Russia has flagrantly disregarded any notion of law in war. Israel and Palestine are mired in claim and counterclaim.

Jerusalem refused, until recently, to countenance even a pause in the fighting, or allow limited quantities of fuel and humanitarian aid into Gaza. Worried that Israel is perceived to be fighting as dirty a war as Hamas, most Western leaders (President Biden included) called for a limited truce to get assistance — fuel, food and medical supplies to the Palestinians. “Bibi” Netanyahu’s hostility was due to conflating the notion of Palestinian civilians with their Hamas overlords. Western intelligence has concluded that Hamas’ 30,000 supporters act as a Gestapo, controlling over two million people by fear and indoctrination. Many ordinary Gazans were not proactively anti-Israeli, but they are now. It is indisputable that Hamas thugs, initially through elections then by a coup against the Palestinian Authority, widening the disconnect between Gaza and the West Bank, reign over Gaza Strip. Israel’s refusal to produce any creative diplomatic ideas to end the decades-old strife has only strengthened and legitimised Hamas. At the same time, it has further weakened the more secular, nationalist and moderate Palestinian Authority.

Both sides have been watching the Russo-Ukrainian war and witnessed the West rally around the perceived underdog, Kyiv, and against the aggressor, Moscow. Israel and Palestine are genuinely hurt and puzzled at the sometimes oscillating, hesitant external support expressed for their own respective causes. The campaign against Mr Putin’s naked ambition is easy to see in binary terms of black and white. From a military point of view, Israel–Gaza is a far more nuanced conflict. The conflict is causing ripples in other nations with high Muslim populations. Though journalists have yet to link the two, my own analysis is that the political upset to Dutch politics, caused by Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom winning most seats in its recent general election, was partly a reaction to TV reporting of Hamas’ October massacres. Other countries may respond similarly.

Mr Netanyahu pitches this conflict as an existential fight for Israel’s existence and any failure to crush Hamas as an invitation for other regional actors to join the fray against him. The inconvenient truth is that other Arab nations were beginning to normalise their relations with Israel through greater fear of Iran, whose Shi’ite ideology threatens that of Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia. Riyadh sees Tehran exporting its beliefs to fuel internal unrest in the region in the pursuit of proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank, Sinai, Lebanon and elsewhere. Excepting the Al Thani regime in Qatar (which shares with Iran the world’s largest natural gas field along its maritime border and is home to a sizable minority of Shi’ite Muslims), relations between Iran and most Arab nations are almost as poor as those between Israel and Iran. Qatar’s position as hostage mediator has elevated it to the world stage for several reasons. It pays the salaries, with Israeli and US agreement, of Gaza’s civil servants. The leader of Hamas’ political arm, Ismail Haniyeh, is based in its capital, Doha; when criticised for providing him a safe haven, the Qataris rightly counter that he would otherwise base himself in Tehran or Moscow. With great foresight, immediately after the October attack, Qatar set up a prisoner negotiation unit under Muhammed Al-Khulaifi, a minister of state, which has been operated non-stop since. The current deals are evidence of his methodical success.

Hamas foot soldiers may be sold on martyrdom, but not their wily commanders

Hamas and other affiliated militants launched their murderous attack, possibly achieving greater success than intended. A recent report has observed how under its leadership, as many as ten separate groups drilled in secret for a mass assault against Israel’s Defence Forces. A training ground within the Gaza strip appears to have been built and exercises held to enable Palestinian rebels to overwhelm IDF positions and tanks. Video footage has identified elements of Ali Mustafa Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Mujahideen Brigades, Al-Quasim units and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades taking part. We now understand Israel knew of these exercises, but didn’t know what they were training for. In this respect, Palestinian preparations and operational security resemble that of the Germans, prior to their surprise 1944 Ardennes assault known as the Battle of the Bulge. Some of the jigsaw puzzle pieces were assembled beforehand, but the whole picture eluded those on the receiving end, as I have reported elsewhere in The Critic. All too often, an intelligence mishap can be attributed to a sense that the opponent isn’t capable of the mischief suggested, that the threat is exaggerated. To studies of such fiascos as the failures to foresee Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Ardennes on 16 December 1944, the Yom Kippur assault of 6 October 1973 or the terror attacks on 11 September 2001, a new date will be added: 7 October 2023. Make no mistake, heads will roll. Behind the scenes Mr Netanyahu is fighting to keep his.

However, these military preparations only explain the killing of Israeli soldiers, not the mass slaughter of civilian settlers. Observers in the region now conclude Hamas’ actions may have been aided by taking the drug Captagon, a synthetic amphetamine-type stimulant, whose manufacture and sale finances the Assad regime in Syria. Tablets of this “poor man’s cocaine” not only deliver a high, but energise those who take it, exaggerating their mood swings and enabling them to stay awake for longer. Customs officers across the Gulf have seized huge quantities of this market-ready substance, used by Arab communities and regional militants alike. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Jordan’s military shot down a drone full of the drug flying from Syria in August. In May, it killed “godfather” Marai al-Ramthan, the region’s most prominent dealer and smuggler of Captagon, near the Syria–Jordan border. Use of his narcotics may explain, but not excuse, the genocidal rampage of October 7th.

In Clausewitzian terms, there seems no rational political explanation for Hamas to behave as it did, other than a limited military opportunity which presented itself. Iran may well have had a hand, but October 7th’s orgy of destruction seems like a suicide note for the Palestinian cause in Gaza. Not even Hezbollah with its far superior resources in Lebanon has significantly attacked Israel, nor has the wider Arab region risen in support, or so far punished the West as it did in the aftermath of the 1973 war. With no practical political endgame — the eradication of Israel is about as viable as Hamas sending a manned rocket to Mars — it is difficult to understand the reasoning of its senior leaders. Their civilian hostage taking may have been an afterthought; otherwise they would have captured more and murdered fewer. Hamas foot soldiers may well be sold on martyrdom for their cause, but not their wily commanders.

So, where is this going? Hamas has fired its weapon, the equivalent of a double-barrelled shotgun with limited ammunition, and it will deserve all it gets and more. Israel has responded with airstrikes, artillery and commando raids, but what happens next? How is IDF activity in Gaza serving a policy or shaping one beyond the day-to-day grind of destroying Hamas hideouts? Previously, Israel recognized Hamas as part of a fragile security regime for Gaza. However, mobilising 360,000 IDF reserves is a huge drain on Israel’s economy. Friends tell me hotels and restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have closed, which is bad for the approaching Christmas tourist season. Their staff are in uniform, along with civil servants, bankers, teachers, lawyers, code-writers, tour guides, engineers, performers in the arts and media workers. With 26 per cent of all potential conscripts aged 18–40 exempted from military service, mostly on religious grounds, and female reservists excused after the birth of their first child, the available personnel pool in a total population of 9.5 million is not huge.

To topple Hamas and its friends in Gaza requires a massive and sustained military operation. The implications of the ongoing Israeli incursion have yet to unfold but at the very least, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, will require Israel to control Gaza for several years. The ceasefire allowed both sides to draw breath, like a pair of tired boxers. Now that it has ended, the IDF will resume its land and air operations, though still without a long-term vision. Even with one, the possibilities for reconstruction (with half of northern Gaza now in ruins) and its governance, look dire. Yet, I cannot see any of the international community wanting to take on such a poisoned chalice, either. With both sides locked into war for its own sake, in defiance of his military teaching, Carl von Clausewitz must be turning in his grave.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover