2014 Gaza War Assessment: Observations, Implications, and Recommendations

Though hybrid adversaries and asymmetric conflicts are not battlefield innovations, many of the effective techniques Hamas employed do represent an evolution in unconventional warfare, and will probably be imitated and improved upon by America’s enemies. For this reason, we undertook this study and offer the following observations, implications and recommendations for U.S. policymakers and military officials.

Hybrid Actors and Unrestricted Warfare

Hamas’s demonstrated “hybrid” capabilities in the 2014 Gaza War – a non-state force equipped with advanced weapons systems normally associated with nation-state conventional militaries. Other non-state groups are similarly receiving more sophisticated weaponry than ever before, and are operating like conventional armies.

The 2014 Gaza War also illustrated non-state actors’ increasing propensity for operating from heavily populated urban environments, a problem that will become more acute in the coming decades due to increased global urbanization. Though U.S. forces have engaged in numerous urban battles against non-state entities over the past 13 years in Nasiriyah, Sadr City, Fallujah, Ramadi and other cities and villages in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, Hamas deployed a different and more dangerous concept of operations than the United States has encountered.

Hamas appears to have pursued “unrestricted warfare,” defined as the ability to blend technologies with military actions and political-influence activities, seeking victory not on the battlefield but through pressure on Israeli decision-makers. Hamas’s focus in the conflict was on the exploitation of the presence of civilians in the combat zone, not just as a passive defense tactic, but through actions intended to place its own civilians in jeopardy. Hamas’s strategy appears to have been to discredit Israel internationally by portraying the IDF’s military operations as indiscriminate and disproportional.

The U.S. military must prepare for similar conflicts. Hybrid threats, equipped with an advanced and dangerous arsenal, will pose a greater battlefield danger to U.S. troops than irregular adversaries of the past. Emplaced amid civilian populations in dense urban terrain, such forces will create significant challenges for operational commanders committed to observing LOAC and protecting civilians. However, against an adversary for whom military defeat is not a strategic loss, a restrained strategy of disrupting and degrading, but not necessarily destroying, the enemy can win the battle, but not the war. Professional military education and campaign planning should be adjusted to address this new face of war, and an effort should be undertaken to inform policymakers and the American people.

Weaponizing the Law

During periods of armed conflict, LOAC protects civilians by prohibiting deliberate attack against them, as well as attacks – even against lawful targets – when the attacking commander reasonably anticipates that the harm to civilians and damage to civilian property will be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage to be gained by the attack. But civilians are not entirely and always inviolable. They can forsake their legal protections by engaging in military activities and, while tragic, their incidental injury might be lawful if proper legal procedure is followed in targeting decision-making. LOAC does not render unlawful any attack that risks or even results in incidental injury and collateral damage; its principles are applied with a standard of the best available information at the time of a commander’s decision, not information that subsequently becomes available after an engagement.

Though this Task Force did not have access to Hamas’s targeting and attack decision data, the available evidence makes clear that Hamas habitually violated LOAC. It is the judgment of this Task Force that most of the rocket fires emanating from Gaza were not, as required by LOAC, directed at legitimate military targets, but rather at civilian population centers. This Task Force observed significant evidence that, on numerous occasions, Hamas’s rocket launchers were situated in a way, such as at United Nations facilities, that violated LOAC obligation to refrain from placing vital military assets among civilian populations. This Task Force cannot but conclude that Hamas’s infractions were deliberate, nor can we imagine a military justification for Hamas’s tactics.

It is the conclusion of this Task Force that Hamas sought to exploit the civilian population and IDF respect for LOAC to prevent Israeli attacks or to ensure an Israeli response would cause civilian casualties. Further, Hamas also exploited general lack of understanding about the balance between military necessity and humanitarian protection central to LOAC to present a false narrative that combat operations which produce civilian casualties are inherently unlawful.

The IDF confronted a dilemma – neuter their military response or accept some risk of civilian casualties in order to effectively leverage their combat power – and responded by following a rigorous targeting methodology for airstrikes. The IDF’s systematic method of determining a strike’s desired military effect, selecting the required combination of weapons and fusing needed to achieve that effect, assessing potential collateral damage, and weighing that risk against military necessity is similar to that of the U.S. military and reflects good-faith commitment to LOAC compliance.

The IDF executed a number of extraordinary and innovative methods to mitigate civilian risk. These measures included: maximizing the use of precision-guided munitions; selecting the lowest acceptable yield explosives; warning civilians with leaflets, text messages, telephone calls and radio transmissions to leave a defined area of operations or to seek shelter; assisting with the evacuation of civilians; firing smoke and illumination rounds prior to the use of explosive munitions in order to encourage civilian evacuation; and most notably, dropping a small, non-lethal explosive at an unoccupied corner of a structure to provide a “knock on the roof” warning of an impending strike. The IDF implemented unprecedented precautionary measures with full knowledge that they often would degrade the efficacy of an attack by allowing evacuation of military personnel, equipment or munitions. It is our assessment as military professionals that IDF operations in Gaza exercised considerable restraint and exceeded the requirements of LOAC.

While we respect the IDF’s restraint and innovations, we do not believe the Israeli level of restraint should be considered the standard for U.S. armed forces in future conflicts. We recognize that strategic and tactical interests will often result in restraints on the use of combat power that exceed those required by LOAC. However, we also believe the ever- increasing level of restraint implemented by the IDF reflects the inherent risk in conflating law and policy. Unless there is a clear demarcation between law and policy-based restraints on the use of combat power, raising standards in one instance – even if done as a matter of national policy and not as the result of legal obligation – risks creating a precedent to which military forces will likely be expected to adhere in the future. The result will not only be a greater danger to national security, but also an increased risk to civilians, since unconventional enemies will (like Hamas) deliberately seek to instigate civilian casualties in order to portray them, usually erroneously, as the result of unlawful attacks by their opponents.

Countering future adversaries who would thus distort LOAC requires preparing the informational battlefield. We recommend that U.S. policymakers declare that the United States will continue to abide by LOAC during armed conflicts and clearly indicate the policy-based nature of any additional restraints imposed on the use of combat power by U.S. forces during military operations. We also recommend they launch an initiative to make clear the principles and requirements of LOAC and educate relevant elements of the U.S. government, media and, where possible, the United Nations and international audiences. In addition, Israel might consider requesting an alternative analysis of the legality of IDF action in the 2014 Gaza War by NATO and ANZUS militaries that conducted combat operations in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

Information: From Domain to Campaign

Hamas’s strategic manipulation of law and civilian casualties was supported by its ability to propagate misinformation and misconstrued legal arguments through media channels. Hamas operated an array of websites and social media accounts with each online outlet tailored to a specific audience. Its Arabic-language content focused on glorifying jihad against Israel and reciting the number of rockets fired into Israel. Conversely, its websites in Western languages emphasized Israel’s aggression and the deaths of innocent civilians.10 Disinformation was coupled with restrictions on journalists’ movements within Gaza, effectively preventing them from providing coverage of Hamas’s indiscriminate firing against Israeli civilians and locating its military firing positions, weapons, ammunition and military facilities among Gazan civilians.

The IDF-Public Affairs (IDF-PA) branch was active in response to Hamas’s efforts. Nevertheless, at the strategic level, the IDF lost the information operations campaign, undermining the perceived legitimacy of its overall mission and negatively shaping the environment for its next fight with Hamas or any other terrorist threat. In our judgment, Israel encountered a series of institutional and external challenges that reduced the effectiveness of its information operations campaign.

First, there is a roles and capability mismatch. The IDF views the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as responsible for international audiences. Yet, MFA officials we spoke with noted that they lacked the timely military information, video and images and the understanding of military operations and LOAC to effectively inform international reporting. Second, though full-motion video and other forms of intelligence that could counter Hamas’s claims of civilian casualties in Gaza often existed, the IDF was reluctant to release classified material to the media.

Hamas’s success in controlling the narrative of the 2014 Gaza War is likely to be replicated. For the United States, the information domain might be a supporting effort in a broader military campaign, but increasingly we will face adversaries that see violence as supporting their primary focus: the information campaign.

To come to grips with the information domain’s increased importance, the U.S. government and military must develop a whole-of-government approach that properly apportions responsibility, authority and resources to ensure that timely and highly accurate information about facts, law and policy is presented in a persuasive manner. Within the U.S. military, information operations experts need to be involved in operational planning. The Department of State must be seriously resourced and empowered to promote our truthful messages and to counter our adversaries’ distortions. New technologies must also be developed for this domain, including social media analytical tools and a wide-area, full-motion battlefield video surveillance system.

The Role of Technology

Hamas’s main strategy might have been victory in the court of international opinion, but it still confronted Israel on the battlefield, where it deployed tactical and technological innovations to negate Israel’s military advantages to the highest degree possible.

It sought to penetrate Israeli territory not only with rockets and missiles, but also from underground tunnels as well as the sea and air, demonstrating an unprecedented, albeit limited, level of “jointness” in its operations. Undoubtedly, the most significant of these was Hamas’s use of tunnels. An extensive network beneath Gaza offered cover and concealment, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Israelis to detect or prevent movement of fighters, munitions and weapons. In other words, Hamas’s tunnels countered Israeli aerial reconnaissance capabilities. Infiltration tunnels allowed a limited number of Hamas fighters to reach Israeli territory undetected.

These tunnels posed a tactical challenge for the IDF. Hamas’s ability to flank the IDF using tunnels redefined the concept of the front line. They also distracted IDF ground force commanders from their main effort by substantially increasing the risk of attacks against civilians in areas proximate to the Gaza border. Hamas’s attack tunnels also proved difficult to target and destroy. The IDF did not possess a technology capable of determining where each branch of the tunnel went, or their exit points within Israel. In short, the IDF underappreciated the extent of Hamas’s recent tactical and technological innovations, especially tunnel warfare.

The U.S. military must prepare itself to confront such adaptations as Hamas demonstrated in the 2014 Gaza War. More specifically, we recommend the United States work with Israel and other allies to develop technologies and capabilities to address this threat. These should include: aerial platform mounted tunnel detection technology capable of reaching significant depths in a variety of terrain conditions; a technology capable of readily de-capacitating detected tunnels; a counter-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) air defense network to detect and destroy swarms of UAVs; intelligence collection, targeting procedures and munitions – to include non-lethal technology deliverable by airborne platforms – for future urban conflicts; a wide-area underwater swimmer detection capability; and a robust counter-mortar and counter- artillery active protection system.