The Lessons of the West Bank and Lebanon in Gaza

Israel has unfortunate experience with guerrilla/terrorist forces on its borders with Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. It has managed them over time in different ways with more or less success. Facing enemies with larger populations and less sensitivity to civilian casualties (or, in fact, who find civilian casualties useful for propaganda purposes), the IDF had two fundamental principles: a) small country; short war and b) small country; fight on the enemy’s battlefield and don’t permit a war of attrition against your people to develop.

Israel has unfortunate experience with guerrilla/terrorist forces on its borders with Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. It has managed them over time in different ways with more or less success. Facing enemies with larger populations and less sensitivity to civilian casualties (or, in fact, who find civilian casualties useful for propaganda purposes), the IDF had two fundamental principles: a) small country; short war and b) small country; fight on the enemy’s battlefield and don’t permit a war of attrition against your people to develop.

The Gaza War provides an opportunity to review Israeli doctrine in the West Bank and Lebanon as a means of assessing Israel’s overall security operations.

The West Bank: The 1993 Oslo Accords gave the Palestinian Authority (PA) its first security obligations. The West Bank was divided into Areas A, B and C, corresponding to the level of Israeli security control permitted and the increasing security activity that the Palestinian force was to assume. The onset of the “second intifada” in September 2000 ended whatever presumption there was that PA security forces could or would use their military training to protect Israeli civilians – and there were multiple instances of Palestinian security forces using that training to conduct terrorist activities.

Israel remained largely on the defensive through bus and other suicide bombings until the Passover Seder Massacre at the Park Hotel in March 2002.

Operation Defensive Shield was the Israeli military response that shut down an enormous terrorist infrastructure in Jenin, Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank. Israeli commanders commented, “Our maps no longer have colors,” a reference to the coding of Oslo’s Areas A, B and C. IDF forces took complete security control of the West Bank and began building the Security Fence. Israeli deaths by Palestinian terrorism from the West Bank – and discrete terrorist incidents – plunged, and have remained annually in low single digits.

Since 2002, Israeli policy has since been to “cut the grass” – to use intelligence information and the IDF presence in the towns and cities of the West Bank to prevent the emergence/coalescence of groups and cells that could organize to plan terrorist operations – and to prevent the stockpiling of materiel that can be used by terrorist forces. Check points, detested by the American Secretary of State, are an integral part of that ongoing security process.

Eight years after the beginning of the “second intifada,” and more than six years after the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield, Palestinian “security forces” have again begun to operate in the West Bank with Israeli acquiescence. However, they are limited to police functions and Israel continues to control counter-terrorism operations.

Largely because of the general quiet that prevails, and because of the continuing political discussion between the Israeli government and the PA government of Abu Mazen, people are unaccustomed to thinking about the continuing IDF security mechanism that allows for improved security for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. Recent economic indicators show that unemployment in the West Bank is down, economic activity is up and Christmas 2008 in Bethlehem was financially and religiously successful.

Looking back at the progress, it can be said the Israel has (painfully) proved in the West Bank that it is possible to win a war against terrorists. In Lebanon, however, it painfully allowed the Hezbollah terrorists a default victory.

Lebanon: Since the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, the Beirut government has been unable to control the southern part of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in the region and Hezbollah and other militia/guerrilla groups as well as Syrian intelligence and armed forces have operated there, taking advantage of a weak and chaotic situation. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the PLO ran a multi-national terrorist “state within a state” south of the Litani River, shelling Israel with Katyusha rockets. In 1982, Israel ousted Arafat and his minions and remained in Lebanon until 2000, allied with its homegrown militia, the South Lebanese Army (SLA). During that period, Israeli forces sustained casualties in the dozens each year, but there was no return to the firing of rockets into the civilian communities of Northern Israel.

After the IDF withdrawal in 2000, Hezbollah built up its infrastructure and missile arsenal. In many cases, it had facilities next to the UN’s UNIFIL forces and right on Israel’s border. During the six quiet years, Hezbollah received arms and training from Iran, facilitated by Syria. In 2006, following the abduction of two Israeli soldiers and the deaths of eight others, Israel launched a major attack on Hezbollah forces in Southern Lebanon.

Much has been written about what has become known as the Second Lebanon War and it will not be repeated here. One salient point, however, was the understanding that while Israel needed to “win” the war, Hezbollah needed only to survive to fight another day – which it did. [And it has since rebuilt its arsenal, although largely north of the Litani.]

To sort out problems evidenced in the planning and execution of the Second Lebanon War, Israel’s Winograd Commission spent months studying documents and interviewing government and military officials. [When the report was released, most people looked for its political recommendations. The report did not recommend the resignation of the prime minister, at which point it was mainly relegated to library back tables.]

A crucial part of the Commission’s work was to study the relationship between Israel’s military high command and the civilian leadership as they defined the country’s security goals and the application of military force to achieve them. The Commission was scathing in its criticism of both the military and the civilians for indecisiveness and failures of communication, understanding and planning. The IDF and Israeli security-related educational institutions have been studying Winograd with an eye toward improving civil-military relations, improving security for the Israeli people, and matching force to mission.

A review of key Winograd Commission findings reveals the extent to which the current fighting in Gaza is based on lessons learned. The report set a scene that looks familiar in its opening stage:

11. Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory. A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages. The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel’s civilian population lasted throughout the war, and the IDF did not provide an effective response to it. The fabric of life under fire was seriously disrupted, and many civilians either left their homes temporarily or spent their time in shelters. After a long period of using only standoff firepower and limited ground activities, Israel initiated a large-scale ground offensive… (that) did not result in military gains and was not completed. These facts had far-reaching implications for us, as well as for our enemies, our neighbors, and our friends in the region and around the world.

The report continued:

13. Israel had two main options, each with its coherent internal logic, and its set of costs and disadvantages…a short, painful, strong and unexpected blow on Hezbollah, primarily through standoff fire-power (or) to bring about a significant change of the reality in the South of Lebanon with a large ground operation.

14. The choice between these options was within the exclusive political discretion of the government; however, the way the original decision to go to war had been made; the fact Israel went to war before it decided which option to select, and without an exit strategy – all these constituted serious failures, which affected the whole war. Responsibility for these failures lay…on both the political and the military echelons.

15. After the initial decision to use military force, and to the very end of the war, this period of ‘equivocation’ continued, with both the political and the military echelon not deciding between the two options…This ‘equivocation’ did hurt Israel.


20. All in all, the IDF failed, especially because of the conduct of the high command and the ground forces, to provide an effective military response to the challenge posed to it by the war in Lebanon, and thus failed to provide the political echelon with a military achievement that could have served as the basis for political and diplomatic action. Responsibility for this outcomes lies mainly with the IDF, but the misfit between the mode of action and the goals determined by the political echelon share responsibility.

Gaza: Israel could ill-afford another Second Lebanon War; soldiers are a precious commodity and Israel’s deterrent capability can’t withstand many more instances in which the outcome is inconclusive and the terrorists can reasonably claim victory and rebuild. The early evidence is that the coordination between the military and civilian echelons has improved and the planning has taken account of the Winograd findings.

Winograd continued:

37. Israel cannot survive in this region, and cannot live in it in peace or at least non-war, unless people in Israel itself and in its surroundings believe that Israel has the political and military leadership, military capabilities, and social robustness that will allow her to deter those of its neighbors who wish to harm her, and to prevent them – if necessary through the use of military force – from achieving their goal.

38. These truths do not depend on one’s partisan or political views. Israel must – politically and morally – seek peace with its neighbors and make necessary compromises. At the same time, seeking peace or managing the conflict must come from a position of social, political and military strength, and through the ability and willingness to fight for the state, its values and the security of its population even in the absence of peace.

39. These truths have profound and far-reaching implications for many dimensions of life in Israel and the ways its challenges are managed. Beyond examining the way the Lebanon War was planned and conducted; beyond the examination of flaws in decision-making and performance that had been revealed in it – important as they may be; these are the central questions that the Lebanon war has raised. These are issues that lie at the very essence of our existence here as a Jewish and democratic state.

Only as Israel moves forward in its effort to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” in Gaza – which was the obligation of the Palestinians under the now-discredited Road Map – will it become clear whether the Winograd Commission’s conclusions have become Israeli government and IDF policy.