Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The fourth-generation war

While Israel’s technological and military superiority has made it accustomed to winning tactical battles, it is in danger of losing the wider war, writes James Gundun in Washington

Al-Ahram Weekly

Israel’s fresh bombardment of Gaza and its political aftershocks have reinforced a maddening status quo: Hamas’s armed resistance cannot reverse Israel’s statehood; Israeli army  operations cannot physically destroy Hamas’s resistance; and the foreign powers involved lack a concrete plan to advance an equitable two-state solution.

Hamas and those Palestinian leaders that fail to offer an alternative deserve their share of responsibility for bringing Gaza to the boil. Fatah’s inability to move a peaceful solution forward, albeit within a biased system of international mediation, has given Hamas ample room to grow and has kept Israel’s leadership focused on military action.

However, the blunt reality of asymmetric warfare does not place the burden of responsibility on non-state actors, but rather puts it on the state actors that are theoretically beholden to international standards. Non-state actors attract popular support by offering modest improvements over a tyrannical, corrupt government. For this reason (and others, of course), Hamas’s behaviour is partially or fully accepted by Palestinians and Muslims who view Israel’s behaviour as incomparably monstrous.

Advanced states can make fourth-generation warfare (4GW) look flawless and futile at the same time.

4GW is named for its placement after 3GW, a phase that technologically evolved the tactical and strategic concepts developed in the 20th century. A major difference between 3GW and 4GW stems from the balance of power: while 3GW conflicts generally occur between states, 4GW develops between state and non-state actors.

Firepower becomes less important in this type of warfare as the conflict blurs deeper into the local civilian population, placing a premium on the non-military factors — political, economic and social — that govern a territory. This strategy addresses the need to protect an area’s natural and human resources instead of destroying them, along with the tasks of cooperating with international organisations and keeping battlefield blunders out of the international news cycle.

Although amplified by technology, 4GW is designed to confound superior militaries and their technological advantages. Accordingly, retired US marine colonel Thomas X. Hammes advises America’s leadership against believing that technology can overcome non-military sources of conflict and their political manifestations. Having monitored Washington’s delusional expeditions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the “war on terror,” Hammes holds this error above all others to be the case in asymmetric warfare.

“We continue to focus on technological solutions at the tactical and operational levels without serious discussion of the strategic imperatives of the nature of the war we are fighting,” he wrote in The Sling and the Stone, a study of 4GW. The Israeli leadership and the soldiers under its command are similarly geared towards urban warfare rather than the totality of 4GW. Israel’s objectives remain military-oriented: eliminate a key Hamas strategist; destroy his long-range weapons; stop Gazan rockets from falling on southern Israel; and ultimately impose a ceasefire that demands the elimination of the smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political objective is domestic in nature, or else it is aimed at the Palestinians’ upcoming recognition bid at the United Nations. Settling the conflict’s non-military grievances has been noticeably absent from Netanyahu’s agenda throughout his four-year term.

Israel certainly enjoys an abundance of political power and media influence, strong-arming Western governments with ease by dangling a ground invasion beneath a massive air raid. Netanyahu has reportedly told US President Barack Obama that he will only launch a ground operation if Hamas continues firing rockets into Israel. Naturally, Gaza’s bombardment becomes more palatable in the face of a bloodier alternative, a comparison that helps maintain the West’s green light for as long as possible. Furthermore, Netanyahu is attempting to portray himself as a tough but wise statesman (think Iran) ahead of the 22 January elections in Israel.

“Before deciding on a ground invasion, the prime minister intends to exhaust the diplomatic moves in order to see if a long-term ceasefire can be achieved,” a senior Israeli official said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to the region in order to broker a truce that would allow Israel to continue bombing every last target and giving Hamas little incentive to comply. However, this Western reservoir of diplomatic power cannot fully overcome the power attributed to world opinion, and steamrolling over all objections to the disproportionate force applied in Gaza generates more enemies — civilian and militant alike — than Israel can eliminate.

Israel’s government has grown dangerously accustomed to winning the tactical battles and losing the conflict’s wider political narrative. Its military and intelligence agencies, among the world’s elite, skillfully locate arms caches, intercept rockets and track Hamas officials with a Skynet-like grid of technology. Over 1,350 Israeli air strikes on Gaza were counted, a growing number of them launched from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Many of Hamas’s Fajr-5 rockets, considered a “tie-breaker,” were wiped out after Hamas leader Ahmed Al-Jabari’s assassination.

Meanwhile, Carmela Avner, an Israeli information officer, boasts that Israel can fight a war on three technological fronts: “the first is physical; the second is on the world of social networks; and the third is cyber.”

All of these capabilities, as Hammes warns, give Israel’s leadership a false sense of control over the military and non-military battlefields. There will always be more rockets to intercept. New Hamas leaders will inevitably replace the fallen, and Israel’s own websites are being hacked by supporters of the Palestinians. Worse still, the false sense of security inspired by the Iron Dome defence system emboldens Israel to strike with minimal consequences, producing more hostilities instead of reducing them.

Such “precision” air strikes, far from precise, contribute to the eventual stalemate imposed by the international community’s frantic jockeying to salvage credibility with their own populations.

Israel is a master of warfare — disproportionate warfare. Over 150 Palestinians have been killed (at least 50 of them civilians) and over 840 wounded, including 225 children, since “Operation Pillar of Defense” began on 14 November. The Israelis suffered five fatalities and an estimated 250 injuries from Gaza’s rockets, underscoring the conflict’s fundamentally disproportionate nature.

The faces of dead Palestinian children will outweigh anything Israel has to say to the world at large, and the Israeli government is losing minds and hearts at an unsustainable pace. Contrary to resolving any sources of conflict, disproportionate force and the resulting spectacle functions as a main driver of 4GW.

Israel’s government argues that Hamas’s stockpile has essentially been reset as a result of the conflict, but the same breathing room failed to yield any progress towards a two-state solution following the last war in Gaza. Netanyahu will now emerge wrapped in victorious rhetoric, ignoring 4GW and dooming the cycle to repeat again.

And if his government doesn’t care what the world thinks, why should the world treat Israel with special care?

The writer is a political scientist.

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