Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israel’s Military Dilemma

Israel’s Military Dilemma

Israel’s strategy formulation for its military reaction to the Al Aksa intifada begun by the Palestinians in Fall 2000 was profoundly affected by the Israeli Defense Forces’ experience in occupying parts of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. Even before Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 to the “blue line” set by the UN to demarcate the Lebanon-Israel border, Israel was determined not to repeat that type of war. By most accounts, the Israeli public had exhibited remarkable patience throughout it; though Israeli soldiers were being killed on an almost daily basis in Lebanon, the battlefield was geographically far enough from the Israeli public’s view and the war was perceived as a defense of Israel’s outer borders, not its territory. The Israeli security cabinet could control the information Israelis received regarding what was happening in Lebanon. That ended in the mid-1990’s, as increasing numbers of Israeli soldiers were killed in Hezbollah’s more violent attacks. Israel is now in a new era in its military history. The hits Israel took in the Lebanon war have now come home: the Al Aksa uprising is essentially the import of Lebanese-style warfare into Israel.

War of Choice or No Choice?

The IDF’s strategy in dealing with the Al Aksa intifada combines methods it used during the first intifada, which began in December 1987 and was ended with the 1993 Oslo accord, with the guerrilla-type warfare it used in occupying south Lebanon. Israel’s army and security cabinet must decide whether Israel is fighting a war of choice or of no choice. Former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin had to answer this question before he gave then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon the green light to go into Lebanon in the 1980s. This was an essential component of Israel’s military choices. The late Dan Horowitz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem explained that “in Begin’s opinion, only wars initiated by Arabs— the War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War — were wars of no choice. All the rest, without distinction between a preemptive strike, preventive war, war in response to violation of predetermined rule defined as casus belli and war for attainment of political objectives— are ‘wars of choice.’” (In Moshe Lissak, Israeli Society and Its Defense Establishment, London, 1984).

This is the sticking point. In conducting its new Operation Defensive Shield, a preemptive military strike intended to dismantle the growing Palestinian military capability to destroy Israeli society, the IDF military strategists constantly face the question “When are military tactics defensive and when are they too aggressive?” Andrew Bacevich, Eliot Cohen, and Michael Eisenstadt’s “Knives, Tanks, and Missiles” (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998) makes the following distinction: “The IDF’s doctrine at the strategic level is defensive, while its tactics are offensive. Given the country’s lack of territorial depth, the IDF must take initiative when deemed necessary and, if attacked, quickly transfer the battleground to the enemy’s land.” (p. 18)

Given that the 1980’s intifada and the current one are violent internal uprisings within Israel’s borders, the transfer of army units into parts of Israel is an act of self-defense correlated to an offensive military preemptive strategy. The strategy is needed in order to allow Israel to protect its citizens. (Some countries in the global arena see the Israelis army’s aggressiveness in the current uprising as acts of terror, and in fact this fine line between the term “terror” and “self-defense” is the boundary that the Israeli government, which oversees military actions, has to negotiate. Palestinian terror targets Israeli civilians, whereas the IDF targets Palestinian militants.) In contrast to this strategy of conventional military preemptive strikes, including attacks on the Palestinian Authority and the radical groups that are permitted to work within the PA framework, Israel has to defend itself from nonconventional military actions that are implemented by suicide attacks and bombers. So the IDF’s strategy is put to the test: how can conventional tactics be used against nonconventional strategies and still be effective? The solution is to use Israel’s military might to pressure the core structure of the PA, which claims to be able to control those same radicals that are forcing Israel to move from defensive to offensive postures. The Israeli army is directed by both military and political agendas: one is to defend Israeli civilians, the other is to attack based on political strategies.

The Israeli military had hoped to avoid repetition of the first intifada, where it was seen to be victimizing Palestinian civilians, dulling the edge of Israel’s own status as a victim of terror. The Palestinian tactic of using the “weak” to confront the “strong” legitimizes and strengthens the Palestinians’ claim. But decisive military action as in the last three weeks clearly breaks all the ground rules set in Oslo and opens Israel to charges of excessive force. Israel re-entered the cities that were given back to the Palestinian Authority in 1993 because the Israeli government cannot simply remain hunkered down in a defensive position waiting for suicide bombers to strike. The large-scale military action that Israel has decided to employ demonstrates that it will fight terrorism at any cost, even at the cost of being criticized for military brutality. The bottom line is to defend Israeli lives.

It is a mistake to believe that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian people’s choice to employ suicide methods arises from despair and helplessness. They made this choice in order to promote the promise Arafat made to his people: a Palestinian state and a war of independence based on the model of Israel’s own War of Independence of 1948. As explained by the director-general of the Palestinian Authority ministry of information: “Consequently, the continuation of the popular confrontation is of an urgent necessity… the force of the Intifada is our only power… our national duty is to continue the confrontation, the Intifada and martyrdom, so that our martyrs and our injured will not be in vain, and the Intifada of Al Aksa will be the gate to independence and liberty. ” (In Al-Ayyam, Oct. 3, 2000, quoted by Yigal Carmon and Yotam Feldner, “The Intifada of Al-Aqsa — Roots and Goals” MEMRI paper, Oct. 11, 2000.)


Given the current reality, in which, the security of Israeli citizens is threatened on a daily basis, the IDF has shifted from a defensive position to an offensive one. It is important to recognize that by making this shift Israel does not want to occupy the pre-Oslo Palestinian cities, but rather that the Palestinians’ tactics derive from Lebanon and will not succeed. The PA cannot say it is cooperating with the Israeli government in preventing terrorist acts while it is actively encouraging these acts. Israel is doing the job of the PA in order to secure its citizens’ safety. The military dilemma is how the IDF can best provide safety, leave the territories, and not start this cycle again. Ze’ev Schiff of Ha’aretz wrote on April 5 that “The outcome will be poor should, when the operation comes to an end, Palestinian terror return to square one… . With a return to terror, we will have to remobilize the reserves, reenter Palestinian cities and start all over again.”

This is the issue that IDF must resolve if the Israeli government is to return to the negotiating table. The cycle of ongoing violence must be broken by a ceasefire leading to renewed negotiations. Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank may be the beginning and not the end of such operations if the Palestinian Authority does not alter its strategy.