I’m feeling positively blog-happy after getting away with an Israel/Palestine post, so what about another one? This one is also about rockets, just on a different scale.
A lot of strategic concepts have an odd kind of fractal quality, keeping the same form at different scales. We saw how the rocketing was, in a sense, suppressive fire directed at the economy, and the air raids and artillery were counter-battery fire intended to suppress it in its turn. Now, this wasn’t enough to achieve either suppression or destruction. So what now?
Well, if you can’t find the rocket teams accurately enough to shell or bomb them, the next option is to seize the ground they fire from, or to force them to fight for it, just as it would be in a skirmish between two groups of four soldiers. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, this means that the next move is an Israeli ground incursion. Remember that the ground looks like this.
These raids are something of an Israeli speciality, using a mixture of tanks, super-heavy armoured personnel carriers (a specialised vehicle class not seen in other armies), and engineering equipment to undertake attacks into urban areas with relatively low risk while forcing the guerrilla enemy to fight at a disadvantage. Direct fire, armoured protection, and combat engineering are used to avoid using infantry. The spectacular and shocking destruction of the urban fabric that results is meant to have a deterrent effect on society at large, in a sort of horizontal version of airpower theory.
Here’s a Le Figaro newsflash from last week when the Israeli army did a substantial raid in force into Gaza and lost 13 men killed and one missing. I quote the sentence I find important:
Au moins un char de cette unité a été détruit au cours des combats par des missiles de type Sagger. Un commandant de l’unité a pour sa part été blessé lors de cette opération.
This isn’t quite the first time anti-tank guided weapons have been confirmed in Gaza (one, a much fancier AT-14, was fired across the border in October 2010, and later one was launched across the border at a school bus – stay classy, Hamas!)
But as in Lebanon, they seem to have been effective in imposing losses on Israeli ground forces and in constraining the freedom of manoeuvre that they otherwise gain by reshaping the ground with engineering plant and explosives. Although I haven’t got access to the whole text, this Ha’aretz story and the tweet accompanying it seems to say that the raid into Shujaya ran into trouble, specifically a massive ambush with ATGWs, and the Israeli army called in a huge artillery bombardment to cover its disengagement.
The point here is that when the best Palestinian anti-tank weapon was an RPG, they had to get to within 100 metres of a tank to be effective. Ideally, you’d want to creep up on the tank from behind, so we can understand the tactics here as being about controlling the space to the flanks of the advance out to 100 to 500 metres. Drenching the RPG engagement zone with suppressive fire and then bulldozing away buildings that provide cover was the solution.
Now, ATGWs like the Sagger permit engagement from 3km away with a high success rate. This makes the super-heavy APCs and engineering vehicles into big, slow-moving, valuable targets. That’s precisely what happened on the night of July 20, when one of them was destroyed with a whole section of Golani troopers aboard. The area to the flanks of the armoured group that must be cleared to prevent this happening increases dramatically. Because this is happening in a city, this usually means more infantry, and you can probably see where we’re going here.
Let’s pull the camera back from the tactical scale to the strategic scale. The fundamental political offer from Israeli leaders is that with a “tough security stance”, “mowing the grass” periodically, the benefits to individual groups in Israel (e.g settlers, the religious, clients of the defence establishment) that might be lost under a general peace settlement can be retained at an acceptable price, like the occasional Operation Pillar of Defence.
The offer from the peace camp, when it had any power, was that national unifying ideals were at risk from the cost of major wars, and therefore a sacrifice for principle was called for. But if the cost could be kept down, this didn’t sound like such a good deal, especially to people (the religious, ex-Soviet immigrants, Sephardic Jews) who didn’t necessarily recognise themselves in the ideals people like Yitzhak Rabin claimed to represent..well. It’s probably no surprise that this didn’t happen when peace was proposed with the Arab states, and that it did when it was proposed with the Palestinians.
If the costs of periodic short wars get to be more like full mobilisation, this package starts to fall apart. “Protective Edge” is no longer much like “Pillar of Defence” and is heading for “Lebanon 2006” pretty quickly. I’m not sure where we’ll go here. As I said in the earlier post, you can make a case that the Israel-Lebanon border is quiet because Israel and Hezbollah have reached a degree of mutual deterrence. But as I also said, the same processes also seem to make for greater emotional/political intransigence, and on both sides, the end of positive sources of mobilisation (normality and Western integration for Israel, development for Palestine) implies that negative ones (basically, either intolerant religion or intolerant nationalism for both) become more important.
The question is whether we settle into an awkward, paranoid, intolerant peace or rather a permanent ceasefire, perhaps with the cycle time from coexistence to war getting longer, or whether one side or the other attempts to change the terms of the conflict by a dramatic move of some kind.