This tactic will be undertaken for two main reasons:
Catching the enemy by total surprise and creating a shock within the enemy's forces. This will enhance the level of confusion and disorder in its forces. The outcome might be a growing inclination of the enemy to lay down its arms in the first stages of the war. From Israel's point of view this means a shorter war, fewer casualties and less damage. In general a fast end to the war would enhance the image of Israel as the winner of the confrontation. War events, especially civilian casualties, which might be tolerated by the media and public opinion both in Israel and outside during the first days of war when emotions are high, will not be tolerated later on.
The Chief of Staff also stated that in future military confrontations the Israeli army will have to operate against terror organizations that launch their rockets from within densely populated areas. The terror organizations estimate that Israel will hesitate to retaliate against them knowing that such retaliation will cause an unknown number of casualties of innocent people. The pictures that would appear in world media will almost certainly create an intensive uproar and will most probably lead to pressure on Israel to halt these attacks. Israel has faced such cases both during the Second Lebanon War and also during the warfare in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead).
The Chief of Staff’s statement is intended to make it clear to Israel’s enemies and to the international community that Israel has learned the lessons of the war in Lebanon and Gaza very carefully. In both cases, Israel could not win a clear-cut victory of the confrontation mainly because of the limitations it imposed on itself in its operations against the terror organizations. Israel, according to the Chief of Staff, will no longer be able to tolerate these constraints and limitations. Israel, he stressed, is well aware of the efforts of its enemies to impose on it those restrictions in order to prevent it from taking advantage of its huge firepower superiority.
The Chief of Staff’s statement clearly indicates that the IDF is now well aware of the crucial importance of the time factor in the formulation of its maneuvering ability during military confrontations with terrorist organizations. It is now apparent that if and when Hezbollah, or Hamas for that matter, carries out a provocative operation against Israel, then Israel will have to retaliate immediately. Refraining from massive retaliation in the first stages of the confrontation will necessarily lead to two unwanted outcomes regarding the IDF’s freedom of operation:
It creates an image of Israeli readiness, and even a willingness, under certain circumstances, to put up with the provocation that was carried out against it without extracting any price from the enemy. This is certainly a most dangerous image because it devaluates Israeli credibility. For a long period of time Israeli leaders have threatened that any provocation against it will be answered by immediate and massive Israeli retaliation. If Israel in fact refrains from appropriate retaliation this would be a major blow to its credibility. By definition a devaluation of credibility leads to decrease in the deterrence image of Israel. A lack of immediate response conveys the message that Israel does not really want to retaliate. It only wants others to believe that it was ready to retaliate. Almost certainly this will create the impression that Israel is waiting for someone to hold it back. As a result, it is almost certain that international pressure would be placed on Israel to refrain it from massive retaliation.
This is what happened on the first day of the Second Lebanon War. In the morning hours of July 12, 2006, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli border patrol, wounding and killing Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two of them. An Israeli tank unit that was sent to retrieve the kidnapped soldiers fell upon an ambush by Hezbollah and four of its team members were killed. There was no doubt that Israel had to retaliate immediately and massively if it wanted to retain its deterrence power vis-à-vis Hezbollah.
However, the then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who should have been be the main element deciding on the scope of the retaliation decided to convene the Israeli cabinet to discuss the proper way to retaliate only in the late hours that same evening. As could be expected, during these hours he received many appeals and calls from world leaders, especially from the Americans, British and French who requested from him, and to a certain extent even threatened him, to refrain from massive retaliation against Lebanon.
The IDF suggested that Israel’s retaliation should be targeted against the oil and electricity infrastructure of Lebanon. However, when the cabinet was convened at eight o'clock that night the Israeli Prime Minister had already known that the option of implementing such retaliation was very limited. At that stage, Israel’s political and strategic position was very restricted and it could not undertake actions that the Great Powers strongly opposed.
Eventually, the IDF had to direct its warfare against the Hezbollah fighters. In this kind of warfare the Israeli army could not take advantage of its overall military superiority over Hezbollah. Thus when the war ended after over a month of fighting Israel could not claim a clear victory. It was not defeated, but it also was not on the winning side. Its decision to refrain from massive strikes against Lebanon in the first stages of the war was certainly one of the main reasons for the lack of success in this war.
It is likely that an immediate Israeli massive retaliation against Lebanon's civilian infrastructure after the kidnapping of the soldiers would have led Lebanon and the international community to seek an immediate ceasefire. Fearful of further Israeli strikes, the Lebanese government would have most likely exerted high pressure upon Hezbollah to stop launching rockets against Israel's civilian targets. It may be assumed that under these circumstances the war would have come to an end within a few days with a rather clear Israeli sense of victory.
From the Chief of Staff’s presentation we also learn that the IDF has found at least a partial solution to the dilemma of the need to operate against terror organizations, which take shelter in civilian populated areas. While the IDF must seek a fast and clear-cut determination of the military confrontation, the IDF also knows that it will have to operate within the framework of international law and a humanitarian approach towards the innocent population.
Israel is also aware of the highly important role of the international media and world public opinion as a factor that could limit its freedom of operation during asymmetrical military confrontations. It seems that the solution that the IDF is planning to implement in future military confrontations is composed of SMS messages that will be sent to the population that lives in combat areas and television and radio broadcasts in these areas, calling upon the people to leave the combat area as fast as possible before the Israeli retaliation is launched. This way of operation will make it very clear that those who choose to remain in the combat areas undertake full responsibility for any harmful outcome that they might suffer. Such a course of action would not entirely prevent the criticism against Israel in the event that civilians would be killed or wounded but it certainly might lower the blame.
In conclusion, in future military confrontations Israel will have to seek two basic targets. a) a clear-cut and fast determination of the confrontation in its favor, and b) a limited scope of criticism against it and consequentially a low profile of international pressures that might limit its freedom of action. Those goals would be achieved if the Israeli retaliation were immediate and caused a minimal number of civilian casualties.
*Professor Zaki Shalom is a senior researcher at the Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel, Ben-Gurion University and a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies.