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Monday 1 April 2024

Is Israel Losing?


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A lot of the media narrative about what is happening in Israel circulates around whether what Israel is doing is justified, and is what Israel doing in Gaza self-defence or ethnic cleansing or worse? I have addressed this in other posts, for instance this one here.[1] But I want to ask a different question in this piece: is Israel losing, or at least doing very badly?

This might sound like an incredulous question to ask when the images we see coming out of Gaza show a city in rubble, broken and bleeding people everywhere, the reports of a severe famine settling in, and more. And I don’t think this stuff should be brushed aside either, a clear human tragedy is happening. But is the media focusing in one direction to obscure what is happening in another part of this war? There are signs that point to this.

Some might see a hint of that in the recent situation of America publicly distancing itself from Israel at the U.N. by not using its influence to veto a United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israel.[2] The primary motive for this is likely that it is an election year and Israel’s war in Gaza is becoming increasingly unpopular, especially with the Democrat's multicultural voting base, in the United States. The United States does have a habit of moving away from supporting lost causes, on to newer causes. This can take years, not usually months, and the fact that around the same time the Biden administration authorized more weapons and military equipment for Israel shows that the United States is still supporting the war effort, whatever mild political distancing they may be doing. So by itself this observation is not that meaningful, because the Biden administration is now seeking to draw a line between wholehearted support of Israel and not being ok with the tragic effects of Israel’s war in Gaza. But there are other signs which may be more telling.

Another sign is that Israel has been covering up the real casualty figures on their side of the ledger,

“Discrepancies arose as the numbers of wounded Israeli soldiers reported by the Israeli army were found to be significantly lower than figures reported by Israeli hospitals.

The Israeli army said on Sunday that 1,593 soldiers have been wounded so far in the Israel-Gaza war. This figure includes soldiers injured in Hamas' deadly surprise attack on October 7.

This is the first time the army has released comprehensive information on the soldiers wounded since the start of the war. However, when compared with information released by Israeli hospitals, the number of wounded soldiers is significantly higher than the figure provided by the military.

The Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon alone reports treating 1,949 soldiers during the war – a figure that is higher than the IDF's total number of injured soldiers.

The total number of wounded soldiers reportedly admitted to all Israeli hospitals exceeds 4,500.”[3]

According to the quoted article, this is not the usual practice. Usually the Israeli government is more open about casualty figures. But again, by itself, this only perhaps points to a trend, it doesn’t prove anything. There are many reasons why a wartime government might want to hide casualty figures, though usually that points to things not going very well. But there are other signs, and this last one is a significant one.

We read in the Guardian that,

“The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing one of the most serious threats yet to his coalition government after the country’s supreme court ordered an end to government subsidies from Monday for many ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the army.

The ruling follows a series of delays by the government in presenting a proposal to the court aimed at enhancing the military enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men, who have historically been exempt from conscription…

…But as Israel’s armed forces wage a nearly six-month-old war in Gaza in which 500 soldiers have been killed, legislators from the government and the opposition have voiced a stance that places the onus of heightened military service obligations on the Haredi community, rather than imposing additional duties on those already in service.”[4]

This is a very significant event. Ukraine did not start conscripting men in their 40’s and 50’s because they were winning. It is well known that Ukraine is facing a shortage of troops and arms, and that their population is severely depleted. This desire by some in Israel to go against long Israeli law and tradition, to broaden the base for conscription, may point to the fact that the fighting in Gaza is not going well for Israel, or at least, not as well as expected.

Israel is fighting a determined enemy in Gaza that has nowhere else to go and may not consider surrender an option. Such a force in a heavily fortified and dug in position can cause massive casualties. Think about what it cost the United States to fight Japan in many of those islands in the Pacific. And America did not rely on foreign aid to fight their war in the Pacific, they were actually lending aid to both Russia, and Britain, among others in the war, however Israel is fundamentally dependent on foreign aid for this war. Yet, despite their superior military strength the war against Japan still cost the United States heavily because of the determined, no surrender, dug in nature of the enemy they were fighting.

This is just conjecture on my part based on hints of a pattern emerging. I am interested to see how this war goes. It is not uncommon for militaries to obscure real casualty numbers when they feel this is necessary for whatever reason. It is not uncommon for countries to control the flow of information about their military efforts either. These are all well within the normal behaviours for peoples at war, if not necessarily what Israel has done in the past. It may be that Israel is preparing for a bigger war, or is anticipating needing more soldiers for a bigger defence of some kind. But watch this space.

The media obviously wants us all focusing on debating whether what Israel is doing is justified or not. That may indicate that they don’t want us noticing something else about how Israel is going, and actual media reports about how the war on the ground is going in Gaza are also hard to find. So, we will have to wait to see how this turns out. But there is a way in which Israel is losing.

William S. Lind, the notable military strategist and expertsnotes for us, “In Fourth Generation war, states defeat themselves.”[5] What does he mean by this? Well, he explains further,

“This column is written after the failure of the first ceasefire in Gaza and the resumption of fighting. At present, Israel is losing. More, it is defeating itself. If that sounds strange, it isn’t. In this kind of war, Fourth Generation war, states usually defeat themselves.

To understand why, we need to dip into a bit of military theory. Fourth Generation war is war between a state and one or more non-state entities, of which Hamas is an example. In most cases, including this one, the state is physically vastly stronger than its enemy.

Hamas is pitting hand-held weapons and bottle rockets against Israeli tanks, jet bombers, artillery, etc. That disparity is why Israel is losing. What works for the state at the physical level of war works powerfully against it at the moral level. In effect, Israel has turned itself into Goliath. How many people cheer for Goliath?

Despite powerful images of Israeli tanks and planes blowing up buildings in Gaza, the physical level of war is weaker than the moral level. That is especially true when talking about strategy. Strategy, in turn, trumps tactics. In Fourth Generation war, states normally win at the physical/tactical level at the cost of defeating themselves at the moral/strategic level. It is very difficult for states to escape this trap because their superiority in the former is the cause of their defeat in the latter.

Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld calls this “the power of weakness.” As an example, he argues that the only reason the British Army did not lose Northern Ireland is that it suffered more casualties than it inflicted.

The longer Israel continues physically destroying Gaza the sooner its strategic defeat will come and the greater will be its magnitude.”[6]

Lind goes on to explain the practical consequences the way Israel is fighting this war could impact the future of Israel, I recommend reading it. In this day and age, but also to some degree in the past, how you win matters as much as actually winning. This is true on a macro scale, as well as on the micro scale. A debate in public is not a war, but if one side of the debate railroads the other side, you will often turn people against you. Again, this is simply an illustration, not a comparison. This applies even more strongly to things like armed conflict. The United States turned much of the world against it for how it attacked the Middle East after 9/11. People don’t like seeing this kind of thing.

I share Lind’s piece here because he is an expert on Fourth Generation war, that is war between state and non-state actors. He knows the impact on a nation that these kinds of wars can have better than any of us. And his military expertise is that on this front, Israel is losing and losing bad.

This might be an alternative bit of evidence to help us understand why Israel is not releasing casualty data and is seeking to conscript troops from previously untapped pools in the population; it knows this is not going well and it needs to prepare for a larger war. Friends of Israel should be telling it to stop what it is doing; because even if it is winning on the local scale it is still losing.   

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