Israel and the Demise of “Mowing the Grass”
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“Israel is acting in accordance with a ‘mowing the grass” strategy.”
Unable to find a political solution to its protracted conflict with Hamas, Israel employs restrained military force to disrupt Hamas attacks on Israeli citizens. But, over time, Hamas capabilities inevitably increase and its attacks become more effective. At this point, Israel will conduct a major operation to reduce Hamas’ capabilities. In essence, it “mows the grass.” It hopes that these periodic major operations will provide periods of quiet, but knows that the quiet will last only until Hamas rebuilds its offensive capabilities. And then Israel will once again conduct a major operation. Like a homeowner, Israel has to mow the grass to keep it from growing out of control.
No one thinks this “strategy” will bring lasting peace. Rather, it is an operational approach required by the inability of the political elements of either side to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict. No Palestinian leader can provide assurances that all Palestinian organizations will stop attacks against Israel, and no Israeli leader can assure the Palestinians that Israel will come to terms on or abide by a peace agreement. There are too many factions and spoilers on both sides. With no political resolution in sight, Palestinian hardliners continue their attacks, Israeli hardliners continue to build new settlements in the Occupied Territories, and Israeli security forces seek to keep the violence at an acceptable level by periodically mowing the grass.
In the last few years, the success of Iron Dome has dramatically reduced the number of casualties that Palestinians can inflict on Israel. While one can argue over the percentage of rockets Iron Dome has intercepted and thus its deterrent value, it is clear that the systems have had a calming effect on the Israeli population. In response, Hamas has invested its resources and hopes in a larger arsenal of rockets with longer ranges. But despite having fired thousands of these rockets, Hamas has managed to kill only three Israeli civilians. Most Israelis were confident enough under Iron Dome to go about their daily business.
Initial analysis of Iron Dome’s success might suggest that technology favors Israel in its “intractable, protracted conflict” with Hamas. However, an unexpected result of Iron Dome’s success was the shift in the narrative about the Hamas-Israeli conflict. Going back to the Al Aqsa Intifada (2000-2005), Hamas’ indiscriminate suicide bomber campaign focused the narrative on those atrocities – in particular the deliberate attacks on school buses full of children. Most of the world accepted that Israel was justified in taking whatever steps were necessary to protect its citizens. However, the success of Iron Dome seems to be changing that. Hamas’ inability to get rockets through to their targets meant it killed just 3 civilians. In contrast, the close combat inside Gaza resulted in the deaths of 64 Israeli soldiers and the wounding of 600-700 hundred. As a result, 95% of Israeli casualties were soldiers – most of whom were killed and wounded in Gaza. While the public relations battle over exact numbers of Palestinian casualties continues, at least 50% and perhaps as many as 82% of over 1,800 killed were civilians.
This has shifted the focus of international attention from Hamas’ terror attacks to the proportionality of Israel’s response. Many western commentators have questioned whether Israel was justified in killing so many innocent Palestinian civilians in its effort to root out Hamas. Some have gone much further: Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor at Oxford University, stated that the war was “an act of state terrorism. Terrorism is the use of force against civilians for political ends.” In the face of such criticism, Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, felt the need to justify to reporters why the attacks were not disproportionate.
The discussions of proportionality did not change Israel’s approach, and public opinion polls in Israel showed overwhelming support for Operation Protective Edge. However, international public opinion polls place Israel’s approval rating above only North Korea, Pakistan and Iraq, and indicate declining support for Israel’s action among Americans under age 49.
American pundits have failed to comment on the emotional impact created by the heavy casualties to both sides. While U.S. readers may think 67 dead Israelis (64 soldiers and 3 civilians) is a fairly small number, they should consider the number of casualties compared to the population of the countries. The CIA World Factbook places Israel’s population at 7,800,000, Gaza’s at 1,800,000, and the United States’ at 318,000,000. To understand the human cost of this four-week conflict, the 67 Israeli dead would be the equivalent of the United States suffering over 2,600 dead and over 26,000 wounded. The 1,800 Palestinian deaths (UN figures) would be the equivalent of the United States suffering well over 300,000 deaths. Imagine the American response to either of those figures. This illustrates one of the central problems of the “intractable, protracted conflict.” Personal losses that touch large proportions of both societies make it very difficult for leaders on either side to negotiate.
The changing casualty ratios will also complicate Israel’s strategic situation. While enjoying dominant technological capabilities, this round of “mowing the grass” cost the Israel military grievous casualties – and a serious erosion of critical American and European support for its actions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported hang up on Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as his reported conflicts with President Obama, indicate U.S.-Israeli relations are at a low point.
Just the beginning
In fact, technological improvements may well create even more serious strategic dilemmas for Israel. Dramatic improvements in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, biology, and nano-materials are changing power relationships between non-state and state actors. The convergence of these technologies and the steady decrease in their costs – even as their capabilities increase – is rapidly expanding the destructive power, range, and precision of weapons. Very soon, long-range, precision weapons will be widely available and cheap enough for non-state and small state actors to purchase in large numbers. Hamas’ demonstrated ability to obtain new technology in spite of the blockade indicates it will be able to field and use such weapons. The key question is whether they will have the ingenuity to do so.
As I have discussed previously at War on the Rocks, today’s commercial drones are capable of flying long ranges using very little fuel. These platforms are extremely difficult to detect. Their small size, along with their composite or plastic construction, reduces their radar returns. Their slow speed moves them out of the speed gate of most air defense radars. This can obviously be adjusted, but that creates a different set of problems. The very low fuel consumption of the longer-range models and the electric motors of the short-range models dramatically reduce their heat signatures. At night, the best detection method may be night vision sights, which present different, and potentially expensive, problems for defense. And of course, since the drones are programmable, routes can be selected to keep them in the ground clutter. In short, these systems will be very difficult to intercept.
While remote controlled drones can be jammed, more and more commercial drones are autonomous – and yet still cost less than $1,000. Most use jammable GPS systems but some are progressing to inertial navigation systems (INS). INS can get the drone to the vicinity of a target area, say an airfield, and then an onboard chip using optical recognition software could fly the drone into a specific target – a parked F-16. Similarly, it could be a military vehicle aboard a base, a police car in a motor pool, or an intelligence headquarters – all legitimate military targets.
In short, non-state and small state actors will have access to both greater precision and greater lethality. This will expand the cost differential between offense and defense to an even greater degree than that between the homemade Palestinian rockets and the Iron Dome interceptors.
Alternative operational concept?
Current operations remain locked in a cycle. Israel justifies “mowing the grass” because Hamas’ rockets indiscriminately kill Israelis. In response, Hamas claims it has no discriminate way to strike Israel. But this continuing theme of claims by resistance movements that they lack the sophisticated weapons to allow precision attacks on enemy forces is about to be invalid. And this will not be a disadvantage for Hamas. On the contrary, they will be happy to make that trade.
Hamas could use these better systems to continue its attacks on Israeli civilians in ways that Israeli technology may not be able to stop as readily as Iron Dome can stop Hamas rockets today. If it uses the same twisted logic that led to suicide bombers boarding school buses, Hamas may choose to use precision weapons to maximize civilian casualties by once again attacking buses and restaurants. Hamas could also escalate along this line by attempting to fly drones into loaded commercial airliners on the ground or vastly expand the conflict by going after targets with potential mass destruction effects – chemical plants, ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) storage facilities, etc. If Hamas chooses that approach, the international community will support even more aggressive Israeli “mowing the grass” operations. Hamas will no longer have an excuse for killing civilians. With new capabilities, Hamas will have the option of NOT attacking civilians. If it still chooses to do so, Israel will rightfully be given a free hand to protect its people.
Alternatively, Hamas could choose to focus all its efforts on striking Israeli security force targets – military units, intelligence headquarters, police facilities, parked military aircraft, etc. It may finally accept that indiscriminate attacks on civilians have historically hardened a population’s resolve in conflict while destroying international sympathy for the attacker. If the shift to military targets proves successful, the Israelis will have to respond. But sustained, kinetic operations that kill more Palestinian civilians than Hamas security personnel may no longer be acceptable to the international community. Further, Israel will face the question of whether it will sustain more casualties in “mowing the grass” than it suffers in the Hamas attacks.
Israel has shown remarkable ingenuity in adapting to Hamas’ changing tactics, but small drones will be an order of magnitude more challenging. Given their nature, they can be kept essentially invisible until launched. This is no different than the homemade rockets that have defied Israeli attempts to destroy them before they can be launched. However, unlike the predictable ballistic path of free flight rockets, drones will actively maneuver to avoid detection and destruction. As noted, drones launched at night will require high-resolution visual surveillance to detect their launch and flight. Further, they can also be launched from inside a moving vehicle, or hidden inside a large box and carried to a launch point hidden in areas not even accessible to vehicles. Programmed to fly low, even along streets between buildings, they will be difficult to detect and engage. Nor are there major technical hurdles to overcome. Real estate agents in the United States use quad-copter drones to lift one-pound Sony NEX 5 cameras on 20-minute flights. Non-engineer ecologists have built propeller-driven drones to carry cameras 15 miles. Improvements in range and payload are coming very rapidly.
Subsurface naval drones are also evolving rapidly. Since one of Hamas’ primary goals is to lift the blockade, it could use these weapons to mine Israel’s ports – with the justification that they are simply attempting to impose a blockade on Israel in direct response to Israel’s blockade. While such an effort will damage few ships, the mere threat will result in major increases in insurance rates. Despite the fact that there have been no attacks or even threats of attacks on shipping destined for Syria, the conflict there has resulted in a drop of over 50% in port traffic in Syria. Part of this is due to reduce demand because of the damage to the economy, but the major increase in volume through the Port of Beirut indicates that the rising insurance costs have resulted in rerouting.
In short, technological advances offer Hamas the opportunity to shift from a terror strategy to a military strategy that focuses on Israeli security forces. This will place even more pressure on Israel over the proportionality of its response. The issue did not surface until it became apparent that disproportionate numbers of Palestinian civilians were being killed at a time when the threat to Israeli civilians was at a minimum. During the recent conflict, Israel could legitimately claim that its technical and tactical proficiency was what reduced the Israeli civilian casualties – and point to the continuing Palestinian efforts to fire rockets at civilian areas. It will be much more difficult for Israel to justify its actions against Palestinian civilians if Hamas focuses its attacks on Israeli security forces. Furthermore, if Hamas focuses on the personnel and facilities that enforce Israel’s blockade, it can argue that its actions are directly focused on improving the lives of Palestinian civilians. It is much more difficult for Israel to insist that the blockade is a security rather than a punitive measure given that Hamas has smuggled in materials to build thousands of rockets as well as miles of tunnels. Since the blockade has clearly failed to prevent the infiltration of weapons, can the enormous humanitarian cost to the Palestinian people be justified?
Both new technology and recent history weigh against Israel’s current approach. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the difficulty, if not impossibility, of defeating Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) without the active support of the population. The fact that IEDs will soon fly, drive, and swim autonomously for increasingly longer distances will make this problem even harder. As technology provides more options for non-state actors, it will make occupation or even blockades much more difficult.
Thus, a “mowing the grass” approach will be increasingly problematic. First, inflicting heavy civilian casualties in response to targeted attacks on the Israeli military will undoubtedly further shift international opinion against Israel. Second, such operations require Israeli troops to move into the built-up areas of Gaza. Advanced IEDs will be even more effective in urban terrain, thus Israel casualty rates during such operations will increase. This will reduce Israeli support for attacks into these urban complexes. While “mowing the grass” was a logical choice to reduce attacks on Israel under previous conditions, like all operational approaches, its utility may well be negated by Hamas’ adaptation to recent history and new technology.
Dr. T. X. Hammes is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces