war on the rocks

Peering into the Past and Future of Urban Warfare in Israel

December 17, 2015

I traveled recently to Israel to visit a state-of-the-art military training facility in the southern Negev Desert opened by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) last year. The facility, at the Tze’elim army base, is meant to simulate urban operations of the kind the Israelis have so often faced in their conflicts with Palestinian and Lebanese militants. Though the degree of emphasis the IDF has placed on military operations in urban terrain has waxed and waned, since the mid-1980s at least it has maintained an extensive training infrastructure for this purpose, which from time to time other armies have admired. After the Second Intifada, however — a conflict that was fought almost exclusively in the densely built-up environment of the West Bank and Gaza — the need for even more and better urban warfare training was deemed all the greater.

Known as “Baladia” (Arabic for “city”), the core of this facility is indeed a small city — or large town — of some 600 buildings of a range of types, including five mosques, several cafes, a clinic, a town hall, a casbah, an eight-story apartment building, a cemetery, and a “youth club,” all arranged in Middle Eastern fashion with narrow winding streets, alleys, and passageways running higgledy-piggledy throughout. Some War on the Rocks readers may be familiar with the place as American and other forces train there quite regularly — and it may remind other readers of their deployments to Iraq. (There was a good Vice News video report on it a year ago that is worth watching).

The wider purpose of my visit to this base was for research on a new book I am writing on the resurgence of fortification strategies in contemporary security affairs — Israel, for obvious reasons, being an important case in point. Specifically, though, at Tze’elim I was hoping to answer a few questions:

1) Does the Israeli defense establishment believe there has been an “urban turn” in military and strategic affairs? Does this mean there is a need to develop (or perhaps more accurately re-develop) skills in modes of conflict such as fortification and siegecraft, tunneling and counter-tunneling, and urban warfare generally, that have been out of fashion for a century or so?

2) Do the Israelis think there is something important to contemporary urban operations that was illuminated by “postmodernist” thinking, as is commonly portrayed in the academic literature on the subject?

3) Is there anything actually new about warfare that the IDF has learned in the urban warfare business?

The answer to these questions is emphatically yes in the first instance — clearly, with respect to Hamas in Gaza and to a large extent also Hezbollah in Lebanon the challenge is inextricably bound up with the urban and peri-urban areas in which these groups operate. In the second, emphatically no (and, moreover, the fascination with such ideas caused much harm to the effectiveness of the IDF in its 2006 war with Hezbollah). In the third the answer is more ambiguous — there is very little new that has been learned though why that is important takes a bit of explaining and is interesting in itself. Indeed, the Israeli case has a lot of generalizable potential.

Here’s a view of Tze’elim from the perspective of the minaret of the mosque in the central square. There are plenty of photos of it available on the web but I rather like my own sketches. No doubt you can tell from my excellent penmanship that that’s a German unit training down there with a Fuchs armored vehicle in the foreground.


An Urban Turn? Yeah, Sort Of …

It has been widely argued of late that there has been an urban turn in military and strategic affairs. David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains has made the point most recently and perhaps most famously. Within the academy and the military, however, there is a striking difference in interpretation of what is happening, why, and its likely impact on the wider security landscape.

In the case of the former, the new hotness is the theory of a “new military urbanism,” which holds, first, that there is a new (or sometimes characterized as renewed) interest in war in urban environments amongst the major armies of the world. Moreover it argues that an associated range of new technologies and techniques have been developed for fighting them. But most worryingly it maintains that these technologies and techniques are creeping back into the cities of the West having been perfected in hotter, dustier places abroad in the form of various domestic security measures.

This scholarly literature is heavily freighted with charges of racism and neo-imperialism in the global south as well as by the belief that what is happening is generally invidious, injurious to social progress, and needs to be resisted. The geographer Stephen Graham, for instance, in his book Cities Under Siege has written of the rapid establishment a “shadow system of military urban research” encompassing multiple Western militaries, but most notably those of Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom, all within a context of “racialised right-wing anti-urbanism.”

The racial and conspiratorial aspects of these arguments are bonkers but it is self-evidently the case that the major security services of the world have recently evinced a profound concern with the security of their own urban centers. To be sure, technologies and techniques developed in conflicts elsewhere are being practiced in the cities of the developed West. In June 2015, for instance, 1,000 armed officers of the London metropolitan police backed by special forces of the British army practiced responding to a multiple shooter attack — a la Mumbai, Nairobi, Paris, and many other places — in a disused tube station on The Strand beneath the university where I work. The sounds of automatic gunfire, the battle cries of the combatants and the screams of the mock-wounded blended with the clattering of helicopters. From my office window, police snipers could be seen bounding across the roof of historic Somerset House.

The regrettable necessity of such exercises does not make them less necessary, however. The more recent terror attacks in Paris make the case for necessity even more poignantly and graphically.

Otherwise, though, these preoccupations of scholars do not pass the smell test. Surely allied militaries do a great deal of common training, doctrine sharing, and the like. There is indeed a veritable circuit of military-to-military exchanges, wargames, workshops, and the like connecting national war colleges, staff academies, doctrine shops, major national and alliance commands and so on — little of it particularly secret, let alone shadowy. In fact, having blagged my way into more than a few of them myself I can confirm that even soft-bodied civilian academics can take part.

However, if there is a “new military urbanism,” it is actually pretty hard to detect from the attitudes and beliefs of all the working soldiers I have heard speak of the dilemma that urban operations presents them. Actually, the case is quite the opposite. I asked one of my interlocutors, a senior U.S. Marine Corps doctrine writer working on the subject, “Doctrinally, within NATO, the U.S., or the UK, where’s the cutting edge in the field? Where’s the intellectual center of gravity in this subject?” His answer was interesting:

No one is on the cutting edge of this topic. The intellectual center of gravity is open to those who choose to seize it, because it does not exist. Recent U.S. service and NATO wargames and experiments that were supposed to address operational and tactical level conflict in the megacity was, and is, stillborn. There is a yawning gap.

There has long been a growing apprehension that well-established trends in both demography and geography all point to the teeming megacities of the world as the inevitable locus of future conflict. But even while acknowledging that they are going to have to go into the cities at some point, if left to choose, military decision-makers still take great pains to avoid the urban areas — in wargames they nearly always eagerly bypass them.

This is also not surprising. Urban warfare has always filled generals with dread and loathing. The ancient Chinese soldier-philosopher Sun Tzu put the case against it in The Art of War in terms that have never failed to resonate in over two millennia since, prescribing the fighting in cities only if “absolutely necessary, as a last resort.”

The question is whether a good short-term choice — to avoid obvious situations in which one’s enemy would use urban landscapes to delay and attrit superior military forces — is also tenable in the long term. If you control the countryside but not the centers of power where most of the people live and where wealth is created and disbursed, do you actually control anything? Bypassing cities and leaving the majority of the population to its own devices undermines the ability to deal with humanitarian crises, disrupts movement, impedes necessary governance reforms, and sacrifices most opportunities for meaningful information operations.

Moreover, urban conglomerations are now not so much islands separated from each other by open terrain as they are unbroken chains of cities blending into each other at the edges like the islands of an archipelago at low tide. As such, simply bypassing them is not a permanently viable option.

The list of dilemmas that preoccupy current doctrine writers about urban warfare is long. How do you provide command and control in an environment that simultaneously breaks up large formations and complicates their communications? How do you maneuver forces securely and swiftly in an environment where engagement ranges are shrunk practically to point blank? How do you develop and maintain an intelligence picture of a battlespace that is so irremediably complex and opaque to most sensors? How do you apply combat power in a way that serves both tactical exigency and the overall strategic aim when your enemy is intermixed with civilians whom you wish not to exasperate and civilian infrastructure that you do not wish to blow away?

Same Old, Same Old …

It is worth pointing out that none of these dilemmas are really new. Consider this scene from Flavius Jospehus’ The Jewish War , which recounts a scene from the siege of Jerusalem by Roman legions under the command of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian:

Threatening death to any of the populace who would breathe a word about surrender, and butchering all who even spoke casually about peace, they attacked the Romans who had entered. Some confronted them in the streets, some assailed them from the houses; while others, rushing forth without the wall through the upper gates, so disconcerted the guards at the ramparts, that they sprang down from their towers and retreated to their camp. Loud cries arose from those within, who were surrounded by enemies on all sides, and from those without, in alarm for their comrades who had been left behind.

The Jews, constantly increasing in numbers, and possessing many advantages in their knowledge of the streets, wounded many of the enemy, and drove them before them by repeated charges; while the Romans continued to resist mainly from sheer necessity, as they could not escape in mass owing to the narrowness of the breach; and had not Titus brought up fresh succours, all who had entered would probably have been cut down. Stationing his archers at the end of the streets, and taking post himself where the enemy was in greatest force, he kept them at bay with missiles. Domitius Sabinus, who in this engagement, as in others, showed himself a brave man, aiding his exertions. Caesar held his ground, plying his arrows incessantly, and checking the advance of the Jews, until the last of the soldiers had retired.

It is hard to ignore the contemporary resonance of the scene. Enemy fighting ruthlessly from amongst the people using superior local knowledge of the terrain? Check. Small detachment in heavy contact on the ground extricated only by copious air power? Check. Tactical errors of a celebrity general (failing to open a sufficiently wide breach in the wall before sending his troops through) papered over by admiring biographer? Check. Strategic corporal saving the day? Domitius Sabinus appears to have been a tribune — a junior officer — but close enough. The fact that they were fighting with swords and ballistae rather than automatic rifles and grenade launchers is incidental.

How to explain, then, the trope in the literature that describes urban warfare as the ultimate form of “postmodern” warfare?

In a roundabout way, the Israelis are also sort of to blame for this questionable contribution. To make a long story short, in the mid-1990s the IDF established a think-tank called the Operational Theory Research Institute under the leadership of retired brigadier Shimon Naveh. It is fair to say that opinion on Naveh’s ideas is sharply divided. Suffice to say for the purposes at hand here that he was fond of blending the language of continental philosophy with that of operational military doctrine and his followers mimicked this manner of speaking.

For instance, in his book Hollow Land, architect Eyal Weizman interviewed an Israeli officer describing in this quasi-philosophical argot a putatively new technique of operating in urban terrain called “walking through walls”:

This space when you look at it [the interview room] is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion — after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? … We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps.

As Weizman observes, however, it hardly requires avant garde cultural theory to rationalize the tactic of “walking through walls … like a worm that eats its way forward.”

I am sure that Titus would not disagree with any of the above (minus the postmodern mumbo-jumbo) and neither would the commanders of a hundred other historical city fights from Stalingrad to Aleppo for whom mouse-holing, tunneling, and avoiding marching down the middle of streets that are obvious bullet, stone, or arrow magnets are all standard. That actually is the traditional and classical manner of fighting in cities.

Indeed, Israeli military opinion such as I could detect from my interlocutors was now firmly that bolting fashionable language onto common sense thinking about war in the built environment had a deleterious effect on their capabilities. In the words of Israel’s own post-2006 Lebanon War Winograd Report into the failings of the war, “some believed that the ‘new’ operational concept was the cause of some of the flaws exhibited in the war.”

What’s to See in Tze’elim?

What one sees in the IDF’s urban warfare training facility at Tze’elim seems to depend a lot on what you want to see and what larger argument you wish that observation to serve. Thus, as is the wont of the critical security literature, for example, you could balance on its existence a grand indictment of the “banal materiality” of the whole violent colonial enterprise at the root of neo-liberal capitalism. Not that I would, personally; but the “banal materiality” of Baladia is actually what’s important about it.

For one thing, it is just big. It bears reiterating this point. All good armies have as part of their training program the practice of house-clearing drills so small units of soldiers can learn how to fight their way into and around the inside of buildings. For this purpose they will have a few buildings — perhaps even a few dozen of them will be laid out as a model village. Very few will be much larger than a hamlet and none so far as I am aware are as big as Tze’elim, which is roomy enough for a brigade-sized force to rattle around in. Britain’s largest facility is little more than a tenth of the size, while France’s is not much larger than that. Insofar as you agree that fighting in cities is a meat-grinding numbers game, which seems to me an empirically, historically sound view to have, then size is a virtue but the importance of this goes further than that.

Before that, though, another thing: it has verisimilitude. There a lot of buildings that vary in type and are arranged in a realistic manner that as noted above has the look and feel of a Middle Eastern town. Moreover, the place is massively wired with sensors and channels for the installation of all sorts of pyrotechnics and speakers for the creation of a highly convincing aural atmosphere, from typical street noise to the sound of a mortar barrage.

Coincidentally, as I sat at Mike’s Place on the beach in Tel Aviv (the site of a suicide bombing in 2003) working on the notes that you see above, the bartender leaned over and said, “I’ve been there — I know that place well” (I told you my drawing was good!). The fellow — Adam Eisner, an American Jew who had emigrated to Israel — had just finished his military service during which time he had been a sharpshooter in the 2014 Gaza operation. He had trained many, many times at Tze’elim. Eisner described coming awake one night in a building there in a state of momentary disorientation halfway through a gruelling weeklong exercise. “Are we in Gaza?” he whispered to his fire team partner — the look, smell, feel, and sounds of the place were close enough to real to make the question pertinent at the time.

I would not pretend to know the solution to all the dilemmas that come with operating in urban environments. But it seems to me that we are going to have to come up with some pretty soon. For example, by its own city-fighting doctrine, which calls for soldiers to be left behind in every room of every building behind an advancing formation for flank and rear security, the whole British Army could get soaked up in just one of its own provincial cities. Clearly, unless we avoid cities, which seems strategically untenable, or develop much bigger armies, which seems politically unpalatable, then we are going to have to come up ways of operating in them that are more efficient. This is where the size and authenticity of Tze’elim become noteworthy.

It will be hard (and immensely costly when it comes down to it) to learn how to handle the megacity on the fly. It is much better to experiment now in realistic and robust training environments that are also big enough to run large enough units through that the gamut of problems from the tactical through strategic can be simulated and worked through systematically.

Train Smarter, Bleed Less

What if we were to change the instinctive military mindset of avoiding cities to one that viewed cities in terms of opportunities rather than difficulties? In the real world today, given current state of practice, this is not really tenable. In time, though, and with a good deal of experimentation, the same aspects of urban operations that raise the fears of military leaders could offer benefits to those who have thought carefully and practiced how they might work to advantage.

In the age of smartphone technology practically everyone is a potential sensor — or reporter, for that matter. How might you enable civilian observation to lend friendly forces intelligence? Not all instances of urban combat should assume a uniformly hostile population. Indeed, in an active-shooter scenario the population and the security forces will be on the same side.

What about a sewerine warfare school that teaches soldiers how to survive and thrive in the vast underground infrastructure beneath the city? In 1948, the British Army established and has continuously maintained ever since a jungle warfare school (in Malaya and later Brunei). The Royal Marines have a mountain and arctic warfare cadre. Most armies have some such terrain-specific forces and train general-purpose units in the rudiments of key environments. How about putting the knowledge of urban historian and sewer enthusiast Steve Duncan (watch the fascinating lecture at the link) to good use?

Ever since Carlos Marighela’s famous Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, urban guerrillas have trumpeted how the inextricability of the media and urbanization provides them decisive advantage:

Careful reading of the press with particular attention to the mass communication media, the research of accumulated data, the transmission of news and everything of note, a persistence in being informed and in informing others, all this makes up the intricate and immensely complicated question of information which gives the urban guerrilla a decisive advantage.

But actually it’s not at all self-evident that this is the case — why should the urban guerrilla possess intrinsically the ability to focus world attention on the urban for information and deception operations?

Equally, insofar as adversaries may be dependent on one or a handful of urban areas for logistical sustainment, monetary resource, and popular support would that not be a potentially crippling source of vulnerability? How can we use physical barriers, for instance, to reshape the flows within a city to advantage — not just of tactical force protection but across all levels of war. One of the findings of a recent RAND study of the Battle of Sadr City 2007 ought to have been a call for action:

Sadr City demonstrates that one of the keys to fighting an urban adversary is to create a situation that will force the enemy to surrender the advantages of the city. This is the art of reimagining urban warfare, and it clearly has doctrinal, organizational, materiel, and training implications for both the U.S. Army and the joint force. In case of the Battle of Sadr City, building the wall along Route Gold threatened to deny JAM access to key terrain and, as Colonel Hort related during an interview with the authors, “agitated the enemy.” Quite simply, JAM had to contest the wall or face isolation. In the words of one U.S. officer, the wall was the equivalent of a Roman siege engine about to breach a city’s defenses. It created a situation that was intolerable to JAM, and JAM had to come out and fight. In so doing, the enemy attacked U.S. forces that now had the initiative and were in a position of enormous advantage. JAM lost, and the coalition victory in the Battle of Sadr City offers important lessons for the prosecution of future urban operations.

It is bad form to conclude an essay with the thoughts of another. But then again it is hard to gainsay what these authors observed and what my own more modest observations suggest. The mainstream of the conduct of warfare is indeed moving into the urban environment because increasingly that’s what typifies the face of the planet. This does not represent some apotheosis of postmodern warfare, however — quite the opposite, the techniques involved that are reentering military practice including mining and countermining, siegecraft, and fixed and mobile fortification all have a distinctively pre-modern flavor. It’s not really apparent how we can square avoiding urban entanglements with the achievement of extant policies but our old methods of dealing with such environments are practically strategically unsustainable. Time to come up with new ones.


David Betz is Reader in Warfare in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. His most recent book Carnage and Connectivity: Landmarks in the Decline of Conventional Military Power (2015) is published by Oxford University Press in the USA and Hurst in the UK.


Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces