Five Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza


We want to break their bones without putting them in the hospital.”
–An Israeli defense analyst, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 22, 2016

Israel faces a unique strategic dilemma along its western border. Since the Islamic militant group Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, Hamas and Israel have engaged in continuous tit-for-tat violence over this narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. This low-level violence has escalated into all-out war three times: Operations Cast Lead (2009), Pillar of Defense, (2012) and Protective Edge (2014). Yet, as much as Israel may disdain Hamas, Israel cannot simply get rid of it, both because it does not want to govern Gaza itself and because it fears what may come next. The strategic challenge becomes how to deter Hamas’ violence but keep them firmly in control of the Strip, or, in the words of the above-quoted analyst, “break their bones but not send them to the hospital.”

Israel’s challenges in Gaza are compounded by two additional factors. While Israel, the United States, and others regard Hamas as a terrorist organization, it governs Gaza as a pseudo state — making Hamas a classic hybrid actor with capabilities beyond those of many other terrorist groups. Moreover, Gaza is also one of the most densely populated areas in the world, forcing Israel Defense Force (IDF) to operate against an adversary that is embedded within a civilian population.

The IDF’s operations in Gaza provide an example of the challenges that advanced militaries face when confronting determined, adaptive, hybrid adversaries in dense urban terrain. In particular, the last confrontation — the 51 day-long Operation Protective Edge — teaches basic five lessons that apply well beyond Gaza.

Lesson 1: Airpower Faces Serious Limitations in Dense Urban Terrain

In the early 2010s, Israel fell victim to what Eliot Cohen once called “the mystique of air power.” Drawing on lessons from the American experiences in Desert Storm in 1994, Cohen argued that precision air power seems to provide a strategic panacea — offering policymakers the ability to accomplish strategic ends without paying the cost in blood and treasure:

Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.

But Cohen said this was an illusion. In reality, he said, airpower’s effects are limited and airstrikes cannot obscure wars’ “inherent messiness and brutality.”

Israel had to relearn this lesson in Gaza. For many Israeli strategists, Operation Pillar of Defense established this mystique when eight days of air strikes seemed to stop Hamas’ rocket fire. This conclusion proved mistaken. While airpower successfully targeted senior Hamas leaders and supply sites, it was not the reason the operation was so short, nor was it the cause of the fragile calm that ensued afterwards. Ultimately, the ceasefire had more to do with success of diplomacy, specifically the efforts of Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt. Consequently, when political conditions changed some two years later another Gaza war broke out.

In 2014, Operation Protective Edge shattered the illusion of air power’s omnipotence. During the first phase of the campaign lasting roughly from July 8-16, the Israeli Air Force tried to replay its Pillar of Defense playbook and conducted an estimated 1,700 strikes. Yet airpower alone failed to end the rocket threat from Gaza. It also failed to effectively counter Hamas’ new tactic — tunnels dug into bordering Israeli towns — since the tunnels themselves were underground and their openings often were concealed from detection by aircraft. Ultimately, airpower failed to end the conflict and the IDF learned the hard way that some targets needed to be destroyed on the ground.

Lesson 2: Ground Operations in Urban Areas Are Never Bloodless

For the most part, the IDF kept its offense limited, but it still could not avoid destruction. The battle of Shuja’iya perhaps best demonstrated this truism. Shuja’iya was a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City and a Hamas stronghold. After three days of leaflet drops warning civilians of an impending operation, the IDF launched an operation on the night of July 19 to destroy six cross border tunnel operations. After an armored personnel carrier broke down, Hamas militants ambushed the vehicle, killing its seven occupants. Israeli attempts to reach the vehicle met with stiff resistance, casualties mounted, and the situation disintegrated. The brigade commander leading the operation was wounded and needed to be evacuated. The IDF responded with a massive use of firepower — firing at least 600 artillery rounds and dropping at least 100 one-ton bombs — to neutralize the Hamas fighters. In the end, the battle claimed the lives of at least 13 IDF soldiers and 65 Palestinian combatants and civilians and left hundreds more wounded. The level of violence caught even some hardened observers off guard. After the battle, Secretary of State John Kerry—himself a Vietnam War veteran and no stranger to combat—remarked in disbelief, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

Unfortunately, the IDF’s experiences in Gaza are not unique. The United States learned similar lessons in Mogadishu, Somali in 1993 or more recently the 2004 Battle of Fallujah and the 2008 Battle of Sadr City in Iraq. Despite all the technological advantages in intelligence and precision weaponry available to modern western militaries, when conventional ground forces meet determined resistance in urban terrain, the result is never a clean, bloodless operation.

Lesson 3: Western Militaries Cannot Escape Lawfare

Partly because ground operations are inherently bloody affairs, it is almost inevitable that the fight will extend from the battlefield to the courtroom. Former Deputy Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Air Force Charles Dunlap termed this phenomenon “lawfare,” describing it as “the strategy of using – or misusing – law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.” And throughout Israel’s wars in Gaza, the IDF was acutely aware of this dimension of the fight.

The IDF’s efforts to combat lawfare evolved during its wars in Gaza. It sent lawyers to serve as legal advisors to lower levels of command and better integrated them into the targeting process. It set up measures, centrally managed by senior leadership, to define “acceptable” levels of risk tolerances for collateral damage. The IDF even experimented with proactively conducting “lawfare” to preemptively justify why any given operation was within legal bounds. And yet, as IDF officers themselves admit, the IDF still may not have won the lawfare battle. Indeed, Israel still came under intense scrutiny from both nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations after Protective Edge in 2014, just as it did during its earlier wars in Gaza.

While for a variety of reasons Israel dominates the international legal spotlight, all Western militaries still struggle to find an answer to lawfare’s challenges. While the United States is comparatively more immune from “lawfare” than Israel — indeed, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently accused the U.N. Human Rights Council of a “chronic anti-Israel bias” — the United States, too, faces similar criticisms about the misuses and abuses of force, be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or elsewhere.

Lesson 4: The Urban Fight Cannot Be Avoided

If airpower is ineffective and ground operations are bloody and likely to end up in court, can militaries simply neutralize the threat emanating from urban areas and avoid the urban fight altogether? To a degree, Israel tried this approach. Its development of the Iron Dome missile defense system allowed it to protect much of its population from Hamas rocket attacks and relieved pressure on Israeli policymakers to order more aggressive military operations. That said, this approach went only so far. Hamas rocket attacks — even if mostly neutralized by the Iron Dome — still forced Israelis to run to shelters and disrupted daily life. Moreover, the Iron Dome did nothing to protect its citizens from other Hamas threats, like tunnel attacks. In the end, so long as there is no peace deal between Hamas and Israel, the IDF will need to fight in Gaza whether it wants to or not.

The United States has reached a similar conclusion. As U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley remarked last year: 

In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas. We need to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas, and that’s a different construct. We’re not organized like that right now.

While the U.S. Army may not want to fight in cities, that is where overwhelming majority of people will live in the future and so, like it or not, that is where — in Milley’s estimation — the wars of the future will be.

The Elusive Lesson: Turning Success into Lasting Victory

After a decade of operating against in Gaza, the IDF has learned many lessons about urban warfare against hybrid adversaries, but at least one remains elusive–how to turn operational success into lasting victory. Indeed, Israel’s limited wars bought periods of relative calm, but not a durable solution, and the violence still continues today.

With the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya operations still fresh in the American collective strategic memory, the challenges of regime change are well-known today. Sometimes overlooked, however, are the inherent difficulties of fighting limited wars. Thankfully, the United States today does not face an equivalent of Gaza along its borders. And yet, in a world filled with odious actors where regime change may not be a viable option, the United States also confronts the challenge of figuring out how to break bones without sending people to the hospital, so to speak.


A former active duty U.S. Army officer, Raphael S. Cohen is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the lead author of From Cast Lead to Protective Edge: Lessons from Israel’s Wars in Gaza.

Image: IDF