Did Hamas miscalculate?
As the Israel Defense Forces’ invasion of Gaza unspools, the prevailing wisdom holds that Hamas’ decision to launch a wide-ranging, complex invasion of Israel and commit horrid atrocities against civilians will inevitably mean the destruction of the militant organization itself. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to smash Hamas and eliminate it as a force in Gaza.
The Greeks and Sun Tzu
In 490 BC, Greek general Miltiades stood on the plains of Marathon and faced Persian King Darius I’s much larger force, helmed in its center ranks by elite, battle-hardened troops.
The Greek general, with a much weaker and hastily assembled force, devised a strategy to use the hubris and overwhelming power of the elite Persians against them. Miltiades strengthened his flanks with some of the best Athenian troops. As he attacked, his center decoyed the Persians by falling back as expected when the overpowering Persian center surged forward. With the trap sprung, the Greek flanks wheeled inward from the wings, surrounding and decimating the Persians, who lost over 6,000 soldiers. The Greeks lost only 192 Athenians.
In this same era in far-flung China, military strategist Sun Tzu penned a seminal military manual. Among its many prescriptions for conducting warfare, the tome described strategies and tactics for lesser organizations to challenge much more powerful foes. Centuries later, The Art of War guides the 21st century art of asymmetrical warfare. Sun Tzu’s tenets included knowing your enemy well; attacking not strong points, but places where an adversary is weak; misdirection, and deception.
Hamas clearly has come to know its declared enemy, Israel. Hamas leaders carefully studied the Israeli mindset and IDF tactics, examining ways to strike at the state’s weaknesses and to employ misdirection to put the IDF and Israeli political leaders off-balance.
Recent West Bank unrest had drawn many IDF forces away from the Gaza and Lebanese borders, which were deemed to be quiet. Hamas struck when Israelis were diverted by a major religious holiday. It carefully planned and trained beforehand, gathering intelligence on the IDF’s patterns. It targeted the eyes and ears of the IDF by destroying sensors and lookout towers along the border.
A Three-Front War?
The lessons Hamas, and indirectly Hezbollah, have learned will be repeated and modified as circumstances ordain and as Israel’s invasion unfolds. They will be applied not only in Gaza, but throughout the region, wherever those organizations have the capability.
Is Hamas drawing the IDF into a bloodbath, with the latter playing the role of the Persians at Marathon? As Hamas melts into its complex of tunnels and into the urban environment of Gaza, they seek a long and draining battle. They hope the war will generate multitudes of videos and news stories showing gruesome horrors that undermine Netanyahu and his generals, harming their credibility.
Hamas might also hope that the conflict escalates into a true three-front war, with major fighting not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, and in northern Israel across from Lebanon.
Hezbollah is reluctant to join in in a big way, but as Gaza’s situation worsens, it might feel pressured to do as its Iranian paymasters prefer. Hezbollah might then strike with salvoes from their more sophisticated missile and rocket armory into the heart of Israel, no longer content to just engage the IDF in the border region. Hezbollah’s more sophisticated precision-guided missiles could target individual settlements in the West Bank, for example.
Sporadic clashes have been taking place in the West Bank as Israel drives to eliminate Hamas’ cadres and infrastructure. Hamas’ footprint is much smaller there than in Gaza. Thus far, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, loosely associated with Fatah, has followed the wishes of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and stayed largely on the sidelines. But again, as the scenes from Gaza worsen, political pressure might grow such that this armed and dangerous group enters the fray, with numerous Israeli settlements and IDF checkpoints as potential targets. And again, the IDF would be forced to divert troops to West Bank security operations, weakening both their Gaza and northern forces.
A Long War of 1000 Bees?
Neither Hamas, nor Hezbollah, nor the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade can seriously challenge the overpowering IDF in an open fight. For that matter, neither can Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Instead, these groups will likely join as a loose coalition in a War of 1000 Bees, stinging the IDF and all of Israel with asymmetrical tactics from a widely dispersed array of locations — Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, and probably Syria.
The coalition’s asymmetrical tactics will aim at the IDF’s and Israel’s perceived weak spots, and to the extent the U.S. becomes involved, U.S forces in the Middle East as well. They will seek to sting a vast range of targets across the region with highly fluid mobile rocket and missile launches, small group assaults and raids, and in some instances perhaps raids seeking to take more hostages.
Targets could include border towns, settlements, and major cities for major media impact. They might include attempts to blind the Israeli security apparatus, hitting at cameras, sensors, and electronic warfare capabilities. Reportedly, Hamas has launched rockets toward Dimona, home to the nuclear reactor and research station believed to be the center of Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
Psychologically, should Hezbollah enter the fray in a bigger way with its long-range and precision missiles, virtually all of Israel will suffer the daily stress of being in a war zone, something they have not had to endure since 2006.
Israelis have become refugees in their own country as the Israeli government orders the evacuation of thousands of people from regions along the Gaza and Lebanon borders.
The West Bank will require a significant military and security presence to protect settlers. West Bankers will now most likely seek more weapons and enter into a smoldering third intifada — but this time with firearms instead of stones.
In sum, what awaits is a war with innumerable small stings coming from all directions in three regions. None of the small attacks are particularly damaging in themselves, but taken together they are meant to drain the Israeli population’s will and the credibility of Netanyahu’s government.
The Knock-On Effects of Asymmetry
Asymmetrical war seeks the media spotlight. Israel may win on the ground, but the narrative is flipping from Hamas’ atrocities to coverage of Israel’s brutal campaign. It will continue to do so as the Gaza campaign lurches forward.
The credibility of Israel’s explanations of how they try to avoid civilian casualties — phone calls and “roof knocking” — erodes when videos such as one on CBS news show women and small children being taken from the rubble or loaded onto ambulances. Hamas may have an operations center or a weapons storage space on one or two floors within a 12-story tower, but when a series of bomb blasts topples it, what the world sees is civilians suffering on the other 10 floors.
The Gaza War has also done Iran the favor of derailing the Abraham Accords, and of pausing overall progress toward better relations between Arab states and Israel. Israeli relations with Middle Eastern and North African countries could be set back years, and the MENA region will once again be a tinderbox.
Hamas has succeeded in elevating the Palestinian cause for a homeland of their own, and in elevating what they see as Israeli oppression. This Palestinian agenda is now center stage in MENA and will be a central theme in relations among Middle Eastern nations for some years to come, whether with Israel or among Arab states themselves.
The Political Costs to Netanyahu and Biden
This war may have cost both Netanyahu and Biden their future electability; polls are significantly down for both. Recent polling suggests Netanyahu could not win the next election. President Biden’s poll numbers have dropped significantly since October 7, and he now stands to lose the state of Michigan in 2024, a state he almost certainly must win. Michigan’s population includes 300,000 citizens of Arab ancestry, who have traditionally voted Democratic, in a state Biden won by only 10,000 votes in 2020. But they now cannot see themselves voting for a president who has stood so firmly behind Israel as the civilian death toll mounts in Gaza.
Also endangered are U.S forces throughout the Persian Gulf and Iraq, and the two carrier groups offshore of Israel. As the war widens, deepens, and prolongs, it is quite possible that the IRGC might take actions against U.S bases and ships in the Persian Gulf region. It is a foregone conclusion that Iran-associated militants in Iraq and Syria will be resupplied to continue their strikes, the former against U.S. forces and the latter against Israel.
Thus, the choices the many conflicting parties might make, and the inevitable spinoffs, permutations, and blowback from whatever happens in Gaza proper, suggest violence in the region might persist for months and even years.
Sun Tzu did not advocate simply holding ground. Rather, his strategy for the weaker player is to harass, harm, and over time politically defeat the enemy. Such is the game in asymmetrical war. Thus, Hamas may calculate that it will lose the territory in a Western politico-military sense, but that in the asymmetrical Arab sense it will win the regional battle in the Middle East.
Israel possesses a very high confidence in its generals and in the Israeli Air Force. But perhaps they should spend more time studying the broader strategies of Sun Tzu and the Greek tactics at Marathon as Hamas sets its traps and lures the IDF into Gaza’s tunnels.
Richard Sindelar, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as a Non-Resident Scholar in Global Diplomacy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.