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What David Petraeus Can Teach Us About Gaza

Applying U.S. lessons of counterinsurgency to the current crisis in Gaza

Batya Ungar-Sargon
July 24, 2014
A Palestinian youth walks on debris as he inspects damages following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on July 24, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth walks on debris as he inspects damages following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, on July 24, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Emotions are running high. As Operation Protective Edge enters its third week, Israel and Hamas’s relative moral standing has been called into question. On the one side are those who argue that Israel is morally superior for their marksmanly attempts to avoid civilian casualties, while Hamas immorally places weapons stores in kindergartens and hospitals, immorally targets Israeli civilians, and use their own as human shields. Others have argued that Israel is responsible for the immoral collateral damage of more than 700 civilians, many of them children, while the Palestinians are blameless victims of colonial oppression. But what if the moral question is not the only, or even the most important, question?

Israel is surely not to blame for protecting its citizens. But here’s another, uncomfortable truth: Hamas is not entirely to blame for targeting them.

Hamas began as a militant group whose purpose was to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation, employing tactics like suicide bombings of civilians that led it to be labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe. In 2006, it ran successfully in the Palestinian elections, and in 2007, it ousted its rival party Fatah from the Gaza Strip, where it is currently fighting a guerrilla war against Israel. Even if it’s morally wrong for Hamas to target civilians, doing so is very much in the nature of guerilla tactics—one of the oldest forms of warfare known to man, and one of the only ways that a group like Hamas can put up resistance to a country like Israel.

Indeed, the weapons stores hidden amongst the local populace are to be seen in this light, too. As Mao Zedong famously said, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Insurgencies by definition fight disproportionate wars, and therefore must take advantage of any means necessary to win them; they do not see themselves as burdened by the moral qualms which afflict an established army. To speak of the moral valence of Hamas’s tactics may be satisfying emotionally, but it is strategically bankrupt.

To be clear: allowing that there may be strategic wisdom to what Hamas is doing says absolutely nothing about whether it is right—in the moral sense—to do so. Nevertheless, when thinking of how to bring an end to this conflict, the moral question misses the point.

The question of what approach does work when thinking about how to counter insurgents once pushed a West Point graduate and veteran to pursue a PhD at Princeton. His thesis—”The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,”—would go on to become the U.S. Military Doctrine of Counterinsurgency, or COIN, and would be implemented by this same person in the U.S. Military’s post-war efforts to quell insurgencies in Iraq—which included suicide bombings and the targeting of civilians. This person is General David Petraeus.

The main thesis of COIN is surprisingly simple, almost obvious: An insurgency cannot be defeated exclusively with military force. Rather, military tactics must be combined with a campaign to win over the occupied territory’s population, depriving the insurgents of their crucial support—financial, territorial, moral. This is called the “hearts and minds” approach, for its focus on political, psychological, and economic change in the local population, rather than on simply eliminating insurgents.

“Counterinsurgents often achieve the most meaningful success in garnering public support and legitimacy for the Host Nation government with activities that do not involve killing insurgents (though, again, killing clearly will often be necessary),” states the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual, written by Gen. Petraeus and issued in 2006. “Arguably, the decisive battle is for the people’s minds… While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress, lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets. This is a time when “money is ammunition.” Depending on the state of the insurgency, therefore, Soldiers and Marines should prepare to execute many nonmilitary missions to support COIN efforts. Everyone has a role in nation building, not just Department of State and civil affairs personnel.” In the same vein, Petraeus points out that, “As important as they are in achieving security, military actions by themselves cannot achieve success in COIN.”

The Field Manual is surprisingly common-sensical, and includes a set of “paradoxes,” such as, “Sometimes, the More Force is Used, the Less Effective It Is” and “Sometimes Doing Nothing is the Best Reaction.” It also states that “[a]ny use of force generates a series of reactions,” and “[t]here may be times when overwhelming effort is necessary to destroy or intimidate an opponent and reassure the populace.” However, the Manual goes on, “[a]n operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.”

Could COIN possibly be relevant to the Israeli offensive in Gaza? Petraeus declined to comment for this article. Others believe that the model is not relevant, like Eliot A. Cohen, Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at the Johns Hopkins University, who reminded me that the United States was founded by an insurgency. “At the heart of COIN is the attempt to establish a government,” he told me on the phone. “That’s not what the Israelis are trying to do. It’s not a relevant paradigm.” He explained that Israel is dealing with “a hostile mini-state.” “Israel should concentrate on destroying material capability and key personnel. They should make as clear as possible that when Hamas’s behavior changes, so will Israel’s relationship. They need to keep on saying it, and they do. Other than that, there’s not a lot they can do.”

But Gershon Baskin believes otherwise. Baskin negotiated the deal which secured the release of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and has been instrumental in the Egyptian cease-fire negotiations of this current conflict. He believes very much that something along the lines of COIN should be a crucial part of Israel’s plan, and that a purely militaristic approach is bound to fail. “The harder Israel hits, the more support Hamas gets in Gaza, and in the West Bank too,” Baskin told me on the phone from Jerusalem. “It’s kind of reverse psychology. Israel always expects the civilian population to rise up against Hamas, but they put all the blame on Israel.”

This doesn’t mean that Gazans don’t want a better life for themselves, or peace. “Gazans support Hamas now because they don’t have a choice,” Baskin said. “We have to understand that life in Gaza is intolerable. Death is better than life… But give people an opportunity for life, for dignity, for stability, for an economic future, and they will turn against those who are preventing these things…”

But utilizing COIN Doctrine in Gaza is not only crucial for the sake of the Palestinians. “In order to not be in the same place a year, two years from now, it’s necessary to change the situation on the ground, politically, economically and in terms of security.”

That said, Baskin believes that Israel cannot be at the helm of such a project. He is proposing an initiative to adopt the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002 as the basis for a plan enabling moderate Arab states to join Israel and Palestine in demilitarizing Gaza and establishing a Palestinian state. “The basic idea here is that the only way to demilitarize Gaza is to ensure that Gaza will become part and parcel of a free State of Palestine within an agreement with Israel that ends the occupation,” he writes in his proposal, which he sent to the Israeli Government. “Hamas will likely object to this initiative, but the people of Gaza and of Palestine will support it.”

And, in the classic language of COIN, Baskin insisted, “We must do everything possible to empower the moderates and unempower the extremists.”

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.

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