by Alexander Rose - August 11, 2001
"The guerrilla wins if he does not lose,"once counselled Henry Kissinger, but"the conventional army loses if it does not win."
The ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis seems to bear out the wisdom of this Vietnam-era advice. On the conventional army side, we see the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) vainly struggling to impose order in the Territories. Ranged against the army are stone-throwing rioters engaged in a "war of popular liberation" from the Zionist Imperialist jackboot.
The theory is that if the Palestinians can muster enough will to keep the war of attrition alive, the Israelis will lose.
But is that neat theory of why a U.S. army of 500,000 men sent halfway round the globe lost a jungle war against poorly-armed peasants applicable to the very different circumstances of a relatively small-scale, near-to-home, mostly urban conflict?
Not really. By focusing on the mirage of Soldier vs. Stone-Throwers, we lead ourselves up blind alleys.
The tactics and strategy of the Intifada are infinitely more complex than just a bunch of kids occasionally chucking rocks at conscripts. Over the past few years, the Palestinians have formed a security force existing somewhere between a heavily-armed police and a fully-fledged army. Consequently, the end-game -- if it does come -- is unlikely to be as cut-and-dried as winning or losing.
Before moving on to the tactical and strategic aspects, we should look at the order of battle. On the Israeli side, the army is using general infantry of conscription age. Owing to demographic weakness, the IDF is based on a reserves system that, if war breaks out, can be summoned, armed, mobilized and deployed within 24 hours. The fact that reserves have not been ordered into the Territories indicates that the Intifada has not yet begun to dent IDF strength.
The Palestinian situation is rather more amorphous. Under all previous agreements and pledges -- such as the one extended at Camp David last year by Yasser Arafat -- the Palestinians promised not to recruit an army, not to sign defence pacts with neighbouring states at war with Israel and to keep their territory free of heavy weapons.
The reason why the Israelis insist on an emasculated Palestinian military is because, if general war broke out, a lightning strike by Palestinian forces into the heart of Israel could prevent rapid mobilization and disrupt communications. Israeli doctrine states that while battalions are gathering, the air force is to strike hard at the enemy before he crosses the Israeli border. If sizeable Arab armies enter Israel's coastal plain and narrow waist untouched, the conventional war is as good as over and Jerusalem must escalate to the nuclear option. Owing to Israel's small size, most air bases are situated within 20 to 40 kilometres of Palestinian territory, making them easy targets.
In order to circumvent his pledges, Mr. Arafat has concentrated on strengthening his police force. Under the 1995 Oslo II agreement, the Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed to restrict itself to 30,000 policemen, 15,000 light firearms and 240 machine guns of .3 inch and .5 inch calibre. As it stands, however, there are currently 45,000 men and about four times the agreed number of pistols, rifles and machine guns in circulation. In addition, Palestinian security forces have used rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, mines and grenade launchers against Israeli targets. In recent months, anti-aircraft guns, shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and anti-armour missiles have been smuggled in for police use.
Just who are these policemen? Organizationally speaking, PA security forces are divided into no fewer than twelve branches. Some of these are legal(ish), others are definitely not. There is a civil police, a public security service, a preventive security service, a presidential guard (Force 17), an intelligence service, emergency rescue services, a coast guard, military police, a trained cadre of air force pilots, military intelligence and a "special security force." Alongside this clumsy and confusing apparatus exist the unofficial civilian militias, such as the Tanzim -- currently in possession of 30,000 firearms -- that acts as the military wing of Mr. Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization Fatah faction. And, of course, there are the close connections between the official security organs and Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Maintaining a quasi-army does not come cheap. The PA currently squanders a third of its budget on salaries for its security men -- thereby leaving little in the kitty for social services -- and spends more on security as a proportion of its Gross Domestic Product than other heavily-militarized countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iran. No other society on Earth has as many armed security personnel per capita than the PA.
The reason for the expensive alphabet-soup organization is Mr. Arafat's traditional policy of divide-and-rule. No single security service can grow too strong without being chopped back by either Mr. Arafat or, just as likely, its envious sisters. Instead of fighting the Israelis in a co-ordinated way, these rival services spend their time fighting, and spying on, each other. Often, the right hand has no idea what the left hand is doing, which partially explains why civil police will stand around while Tanzim militiamen are firing near them. In this type of instance, both groups have received contradictory orders from Mr. Arafat: one to stand to, the other to attack. Sometimes, moreover, the right hand IS the left hand, since numerous uniformed policemen serve as off-duty plainclothes Tanzim militiamen.
In order to cement his hold, Mr. Arafat has not created a General Staff to co-ordinate the various branches; instead, the regional commanders -- even when they need to talk to another regional commander -- report directly to the chairman. Only Mr. Arafat, therefore, can arbitrate between the competitors. Such a system --and it is common to all Arab armies -- does not generally lead to effective battlefield performance.
Turning to a tactical viewpoint, Israeli soldiers are armed with either a U.S.-made M16 or an Israeli-made Galil, both chambering a 5.56mm, 62-grain round with a muzzle velocity of 3,100-feet per second. Palestinian security forces tend to carry the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47, which fires a shortened 7.62mm, 122-grain bullet at 2,400-feet per second muzzle velocity, reducing its power at longer ranges. Israeli snipers use adapted Galil 7.62mm rifles, while their Palestinian counterparts arm themselves with Soviet-era Dragunov 7.62mm sniper rifles equipped with telescopic sights.
During the "popular protests" on the streets of stone-throwing youths, Palestinian gunmen situate themselves on rooftops and lurk behind the crowd. Israeli troop positions are located outside population centres, meaning protesters must purposely travel to the previously negotiated Israeli-Palestinian border in order to riot.
Once there, as the rioters surge forward they are repelled by, at first, tear gas, second, stun grenades and, finally, if need be, rubber bullets (which actually contain a steel core in order to impart enough kinetic energy to make them hurt) until they disperse.
Israeli tactical doctrine is to keep a mob anywhere between 100 and 150 metres away from troop positions. If allowed to approach en masse closer than that, the two sides may collide: The footage of violent anarchists crashing into the shielded lines of police at various international summits testifies to the danger of a pitched battle erupting. In the Territories, a clash would probably involve a thousand rioters against an isolated handful of soldiers, who, if captured alive, would not remain so for long. It is Israeli policy that soldiers do not use live ammunition against rioters not armed with guns -- unless their lives are in direct danger, and even then they are ordered to concentrate fire at the legs. As rioters approach perhaps nervous troops, it is inevitable that shooting will become more frequent and less well-aimed, leading to casualties.
With this in mind, the strategy of the Palestinian gunmen scattered around is twofold: For the benefit of the cameras, they must provoke an Israeli escalation from tear gas to live ammunition; for the benefit of the rioters, they must force the Israeli soldiers to take cover so as to allow engagement at close quarters.
Accordingly, gunmen fire into the Israeli squad (usually of four or five men), which first seeks cover and then, as the bombardment of Molotov cocktails and rocks creeps closer, lay down suppressive fire with live ammunition whenever they see a muzzle-flash. Often, an Israeli sniper, positioned away from the fray, will pick out particular gunmen and eliminate them, generally with a shot to the head.
During this time, mainly because camera crews are located on the Israeli side (or, if not, are helped to find good angles by PA apparatchiks), the viewer will see a panorama of young Palestinians throwing stones, only to be greeted by a platoon of soldiers firing M16s -- seemingly randomly -- back.
Since its outbreak, the PA government has broadened the Intifada's scope from just organizing these theatrics. Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists have now been given authority to carry out suicide bombings in Israeli cities, while Force 17, Tanzim and Preventive Security personnel attack Israeli targets in the Territories.
What, however, is the basic strategy informing the Intifada? Essentially, Arafat wants to Lebanonize the conflict. Having observed the IDF withdraw from its security zone in Lebanon after years of attritional warfare, the Palestinians believe they can force it to do the same in the Territories.
For a few months earlier this year, Palestinian forces accordingly copied Hezbollah tactics and launched mortar and grenade attacks against Israeli towns. At first, when Israel retaliated by razing the olive-groves and scrubland which sheltered the militants, there was an international outcry, but by creating a no-man's-land between PA and Israeli territory the IDF stopped these attacks almost overnight.
So far, despite some occasional public relations successes, the Lebanonization approach has not paid dividends. If anything, Israeli public opinion has hardened and there is little motive to start negotiations while under fire. For Mr. Arafat, therefore, the key now is to internationalize the conflict by persuading the international community to send observers. Nevertheless, regarding these observers as not only biased and untrustworthy but liable to interfere with internal matters, Jerusalem is unlikely to permit them access.
The last trump in Mr. Arafat's hand is to unleash his army, which has been kept under wraps. Hitherto, the gunmen and policemen have been ill-trained and badly disciplined novices who labour under the misapprehension that spraying AK-47s at full automatic is an effective method of killing.
Mr. Arafat's secret army, however, is composed of about six battalions that have undergone combat training in the Gaza Strip. Companies are commanded by officers with professional experience in Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan.
Even so, if Arafat were to employ his big battalions, it would indicate a decision to escalate the conflict. From his point of view, this would be a decision fraught with risk: Not only are there few defence analysts who would favour a Palestinian formation's chances against a regular Israeli battalion, let alone a company of elite commandos, but Mr. Arafat would have sacrificed the cultivated image of a spontaneous guerrilla uprising of Palestinian Davids against the Israeli Goliath.
So, the Intifada seems likely to continue for some time along its current lines unless something dramatic happens. First, Mr. Arafat might send one too many suicide bombers, prompting a serious international backlash and an unspoken nod to allow the Israelis to retaliate with overwhelming force. More recklessly, he might adopt a high-wire policy and attempt to draw Syria, Egypt and/or Iraq into the fighting, thereby threatening a general Middle East war unless his demands are met.
Alternatively, faced with the prospect of Losing by Not Winning, the Israelis might raise their hands and say, "Fine, he wants a state, let him have one." The second that Mr. Arafat issued a declaration of independence, Israel would, as a sovereign state, enforce its rights and erect an impenetrable wall of checkpoints, barriers and immigration controls on the Israeli side of the border. All travel between Gaza and the West Bank would be halted, as would Palestinian employment in Israel, and no Palestinian airline could fly through Israeli airspace. Mr. Arafat would then be stuck with a bankrupt, corrupt, militarized country rife with terrorism and surviving on international handouts.
The future of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio does not seem bright.
©2001 - National Post