Israel's niche technology may be of little use in a ground offensive in Gaza [AFP]

Israel is a highly developed technological society. Its defence equipment industry supplies the major industrial and new industrial nations with niche technology that is second-to-none.

In the last 60 years, Israel has fought several full-scale industrial age wars against its neighbours and been involved in a number of counter-insurgency conflicts typical of the many fought by the Western powers during the 19th and 20th centuries. It has never lost a conflict. But this is the age of 'war amongst the people' and just now the jury is out.

Lebanon war

The changing mode of conflict in this sub-region became clear in August 2006.

Believing that the lessons which Nato learned during the Kosovo conflict were that air power alone could win a war without the use of ground troops - negating all the risks physical, political and economic attached to sending in the tanks - appealed to the Israeli army and its political masters.

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Israel did not fully appreciate the lessons and misread the situation in southern Lebanon, the capabilities of Hezbollah, including the amount of Iranian support, and the fact that the nature of conflict had changed. It nearly lost a conflict.

For example, precision weapons, world class though they may be, could not destroy the small, remotely-controlled rocket launchers before munitions had been launched - only after the damage had been done.

Certainly, the main heavy and medium rocket launchers were put out of action before Hezbollah could bring them into operation.

However, it was the small systems, often home-made, nestling on the balconies of apartment blocks, in orchards, partially protected by top cover and above all devoid of people who might show up on the infra-red scanning technology carried by Israeli drones - unmanned aerial vehicles like Heron and Skylite - that caused the greatest damage.

Hezbollah also dug in Vietcong-style with tunnels and underground facilities, developed over many years.

Damage to Israel's reputation in the eyes of the domestic audience and that of the media was unusually high. And because Hezbollah is so much better at using the media than Israel, many firmly believe Israel lost the conflict. It did not but facts rarely have a place in a 'war amongst the people'.

Changing balance

During the two years since the southern Lebanon conflict, which, from the Israeli point of view, ended in stalemate at best, there has been a ceasefire in Gaza.

Hamas has not been slow in building up its capability during this period. These preparations have included developing its military capability, probably with the support of Iran and Hezbollah, and careful preparation of the international media for information operations - a vital part of the 'war amongst the people'.

How much has Israel learnt from its war against Hezbollah in 2006? [GALLO/GETTY]
Hamas has also been working hard on deception operations in the classic 'camouflage' sense, taking leaves from the Hezbollah book and hiding its capability in domestic and public sector accommodation - homes, apartments, schools, refugee camps.

It has also become expert at masking its routine by screening out the sensors of Israeli drones, masking its radio communications and making use of non-combatants in the traditional sense. In a 'war amongst the people' the line between combatant and non-combatant is thin and changes by the hour, if not the minute.

So today in Gaza, the Israelis have found - just as the Americans found in Iraq and Afghanistan - that the balance is shifting away from industrial age conflict to something different.

The war in Gaza is not an industrial age conflict but a true 'war amongst the people', with non-state actors, albeit elected as a government, calling the shots on one side and a democratic cabinet in the Western model on the other.

The use of media footage, exaggerated claims, weapons like unguided rockets and now for first time, a global threat of attack on Israeli nuclear facilities has changed the balance and the room for manoeuvre.

Strategic, tactical, operational

Even a 'war amongst the people' can be divided into the three logical spheres of interest: strategic, tactical and operational.

The perception is that Israel has never cared about the first in terms of world opinion as it has been shielded by its close relationship with the US - and a strongly held belief that it is right.

There is little doubt, however, that the hiatus in Washington, with a lame-duck president and a president-elect who has yet to take the reins of power, is significant in terms of timing on a strategic level and has given Israel the edge.

It has been interesting to note how the tone of Israeli government spokesmen has been modified as circumstances change, creating the perception that Israel too is learning about 'Info Ops' and how these perceptions play in the Western media in particular.

Israel's reputation was damaged by what many saw as a loss in Lebanon [GALLO/GETTY]
On a tactical level, Israel is well equipped for both industrial and counter-insurgency conflicts - and there is now evidence that it is rapidly picking up the lessons of 'war amongst the people' at a tactical level. It can strike with precision by day or night.

Operationally, the critical matter for Israel is whether Hamas can get inside the 'decision cycle' of the commanders on the scene - the Israeli army rules of engagement are not made public but may include the need to revert to Tel Aviv on key engagements.

The rules have been influenced by public opinion and the media - but Hamas has none of these concerns and has seen how the Taliban has run rings around the Nato forces in Afghanistan, not to mention the Kabul administration, in recent months.

Gaza is critical. Whatever happens, there will be casualties on both sides, international repercussions across the globe and there is always the risk of intervention by Syria, Iran or another state.

'War amongst the people' will then develop into industrial age, state-on-state conflict and who knows where that might go.

'War amongst the people' might be a new paradigm but is not the only one.

Paul Beaver is an independent defence analyst, a former Editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, TV war reporter and media commentator. His views reflect 30 years of covering major and minor conflicts, including those in the Middle East.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera