On stupidity and war

Israel is a fast learner, but did it learn the most valuable lesson of all?

So far 29 Israeli soldiers have died in the offensive on Gaza [EPA]

The war hasn’t ended and already the criticism over Israel’s military adventure in Gaza is mounting as the Islamist movement, Hamas, continues to surprise the “invaders”. 

Leading and, presumably, respected media commentators have blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his hastiness, Israel’s Security Service – the Shabak – for its ignorance and the military for its poor performance.

Israel might claim technological superiority and tactical victory, but, as one expert concluded, strategically, it’s been defeated.

Needless to say, there are many ways by which one takes stock of the ongoing war. But after three military adventures in six years, Hamas remains a formidable force in Palestine. And Israel has little to show for its military prowess and technological edge aside from the terrible devastation wrought across the Gaza Strip – home to 1.8 million Palestinians living impoverished lives in the world’s longest-standing refugee camp.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has boasted of Israel’s moral standing and condemned Hamas for targeting civilians. But in the last few days, it’s the Israeli military that has suffered hundreds of casualties, including 29 soldiers killed, thus far. While on the Palestinian side, Israel’s bombings led to thousands of civilian casualties. It takes chutzpah to take pride in such a dreadful record.

At any rate, if it doesn’t cool down its aggression on the population of Gaza, Israel might increasingly face another uprising in the West Bank as the Palestinians open another front against their occupiers. And if the early indicators are anything to go by, it shows signs of turning violent and bloody.

Israel, a fast learner

It’s smart to learn from one’s own mistakes; wise to learn from others’ mistakes. What lessons has Netanyahu learnt, if any? 

There is no doubt that Israel is a quick learner. It learned much from its own operational and even strategic mistakes in past wars, and no less, from the war experiences of other nations.

The last century witnessed countless wars, including civil wars, proxy wars, wars driven by nationalism, racism and greed, and two destructive world wars. 

Israel has had its share of these wars – 14 in six decades – and the Middle East region that makes up some five percent of the world population, accounts for 20 percent of its conflicts; a percentage that probably skyrocketed in recent years.

Their motivations varied, but self-defence has generally been the excuse for aggression. Underlining its lack of strategic depth, Israel has long boasted of its pre-emptive doctrine to hit first when needing to defend itself.

Israel has also relied on the United States for lessons of war. And in recent times, it taught its patron a few lessons it’s learned itself in Lebanon and Palestine, for fighting in Iraq – a reason why the Israelis were stunned this week to hear former Secretary of State Madeline Albright speak of Israel’s “disproportionate” military response in Gaza, when she justified the US blockade on Iraq even when it led to the death of half a million children.

Israel is hardly the first to invoke self-defence to justify aggression – Lebanon being the best example – or protecting civilians to kill civilians. It has learnt the art of victimhood like no other. Its ultimate chutzpah goes along the lines of: “We won’t forgive you for forcing us to kill you.”

So yes, Israel has learned many lessons, and has institutionalised these lessons and is making money out of these lessons through training other nations’ military and security forces. Indeed, Israel arms sales have rocketed to $7.5bn in 2012, arms that are war-tested, as Israel so frequently vaunts.  

But the more important question is: Has Israel learnt the most important lesson of all about its type of colonial asymmetrical wars?

The predictable war

Unlike conventional wars, the longest and most legitimate wars of all have been the people’s fight for independence from colonialism.

Israel is in the midst of such a fight against a people’s struggle for freedom and independence and it makes similar, if not identical claims, to those made by other colonial powers of the past.

But not one foreign power big or small was able to win a single asymmetrical war against a people resisting colonialism throughout the entire 20th century.

This definite and paradoxical conclusion – the most instructive, and yet ignored of all lessons of war is categorical: Not one great power possessing superior firepower has won against a weaker, less organised and less professional resistance against occupation.

Not the French, not the English, not the Belgians, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Italians, the Soviets, the Chinese, the Afrikaners, etc. Not one!  In the end, they all lose. And if they don’t, then it’s not the end.

In each and every case, the indigenous population was designated terrorist, or fanatic, extremist, destructive, insensitive, or all of the above when they stood up to their occupier. Similar if not identical to the stuff we hear from Israelis nowadays.

Yet, despite all their military domination, political mechanisation, and superior moral pretentions, they eventually lose the battle of wills and are compelled to leave – defeated or humiliated.

While there are exceptions, such as in the case of India, the cost is generally high in death and destruction especially for those at the receiving end of aggression. But don’t depend on those who can keep a record to do so for their victims.

During the Algerian war for independence that lasted a decade, almost 30,000 Frenchmen, and we are told half a million to a million Algerians, were killed – give or take a couple of hundred thousand deaths.

Like today’s Israel, those colonial powers also justified their wars as last resort, and explained the high casualties as “War sucks”, “We’ve got to do whatever we need to protect ourselves”, or “The terrorists are hiding among the population”, and “using them as human shields” etc.

And so the fog of war and propaganda continues to blur the lines between right and wrong, occupied from occupier, defence and aggression. But when the dust settles, Israel will find itself where it was before its latest and past adventures, but with weaker deterrence, less credibility and hardened enemies.

Yes, it could continue to justify its military adventures under the pretext of combating terrorists, destroying rocket-launchers and tunnels. But whatever its justifications, these are the by-products of its own colonialism and war.

In the final analysis, if Israel doesn’t start packing and leaving the occupied territories sooner, many Israelis will start leaving it later because conditions are bound to get much worse.

Late is better than never learning the primary lesson from this conflict: It’s the occupation, stupid.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.