Have Israel’s Ground Operations Achieved Strategic Goals?

Israel has, for the moment, postponed or decided against a ground incursion into Gaza pending international diplomatic efforts to reach a cease fire. While Israeli leaders deliberate, it’s worth reviewing the last thirty years of Israeli ground wars, in which Israel conducted roughly four* major ground operations, to see whether Israeli they accomplished their strategic ends. The evidence suggests the incursions were occasionally tactically successful, but generally did not succeed strategically and always carried a high body count.

Two caveats. First, this is an attempt to assess whether Israeli ground incursions were successful on their own strategic-military terms, and does not examine any questions about the rightness or morality of Israeli actions. Second, the casualty counts below represent estimates from the entire conflict in question, not the ground campaign specifically. Since ground operations were major parts of each of the conflicts in question, and separating what counts as a “ground” casualty is methodologically difficult, it is fair to employ the more general casualty count.

1982-2000: Israel Invades Lebanon

Historical context: Palestinian Liberation Organization militants based in Southern Lebanon, much like Hamas today, had been shelling Israeli targets in northern Israel, creating a similar state of insecurity as the one experienced by southern Israelis today. While a cease fire agreement had put a pause to the attacks for roughly a year, Israeli leaders believed that PLO artillery batteries were too dangerous to be allowed to exist. A sustained ground invasion of Lebanon, they believed, was the only way to eliminate the threat. “Sustained,” as it turns out, meant an 18 year occupation of Southern Lebanon.

Outcome: While Israel did force the PLO out of its Lebanese bases, the war was overall a strategic failure. As U.S. Army Captain Daniel Isaac Helmer puts it in his assessment of the war, “Israel’s invasion of Lebanon failed to solve the strategic threat presented by the Palestinian nationalist movement and spawned an effective, military resistance among the occupied Shiite population of Lebanon who had heretofore been relatively indifferent to Israel. Furthermore, Israel’s presence in Lebanon, as well as its failure to offer the Palestinians a real political solution, served to increase the hopelessness that leads to terrorism: terrorism against Israel actually increased.”

Casualties: During the main phase of the Israeli offensive, June 1982-May 1983, 17,825 people were killed — approximately 13,000 Lebanese, 2,000 Syrians, 2,400 Palestinians, and 370 Israelis. Figures for the remainder of the Israeli occupation are much more opaque.

2000-2004/5: The Second Intifada

Historical context: As the high point of the Oslo peace negotiations began to fall apart in 2000, military tensions rose between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza (which at the time remained united under Yasser Arafat). While the precise chain of events that led to full-blown conflict is hotly disputed, it is likely that both sides bear a degree of responsibility. Once it escalated, the Second Intifada marked the high point for Palestinian suicide bombing and gunfire attacks on Israeli civilians, while Israel responded with (among other tactics) the largest ground attack on the West Bank since its initial conquest in 1967.

Outcome: While most believe that Israel’s construction of the security barrier was the principal reason suicide bombings (and with them, the Second Intifada) tapered off, Israel’s ground offensive also played a role. There is evidence suggesting that the initial drop in suicide bombing attempts in 2002 is correlated with “the intelligence-driven capture and arrest of terror suspects by ground forces to prevent suicide bombing.” This makes a certain amount of sense: control over territory gave Israeli soldiers more robust intelligence-gathering capabilities and operational freedom than they had before. Hamas’ strategic decision to cut down and ultimately cease suicide bombing was also important, though it’s hard to determine whether Hamas would have made that decision absent the fence and Israeli military pressure.

Casualties: Roughly 4,200 people were killed during the Intifada, 3,223 Palestinians and 950 Israelis.

2006: The Lebanon-Hamas War

Historical context: Israel withdrew its military forces and settlements from Gaza in 2005, and shortly afterwards was faced with rockets . During low-level conflict between the two sides, a Hamas incursion from Gaza into Israel captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel launched a war in retaliation which included several ground incursions into Gaza. Almost simultaneously, Hezbollah launched an attack in the north also aimed at capturing Israeli soldiers. The result was an even wider war and a full-scale invasion of southern Lebanon.

Outcome: The war, particularly its Lebanese component, was widely viewed as a failure by Israelis and a political victory for Hezbollah in particular. The Israeli government convened a commission, led by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, to assess what went wrong in Lebanon. The Commission found that “Israel initiated a long war, which ended without its clear military victory. A semi-military organization of a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages. The barrage of rockets aimed at Israel’s civilian population lasted throughout the war, and the IDF did not provide an effective response to it. The fabric of life under fire was seriously disrupted, and many civilians either left their home temporarily or spent their time in shelters.” It is, however, worth noting that some credible military analysts dispute the Commission’s findings.

Casualties: The Lebanese theater claimed about 1,350 lives, 163 Israelis and 1,191 Lebanese. Fighting in Gaza cost 416 Palestinians their lives and resulted in five Israeli deaths.

2008-09: Operation Cast Lead

Historical context: Though rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into Israel had continued after the 2006 war, it had nearly entirely ceased by November 2008 due to a ceasefire agreement. An Israeli strike on what it claimed was a tunnel designed to conduct operations against Israel on November 4th ended the lull, and the conflict escalated into a full-blown ground invasion by December.

Outcome: Israel won a tactical victory but, as the current conflict demonstrates, failed to accomplish its strategic end of eliminating Palestinian capabilities to threaten southern Israel with rocket attacks, let alone the broader goal of eliminating Hamas altogether. As Sergio Catignani, an expert on low-level conflicts at the University of Sussex, puts it: “Israel again was not able to reestablish a satisfactory deterrent posture with regards to Hamas and other anti-Israeli organisations in the Gaza Strip. Following Israel’s unilateral ceasefire declaration, which included warnings that it would continue to retaliate against any terrorist activity, Hamas defiantly declared that its ‘resistance’ would carry on. International pledges for the reconstruction of what some have estimated as $2 billion dollars worth of damage caused by the IDF will, in effect, enable Hamas to re-establish again its government infrastructure and services, thus frustrating Cast Lead’s attempt at incapacitating Hamas’s governance in Gaza.”

Casualties: The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem estimates roughly 1,400 (1,387 Palestinians and 13 Israelis) were killed, though the Israeli and Palestinian sources have provided, respectively, somewhat lower and higher counts.

This history, considered as a whole, suggests that a ground campaign wouldn’t be a silver bullet capable of putting a stop to rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. It would also likely result in the unnecessary deaths of many Palestinians and Israelis. Indeed, Israelis are increasingly coming to recognize the limits of military force, and are starting to think of different ways to approach the Palestinians to the south.

Greg Noth contributed research to this post.

*Excluding the First Intifada, which was a qualitatively different conflict from the other four (see fn 67 here).