I remember getting a lot of pushback once I started using the siege metaphor to describe Israel’s situation, both historically and as part of a wider discussion of how to look at our battle with Israel’s enemies through the lens of military conflict.
That criticism largely stemmed from a misunderstanding of siege warfare, with advocates for “going on offense” against Israel’s foes perceiving being on the receiving end of an enemy’s siege as a passive example of what is often criticized as being stuck “playing defense.”
But the siege, like the pitched battle where armies face off in direct combat, are simply types of activities that take place in a war, each of which come with a full set of offensive and defensive tactics. And many an army has been defeated when they got tired or bored with fighting off a besieging army from within protected walls and decided instead to leave their fortress to needlessly clash with the enemy.
Recent attacks from Gaza are a perfect illustration of siege strategy in action. For, from the perspective of Israel, the nation’s borders are its defensive walls which the military inside those walls cannot allow to be breached. Outside the Gaza portion of those walls is a Hamas army, made up of fighters and the civilians they have recruited to protect them, trying to crash through the border/barrier in order to sack the city/nation within.
In this case, the besiegers tactics do not involve battering rams or catapults (if you don’t count flaming kites), although past (and likely future) siege attempts have involved a different age-old tactic of tunneling beneath enemy walls. But, in the case of this month’s attacks, the prime weapon is “the feint,” in this case the creation of distractions (large numbers of marchers mixing civilians and military men, huge plumes of smoke generated by enormous tire fires) that will allow militants to sneak into Israel to wreak havoc.
One advantage of Hamas’ tactics is that they work alongside a propaganda strategy that originated during Israel’s 2006 clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon, one that has been perfected during fights between Israel and Hamas ever since. This strategy involves triggering a war and then counting on allies (such as the UN and anti-Israel activists abroad) and a pliant media to turn the violence created by Hamas into a morality tale of Israel’s cruel targeting of civilians.
Such propaganda has had a bit more trouble getting off the ground this time around, possibly because it’s been overused (allowing Israel and its friends to blunt it using counter-tactics created during this same decade-long period), possibly because parts of the media – which are being asked to swallow ever greater lies – have grown tired of playing the role of Hamas stooges.
Getting back to the siege itself, success or failure can be judged based on how well the IDF has managed to keep the enemy on its side of the walls. And, so far at least, that enemy has failed at even the modest goal of slipping killers through the gates, making the actual dream of Israel’s enemies (thousands breaking out of Gaza to march on Jerusalem) no more than fantasy bombast.
A key feature of siege warfare is that it is as hard, or harder, on the besieger than the besieged, especially when siege tactics are deployed against a stronger party that is ready to fight patiently to hold the line.
Casualty figures routinely trotted out to condemn the Jewish state (which is criticized for asymmetrical body counts) actually demonstrates success on the part of the IDF since any successful war involves maximizing enemy losses while minimizing your own. So, putting aside the humanitarian question surrounding one side fighting behind civilians while the other side fights to protect them, simple military arithmetic shows that treating the current Gaza conflict as siege warfare has been a wise move on the part of Israeli military planners.
It remains to be seen if other forms of suffering will visit those who chose siege warfare as a tactic. Smaller crowds showing up to act as cannon fodder for Hamas’ current campaign would be one indication of that organization paying the cost of poor choice of tactics, as are reports of internal fighting within the organization over choices the leadership is making.
It’s ironic that Israel’s foes use the language of the siege to describe the situation within Gaza, given that Israel has no interest in using siege tactics (or any other tactics) to conquer territory it left behind over a decade ago. This is best demonstrated by the Jewish state’s refusal to engage in traditional siege activities (such as starving out your foe) during not just this conflict but every conflict where Israel continued to supply food and electricity to enemy territory while fighting was taking place.
Those who might still consider defending against a siege as an exercise in passivity should look at results, which are still unfolding, to decide who might be playing the right cards in the high-stakes game of war.