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Clausewitz in Gaza

Updated: Nov 12, 2023



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Clausewitz suggests three means by which to prosecute a successful war against an enemy (in order of preferred goals): first, destroy his army; second, take his capital; third, occupy his territory.

You see the dilemma the Israelis have in Gaza in that the army is the people—Hamas is a guerrilla organisation that fights in civilian clothes, and is supported by a cadre that is quasi-civilian and quasi-military. Their infrastructure is intertwined with civilian structures, notably hospitals and schools. Hence to destroy the enemy’s army is almost synonymous with the need to destroy the population of Gaza itself.


Further, given the size of Gaza, the “national capital” is almost synonymous with the whole territory itself—in concrete terms, the closest there is to a capital is the Hamas base of operations under al-Shifa Hospital; and that’s why its destruction is so vital to the IDF. However, given that Gaza is not a large administrative unit and that Hamas is a dispersed rhizome-like organisation anyway, to take “the capital” doesn’t have as much significance as it would otherwise.


The Russians tried to make the Ukraine War a short war by going direct for the capital—for Kiev. In that case, especially if Zelensky fled or they caught him, the war would have had a short duration. That’s because Ukraine is a conventional modern state where the capital is both important for administration and infrastructure and also has immense symbolic power for the population.


The Russian strategy failed—and there was no “Plan B” once they were driven back from Kiev, since they were in no condition to crush the Ukrainian army (let alone occupy her territory). I would have dropped a small nuclear bomb on Kiev in those circumstances, before the West got organised, so as to take out the government and break the Ukrainians in symbolic terms.


Clausewitz notes that to be moderate in war is a contradiction—you should always be extreme in war, that is its nature (but Putin, a judicious man, would never go so far—so the war drags on undecided).


To return to Gaza, the Israelis basically have to accomplish all three of Clausewitz’s criteria to win: they must crush Hamas as a military entity, destroy all its “capitals” (dispersed command infrastructure), and occupy the territory (because a guerrilla force will just reconstitute itself otherwise). There’s no easy win, because their enemy isn’t like a conventional state that can be broken when it loses its capital (a huge error committed by Hitler was not to drive to Moscow at all costs, btw).


Further, the population is the enemy (aside from women and children, perhaps—but even these will help as scouts and in transport matters). Hence the Israelis will have to kill a substantial proportion of the Gazan population as a victory condition.


That may violate international law, but it is the military reality—and, besides, there is no international sovereign to adjudicate on international law (the de facto sovereign is the United States in this area, the military power that could run its writ over the region if it so wished; and the United States is entirely beholden to the Jews and will interpret the law to allow this situation).


International law, as everyone who gives it the slightest thought knows, is meaningless without an international sovereign—of which there isn’t one. Hence the term itself and the “international” institutions it supports are just used for propaganda.


So Israel will have to take out a substantial chunk of the Gazan population to win—Israel will have to capture or destroy assets that are “like capitals”, such as hospitals and schools; and it will have to occupy the Strip, even if it is not called “an occupation” in strict legal terms.


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Hamas cannot win in conventional military terms—they cannot destroy the Israeli army, they cannot capture the Israeli capital, they cannot occupy Israeli territory. They cannot do as Clausewitz also advised, defeat your opponent’s most powerful ally first—for there is nothing Hamas can do to the United States.


They cannot even accomplish the more modern military objective—not to destroy the enemy’s army but to destroy the economy that stands behind the army. This is because, as with Ukraine, the US will bail Israel out to an unlimited degree—which it can do because of the dollar standard (which may end one day, but has not ended yet—and so the Americans can, as Biden said in some woolly way, “afford” all these expenditures as the world’s greatest power).

What Hamas can do is play the long game: their economy is non-existent and their people have many children because it makes sense, each child being another coupon for a UN aid package. This traumatised, in the genuine sense, population—who have often lost relatives to Israel—will provide the “new Hamas” for an indefinite period.


Military logic, for Israel, would be to kill the entire civilian population in Gaza—because the population is the army, almost entirely. It is too late to drive them out—that could have been done during the victorious moment in 1967 when the Arabs were in disarray but today, if the Palestinians were driven out, countries like Jordan and Egypt would feel obliged to declare war on Israel (not least because their own populations might topple the governments if nothing was done); and Arab military strength has recovered since 1967.


Wars are always imponderable and just because America supports Israel does not mean she is “safe”—the country lacks a vital military asset, strategic depth. About 40 to 50 miles separate the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—the Israeli territory is tiny; if there were a series of military setbacks in a major war, always possible given the fortunes of war, Israel could be overrun before America could intervene (the results would look like October 7th on a grand scale).


Israel is the exact opposite of Russia, since Russia has almost unlimited strategic depth and space to withdraw into. So long as your army has not been destroyed you have not been defeated, so long as you have space to withdraw into to maintain your army and give it a chance to recover you are in contention.


So lack of strategic depth makes your life very difficult, as a general—because if you have space to withdraw into you can reconstitute your forces and continue the fight indefinitely. What guerrilla war allows to happen is for the population itself to become a territory that can be withdrawn into—hence Hamas has strategic depth, not being a formal state and conventional army, whereas Israel does not.

Even if the Palestinians were driven out successfully, the problem would only move—since the resentment, the resentment still felt over the 1948 displacement, would continue (just from another territory, from Egypt—Gaza itself once being part of Egypt).

Hence the Hamas strategy is to:


(1) destroy Israel’s international reputation, since casualties on the Palestinian side will swiftly outstrip and eclipse those inflicted by Hamas on the Israelis—the weapons differential and nature of the war means Israel will always kill more Palestinian civilians (basically has to);


(2) although the Jews control America they still have to take cognisance of the vast non-Jewish population—they govern by consent, like the British in India, but to be seen to be massacring civilians, involving Americans in these acts by proxy, will degrade their ability to govern the population (itself increasingly diverse, with more Muslims there than ever before); and in this way the Palestinians can degrade Israel’s most powerful ally (which should be their military priority);


(3) Hamas also hopes to inveigle the Arab world, the wider Muslim world, into the conflict—possibly through moral shame at their inaction over the massacre of Palestinian civilians; ideally, this would involve substantial attacks on the American positions in Syria and Iraq, because the American state would be unable to mobilise popular enthusiasm at this point for war in the Middle East (again)—and if they were drawn in and humiliated support for Israel would diminish as well.


Given that Hamas is, in effect, “the population” it has the capacity to wage war beyond the “defeat limits” for a regular army.


Armies like Hamas didn’t really exist at the time Clausewitz thought about war—at the time the division between “soldier” and “civilian” was very firm, so that people would, as late as the American Civil War, ride out in buggies to watch a battle like a spectator sport.


This gradually became unthinkable in the democratic era as “every citizen became a soldier” and destruction of a nation’s economy became central to war—so that the idea a civilian could “ride out” to watch the Battle of Stalingrad and not be harmed by either side is laughable.


***


“I want to pound her Gaza Strip.” [source: MENA baddies]

The reason Hezbollah, Hamas’s main ally, doesn’t intervene to relieve Hamas is that deterrence works—the US carrier groups parked off the Lebanese coast deter them (remember, Lebanese politics is a complex patchwork, the country was destroyed in a civil war in the 1980s, with the Christians siding with the Israelis—so Hezbollah, while the most powerful single party in the country, can’t just do what it wants; it would face the Americans plus internal conflict within Lebanon in a wider war).


This is why we’re treated to slick music videos by Hezbollah and dull speeches by their imam, Nasrallah, which basically say, “By the beard of the Prophet, if you tread on the shawl of my neighbour one more time, you will feel the wrath of my sandal, O Zionists! Do not think your aircraft carriers will deter us!” [translation: “We’re afraid of your aircraft carriers, we’re not going to do anything”].

“Cheers for that, guys,” as some Hamas militant might say in his tunnel, as the latest heavily-trailered Nasrallah speech finally ends (black robes sweep past the camera, carrying the air of expectation and menace)—and another load of US-made bombs land on him.

The Iranians, who back Hezbollah, similarly don’t want to be blasted by the Americans, so they also do the bare minimum—issue stern speeches. The Iranians are more powerful than they were, but the Americans could hammer them—and so would the Saudis, who dislike the Iranians (being of a different race and branch of Islam).


In the long run, it doesn’t matter so much if Hamas is crushed. As they are crushed they inflict casualties on the Jews—and there aren’t so many Jews in the world. From this perspective, every Israeli casualty is a severe blow, whereas for Hamas it’s acceptable to take a 10:1 ratio for men lost to kill one Israeli.


We saw how the Israelis think about this situation with Gilad Shalit about ten years ago—one Israeli hostage was worth 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. That is the “market rate”—and the Palestinians, with seven-member families the norm, have human capital to burn in the conflict. Each Israeli loss is so much more significant than a Palestinian loss.


So unlike with Russia-Ukraine, where you can’t go a minute without someone announcing that “we’ve killed 1,235 Russians” or “we’ve destroyed 45 Leopard tanks”, you don’t hear a word about casualties in Gaza—from either side really, but especially from the Israelis.

Yet we know from the footage from Hamas that they’ve hit multiple tanks—soldiers must have been killed.


Israel has a news blackout—although you hear occasional bulletins from Hebrew media, possibly exaggerated, about “a day worse than 7th October, two dozen soldiers killed”. You’d think that in the modern age, with the Internet, that a government couldn’t block out the news like that—but Israel has. They claim about 30 soldiers killed in Gaza so far—and drip-drip a name here and there every three days or so. It’s got to be higher than that.

And, contrary to black-and-white films from the 1940s where earnest young cub reporters “get that story”, nobody seems to be working the bars of Jerusalem for “scoops”—so we don’t know. It’s because it would hit Israeli morale hard, and Netanyahu’s political career was precarious anyway—people are enraged at how badly he messed up (he was already widely hated before); if the actual casualty numbers came out, he couldn’t survive. So it’s deeply suppressed—as, in fact, is what is *really* going on in Gaza (and with the Hamas prisoners).


****


A last note about Turkey’s Erdogan. The Turks are like the Germans, except not as effective. They have the same icy efficiency and harshness but without being as good at either—they’re like knock-off Germans (it’s why they like to live in Germany, in fact—the two peoples are quite similar).


The Turks are one of those races with insane levels of nationalism and pride in their country—utterly humourless about it. They are sadistic and cruel—a Turkish girl is happiest in knee-high polished black boots snapping at you like Ataturk (just imagine the men). They really want the Ottoman Empire back—they have a chip on their shoulder about it.

Turks currently entertain delusions, encouraged by Erdogan, that the country’s revitalised military (100 ships!) will be deployed to stop the Israelis—stop the slaughter, reclaim that province of the Ottoman Empire the Brits swiped just over a 100 years ago (in fairness, the last sultan—or whatever he was called—did say that if Palestine left the Ottoman Empire there would be “bloodshed to the end of time”).

Well, the Turks have some drones and some aircraft that look a bit like the American F-35 but are just a domestic knock-offs. They also have a really big military, always have done. So they have these delusions.


But Erdogan is a smart guy. He’s not going to war for the Palestinians (as that idiot American military pundit MacGregor likes to hint). If that happened, the Turks would get attacked by America—and lose. Erdogan just knows how to primp and preen his Islamic-nationalist base in rural Turkey (sorry, Türkiye—as we have to spell it now; that’s how petty the Turks are, insisting everyone has to spell their country name that way—it also shows they’re weak at heart, because powerful people don’t care what you say about them; the Indians, also so deluded, pull the same nonsense with “Bharat”).

Erdogan has a sweet deal where he’s the go-between for Putin and the West—the Russians come to Turkey to talk…turkey (but so do the Ukrainians). The Turks sell arms to the Ukrainians, but they have contacts with the Russians. They sell oil to the Israelis too—which, for all Erdogan’s verbose “jihad now” rhetoric, hasn’t stopped flowing (sure, the Israeli diplomats were kicked out, but that’s just theatre).


Erdogan doesn’t want to mess up this sweet spot where he might be pivotal to settling the whole Ukraine-Russia business—so no war with the US or Israel. He also has a hand in all the crazy inter-ethnic wars in Syria and Iraq—and the Ukraine War gifted him a nifty chance to leverage the soft Swedes so that they cracked down on the troublesome Kurds they harbour in exchange for Turkey’s vote to let them into NATO.


Basically, Erdogan is no warlord—no Ottoman Emperor (he looks like he should run a tobacconist’s shop in rural Anatolia). He has loads of sweet angles to play, thanks to Turkey’s geographic position—hell, he can always threaten the EU with a new deluge of migrants if things get really tasty in the Middle East again. He’s not going to mess up his neat fulcrum position by launching an actual war on Israel—which would lead to confrontation with NATO (even though Turkey is in it).


No, he’s going to make lots of speeches to please his Islamist constituency but do nothing concrete—just let people get excited that an army equally matched with Israel might enter the fray, so it isn’t just a massacre of Palestinians day in and day out.


So, at the moment, nobody wants it to go regional—America can still batter them to death, you see. However, the war’s real significance is that you’ve seen the Israeli veneer destroyed: this whole idea of “the all-powerful Mossad” with “spies everywhere” has been exposed as total lies—and Hamas, equipped with Iranian tech, is actually taking out fancy Israeli equipment for a change.


It’s all loss for Israel, in men and street cred—not least because they can’t take the necessary decision and kill all the Palestinians. In the interim, they’ll leave the conflict with their reputation for military superiority shredded and disgust for the Jews at a world-wide high. Selah.




















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