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Asymmetric Warfare

by Carlos

September 11, 2003 - One often hears the term "asymmetric warfare" in reference to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In this particular application, it means that because the Palestinians are considered the "weaker" side and are overmatched by Israeli technology and strength, they must resort to unconventional tactics. In practice, it has become a euphemism for terrorism.

Palestinians claim the right to use these unconventional tactics, which consist of attacks on Israeli civilians, because that is the only way they can balance Israeli military strength. They claim to be the disadvantaged party in this unbalanced war.

Let us leave aside for now the fact that Palestinians have chosen terrorism over negotiation, a choice that was offered to them many times; other articles on this site already deal with this issue. For now I only wish to consider where the real asymmetry lies.

The Palestinian terrorists declared a three-month cease-fire, giving them time to regroup. Then they broke the cease-fire when it suited their purpose. Their stated reason? Israeli "targeted killings" of members of their organizations. These were bombmakers and planners of terrorist operations in which dozens of Israelis were killed. The Palestinian Authority was supposed to arrest them, but did nothing. Israel stepped into the vacuum, tried to arrest them, they resisted and were killed in the struggle.

So here we have the first asymmetry: according to the Palestinians, one bombmaker or terrorist planner, who is already implicated in the murder of innocent people, is worth the lives of as many more innocent people as the terrorists can kill.

This is numerical asymmetry: as many Israeli civilians as possible for one slain terrorist. But there is also another asymmetry, which may prevent Israel from winning the terrorist war.

On September 6, an Israeli plane dropped a bomb on a Gaza City building where senior leaders of Hamas were meeting. These included the spiritual leader of Hamas Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Ismail Haniyah, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and from the military wing of Hamas Mohammed Deif and the aptly named Adnan al-Ghoul, called the "engineer." Eliminating all of them in one operation would have dealt Hamas a crushing blow.

None of the Hamas leaders was seriously injured. Sheikh Yassin suffered a light wound to his right hand, and was treated at a nearby hospital.

Why did the operation fail?

The Israelis used a lighter bomb than was needed to do the job. They remembered the July 2002 attack on Saleh Shehadeh, which succeeded but which unintentionally killed 15 Palestinian civilians. Those fatalities resulted from damage to nearby buildings. This time, according to Israeli security officials, they used a much lighter bomb to make sure the building would not collapse, thus minimizing Palestinian civilian casualties.

As a result, the operation failed. Who knows now how many more Israelis will die because these senior Hamas leaders are free to plan more attacks - because Israel fought with restraint against its own interests, out of a wish to minimize the harm to Palestinian civilians.

This is the greatest asymmetry of all. Israel tries to keep the number of Palestinian dead as low as possible, while going after only those who are directly responsible for terrorist attacks. The Palestinians try to kill as many Israelis as they can, soldiers and civilians, and preferably civilians since they can't fight back and since their deaths are more shocking. This is the greatest asymmetry of all: one side fights with a conscience and respect for basic rules of civilization; to the other side such values have no meaning.

Of course, many would not even approve of Israel's limited action against the terrorists. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a statement condemning Israel's attack on Yassin, accusing Israel of using "disproportionate force" and calling its actions "a violation of international humanitarian law."

Those who agree with the sentiments of Mr. Annan have a tough question to answer: If Israel's limited and ineffectual response is "disproportionate force," then what is "proportionate force"? Clearly the only acceptable force Israel could use would be to do nothing. Palestinian terrorist leaders routinely take shelter in densely populated areas, using their own civilians as human shields. Thus Israel's only option, according to these critics, would be to sit back and do nothing while its civilians are being slaughtered. Is this what they are asking Israel to do?

Rescue workers evacuating a man wounded in the suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday night.  
Rescue workers evacuating a man wounded in the suicide bombing in Jerusalem on Tuesday night. (AP)

Hamas makes no secret of its desire to destroy Israel completely. Its members make no secret of their opposition to a two-state solution (just read the Hamas Charter), and they do everything they can to destroy any chance of one. Its military wing has just released another statement threatening "to attack Israeli targets anywhere it sees fit," whether combatant or civilian. And they have just made good on their promise.

  A woman injured in the second blast was rushed to an ambulance.
A woman injured in the second blast was rushed to an ambulance. (Agence France-Presse)

On Tuesday the first bombing killed eight people and wounded dozens at a popular hitchhiking post outside an army base near Tel Aviv. The next bombing killed seven and wounded at least 30 in a Jerusalem café. Among the dead from the Jerusalem blast were Dr. David Appelbaum, head of the emergency room at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, and his daughter, who was engaged to be married.

The wedding was to have taken place the next day. It was preempted by the burial of the bride, which occurred only hours before the scheduled ceremony. "We are in the middle of a war where every street and every bus and every store has become the front line," said one family member who attended the funeral.

Mourners gather around the bodies of David and Naava Applebaum. Many had come to Jerusalem from abroad to attend Naava's wedding.  
Mourners gather around the bodies of David and Naava Applebaum. Many had come to Jerusalem from abroad to attend Naava's wedding. (AP)

"We told the Zionists it was payback time," said a statement by the Hamas military wing praising the attacks, which was broadcast on Al-Jazeera. When news of the Jerusalem Café bombing broke in Gaza, many took to the streets to celebrate and some fired assault rifles into the air to mark the occasion.

This is the real asymmetric war: the parties are fighting according to two different sets of rules. The Palestinian terrorists are trying to dismantle Israeli society piece by piece, making civilian life impossible. They even find ways to justify it. Meanwhile, Israel is fighting back with a conscience, going after only those involved in planning and committing terrorist violence. It is very difficult to win a war against terrorism when you have a conscience. And when the side without a conscience draws more sympathy, it becomes virtually impossible.


Annan, Kofi. Statement Attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on the Attempt on the Life of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin." Secretary General: Office of the Spokesman, September 8, 2003.

Bennett, James. "Abbas Steps Down, Dealing Big Blow to U.S. Peace Plan." New York Times, September 7, 2003.

Bennett, James and Greg Myre. "In Two Bombings, Arab Attackers Kill 13 in Israel." New York Times, September 10, 2003.

Harel, Amos. "Fifteen Killed in Separate Suicide Bombings Just Hours Apart." Ha'aretz, September 10, 2003.

Harel, Amos and Arnon Regular. "Hamas's Yassin Survives Gaza Strike." Ha'aretz, September 7, 2003.

Jerusalem Post Internet Staff. "Explosion Destroys Jerusalem Coffee Shop: At Least Six Killed." Jerusalem Post, September 9, 2003.

Keinon, Herb. "Sharon Cuts India Trip Short; Officials Say Response to Be "Painful." Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2003.

Moore, Molly. "Doctor and Daughter Killed in Cafe Bombing Buried Side by Side." Washington Post, September 11, 2003.

Shragai, Nadav. "Head of Shaare Zedek ER Killed in Jerusalem Blast." Ha'aretz, September 10, 2003.

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