The long conflicts that are changing the rules of war

These days, warring nations seem unable to follow the rudimentary rules of humanism and desist from targeting civilians. All sides need to do more to avoid civilian deaths
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations

I recall the lightning campaign of June 1967 when the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) fought on multiple fronts and squarely defeated larger forces in a matter of six days. In 1973, despite being surprised, the IDF fought back. A counter offensive, led by the iconic General Ariel Sharon (later PM) through a two-kilometre gap between two Egyptian Armies astride the Suez Canal in Oct 1973, forced a cease fire when all else seemed to fail. The Israeli military remained at a status where it carved itself a niche position worldwide and came to be recognised for its thorough military professionalism. Given such status and capability, one expected that post the October 7, 2023 incident involving Hamas that initiated atrocities at the Gaza border, there would be swift and surgical retribution, forcing a situation for early release of hostages and setting up of systems never to be surprised again.

Unfortunately, more than seven months down the line, despite mobilising 3,50,000 troops and deploying a host of missiles, rockets and artillery along with drones and armour in the tiny battle space of Gaza, not much has been achieved militarily. In the face of irregulars of the Hamas units, no fronts and no rears, despite a virtual scorched earth policy, not much headway seems to be made. The IDF today seems a pale reflection of its past, trying to defend itself against allegations of major human rights violations and atrocities amounting to what some are calling genocide. Targeting a heavily populated built-up zone that enjoyed the status of a quasi-state, it has withheld humanitarian aid and inflicted over 37,000 fatalities on the civilian population.

It’s unfortunate that the terrible atrocities by Hamas are being retaliated through a leaf from the same book. The question we all ask is about the horrendous conditions of the living and the dead, and the unending tragedy of children caught in the middle of the conflict. Yet, not a soul is prepared to intervene politically and from a humanitarian angle to help the sick, wounded, old, women and children suffering from lack of basic human existential facilities. Food, water, shelter and medicine; all are missing in the single-minded purpose of achieving the killing of the last Hamas terrorist. The past professionalism of the IDF would have revealed to its leadership that campaigns against irregulars do not take such shape. The more non-combatants you kill, maim or displace, the more you stretch this conflict, which is definitely not going to end with the first ceasefire.

War is always an immoral act and never justifiable, because humans claim cerebral powers to resolve conflicts, something no other living being can. Yet, wars very often deteriorate to levels far below human dignity and respect. What common people cutting across boundaries are questioning these days is the inability of nations at war to follow the rudimentary rules of humanitarianism and desist from the targeting of civilians, particularly the old, the sick, women and children. In both the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, there appears no concern for this. Worse still is the fact that the US, as a champion of human rights and the sole superpower, does not feel the need to do more to ensure an end to civilian casualties. NATO does not do that for the war in East Europe either.

The action by Hamas on October 7, 2023 was the most despicable act of terror by an organisation whose leadership has the unfortunate sanction to reside in various countries in the Middle East region. Even as a quasi-state actor, it chose extreme terror as the means to trigger international concern about the Palestinian cause. Civilian deaths, more than a thousand of them, were designed to create an Israeli and international furore of such proportions that none would be able to pursue status quo on Palestine. Hamas deserves to be made irrelevant. Its leadership of the Palestinian cause can only spell an extension of the Palestinian conflict for another hundred years. That is because it has virtually attracted the label of ‘terrorism’ on the entire Palestinian community and triggered turbulence of the kind that could never see peace for the people or solution to the issue.

Perhaps Israel just took its eyes off Gaza and allowed Hamas to build sound military capability. Now, in the face of failure, a couple of factors are at play. Among these are its military reputation of being a quick-fixer of failure, by innovation and superior operational strategy; its status of being a nation of people who had suffered existentially in the past and would therefore always believe in human values; the repute of bringing a leaf out of the advanced western civilisation to the Middle East; the last would place upon it the load of a perceived responsibility of pursuing the path of basic human rights, especially for people that it is in conflict with. It failed to innovate to fight the Hamas fighters.

In fact, its greatest failure was to allow Gaza to be built to such a degree right under its nose. Its own information and influence projects, such as the television series ‘Fauda’, paints a capability of keeping the entire built-up areas of the tiny space of Gaza under drone-based surveillance. It needs to question its proficiency on the reasons why Hamas and Hezbollah were able to build over one hundred thousand missiles and rockets, all trained upon its mainland.

Most military professionals in India remain admirers of the IDF, just like I do. However, as Avner Gvaryahu, director of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli veterans, states, “The idea that the only answer to Palestinian resistance, both violent and nonviolent, is greater—and more indiscriminate—force has shown signs of becoming entrenched in the IDF and Israeli politics.”

By fighting with the strategy it has adopted, the IDF is actually embarrassing its biggest supporter, the US. President Joe Biden is forced to grudgingly extend support at the cost of the political capital he loses in the other menacing confrontation, Trump versus Biden. Most of the world perceives that a change of Israeli leadership may afford it to adopt a different strategy, one which will get the release of hostages and allow breathing space for talks. A solution here, however, remains more elusive than ever before.

(Views are personal)


Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) | Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir

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