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In the immediate aftermath of the conflict between Hamas and Israel between 10 May and 21 May 2021, both sides rushed to declare victory. Both spoke of their military prowess, spirit of resistance, and the achievement of goals while declaring themselves the moral, military, and political champions. As this was the first time Israel’s new “Victory Doctrine” saw combat, this indeterminate outcome suggests it is significantly flawed. What the conflict and the doctrine offers is the simple truth proven innumerable times over history: thinking about victory in purely military-centric ways rarely has any strategic utility.
Operation Guardian of the Walls
This most recent conflict began after Israeli security forces engaged in several actions in the weeks leading up to the events of mid-May. Specifically, Israeli forces raided the al-Aqsa Mosque to cut speaker cables, engaged in expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes within Jerusalem, and cracked down on protests and riots around the Damascus Gate in response to these two events. All of these events occurred under the then-cloud of Israel’s political stalemate. On May 10, 2021, Hamas issued an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its security forces from the mosque compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The rockets began a few minutes later. Operation Guardian of the Walls was initiated by Israel in response.
Israel’s goals in this round of conflict were to destroy Hamas’ military capability, predominantly its offensive rocket forces, and its leadership cadre. Their theory was that by destroying enough of Hamas’ military power and political leaders, Israel would “puncture its ability to rebuild its forces,” reducing the chance of conflict in the future. Hamas, alternatively, maintained its immediate goals were those mentioned above. It intended to use its rockets to shut down Israeli society until its demands were met, and in doing so gain greater political power and control over the Palestinian people.
The conflict in Gaza offered the first chance for Israel to test out its new Victory Doctrine, otherwise called the “Momentum” program (Hebrew: Tnufa). The new doctrine emerged with the selection of Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi as the Israeli Chief of Staff in early 2019. In his first speech, Kochavi stated that the Israeli Defence Forces were “all about victory.” The new doctrine would be distributed throughout the IDF in November 2020.
Though it has not been officially publicly released, its core elements have been described in publicly available forums. Briefly, the doctrine defines victory as:
The maximum number of enemy capabilities destroyed in the shortest period of time and with the smallest possible number of casualties. The closer a result is to these parameters, the more decisive the victory.
The purpose of the doctrine is to:
….match the IDF’s existing might to the threat posed by terror armies, and to enable Israel to go on the attack – to return to short wars, clear victory, and removal of the main military threat, that of rocket fire, on Israel. Denying the enemy of his fire capabilities will remove the threat he poses on Israel. Negating the fires threat will give Israel significant strategic freedom of action and will thwart enemy rebuilding efforts after the war.
In one analysis, it was suggested that this new understanding of victory in theory and practice “involves the defeat of one’s enemies—not the restoration of a ceasefire or routine paring of adversaries’ capabilities (“mowing the lawn,” in Israeli parlance), but the resounding destruction of their ability and will to fight.”
No, I’m the Victor!
Even before the cease-fire emerged, however, Hamas itself declared the conflict was a “humiliating defeat” for Israel because the group had successfully imposed its demands. Simultaneously, a variety of analysts declared the group the winner for a laundry list of reasons: from a subjective viewing of its underdog status, to outrage over the televised destruction, Hamas’ ability to “[entice] the whole Palestinian body politic…into an outburst of terror and violence,” renewed efforts at a Palestinian unity government, the “[thwarting of] the goals of the Israel regime,” and to its maintenance of an arsenal of approximately 8,000 rockets, “enough for two future wars.”
Even though then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted the conflict as a “exceptional success,” General Kochavi himself felt the need to emerge a few days after the ceasefire to recite the IDF’s achievements. He did this in response to these claims above and numerous commentaries outlining Israeli’s own feelings of frustration with the lack of ‘victory’. Both leaders noted the deaths of numerous top Hamas operatives, destruction of three dozen rocket production facilities, and the elimination of dozens of kilometers of Hamas tunnels, which Israel has named “the metro.” Kochavi declared that Hamas, “which started a war as the alleged defender of Yerushalayim, finished it as the destroyer of Gaza.”
For all the talk of victory and defeat on both sides, however, the outcome was entirely indeterminate. Both sides destroyed elements of the others military and social infrastructures, material and human, but at the cost of future utility in the immediate terms. Both sides gained political advantages, domestically and internationally; both also lost and alienated other allies. Both sides performed their operations effectively; but both also learned the inherent weaknesses and limitations of those same methods. In the end, both sides agreed to a ceasefire while a new agreement was worked out to not attack one another for a time—and likely a short time by Kochavi’s own admission. No other issue was settled.
The Hyper Lawn Mower
On reflection, although the Israel military establishment spent a significant amount of time on the Victory Doctrine, they spent all their time thinking about military victory, not strategic victory. The Doctrine, by its own definition of victory noted above, is divorced from any form of political utility. Consequently, once put into practice, it proved to be less about achieving victory than it was about maintaining the ineffective and unsustainable political status quo with as few Israeli deaths as possible via faster, more accurate, and more integrated military force; simply, an astrategic hyper-lawn mower—the very thing the Doctrine was intended to replace.
Hamas, on the other hand, views victory in terms of perspectives. Abdel-Moneim Said noted about the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict that Hamas will typically “declare victory not for the goals achieved, but the goals the enemy didn’t achieve and that you define.” By defining victory according to whatever contested theme(s) can be selected, Hamas will therefore always end up the winner from the perspective of its supporters, regardless of other elements at play or facts on the ground. Meaning their own ‘Victory Doctrine’ is therefore just as astrategic as the Israelis’. It is no wonder the outcome was indeterminate.
Cover photo: Israeli soldiers on patrol. Used under CC licence.
Michael C. Davies
Michael C. Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the theory and practise of victory. He previously conducted lessons learned research at the U.S. National Defense University where he co-authored three books on the Wars of 9/11 and is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain doctrinal concept.