By George Friedman
Israeli troops killed 17 Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza on March 30. Israel claimed that the demonstrators were armed with Molotov cocktails and other weapons and that the majority of those killed were terrorists. The Palestinians claimed that they were unarmed demonstrators demanding their human rights. Which side is right is academic. The hard fact is that the Israel-Gaza frontier, after an extended period of relative quiet, has become more active in recent months, and the Israelis have devoted substantial military assets to control the border.
The events in Gaza have to be viewed in a broader strategic context. There were unconfirmed reports last weekend that the Israeli air force bombed Hezbollah forces operating on the Lebanon-Syria border. Surveillance of Lebanon and attacks on Hezbollah forces near or in Syria are not new, but a pattern is emerging. All of Israel’s frontiers have become, or threaten to become, active. In Syria, Iran has substantial power and deep influence over the Assad regime and its actions. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, an Iranian-dominated force, is a serious power. Hezbollah has also played a major role in the Syrian civil war. The group has suffered losses in Syria, but as the Assad regime becomes more secure, Hezbollah’s losses are being replaced. Its ability to launch rockets and missiles at Israel remains intact, while its ground forces, which fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, are being restored.
Since Israel’s founding, the Arabs and Israelis have faced fundamental strategic problems. The Arabs have never been able to create a unified command around the Israeli periphery to wage extended, coordinated warfare, taking advantage of their superior numbers. The Israelis are incapable of absorbing extensive casualties (in the tens of thousands) given the country’s small population and relatively small effective fighting force. Israel’s strategy has always been to either take advantage of divisions in the Arab world or encourage them. In addition, Israel’s war-fighting strategy has been to impose a rapid end to fighting, even if this means an inconclusive war, to minimize casualties.
The ideal strategy for the Arabs has been forcing Israel into a war along its entire periphery, from Lebanon and Syria, down the Jordan River line to Eilat, and in the southwest from Egypt, in the Sinai-Negev area. The Arabs would use larger numbers, accepting much higher casualties to neutralize the effect of Israel’s technology and superior forces, and impose a war of attrition on Israel, in due course breaking Israeli forces.
Something of this sort was attempted in 1948 with insufficient coordination to succeed. In 1970, the Egyptians and Israelis fought a war of attrition, but that was along only one sector of the Israeli frontier. In 1973, the Syrians and Egyptians opened a two-front war that had major initial successes for them, but they were eventually blocked by the Israelis. In none of these conflicts were the Arabs able to impose a full peripheral war, forcing Israel to defend the long Jordan Rive line and disperse its forces in defensive positions for an indeterminate time. Israel’s political strategy allowed its forces to concentrate and defeat the enemy.
And so the Gaza events are important. Unlike previous episodes when the Iranians provided Hamas with material support from far away, the Iranians are now in Syria and Lebanon. A full peripheral war is still impossible, since the Sinai-Negev line is manned by Israeli and Egyptian troops coordinating against jihadists, and the Jordan River line is held by the Jordanians, who have far greater worries than Israel. Still, the possibilities of active fronts in Lebanon and Syria, coupled with another threat from Gaza, including rockets that cannot be rapidly suppressed by Israel, pose a threat to Israel. From the Arab (and now Iranian) point of view, a sudden victory is not the goal. Rather, the goal is to impose casualties on Israel’s military and civilian population for an extended period to undermine Israel’s ability and will to fight. Before the Iranian presence, this was difficult to achieve. It remains difficult but not impossible.
This is why the Israelis are extremely sensitive to anything happening in Gaza, and why the Palestinians in Gaza are carefully testing the Israelis. Hamas was on the ropes a short while ago, but now with Iran (Sunni and Shiite cooperation), opportunities emerge. For Israel, the key at the moment is political. It must do what it can to assure that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi remains in control of Egypt and that the Hashemites remain in control of Jordan. The Iranian strategy must be to destabilize both, particularly Jordan. Given Iran’s power in Iraq and the expansion of Iranian logistics, it could place a substantial force on the Jordan River line, vastly thinning out Israeli troops and undermining Israel’s strategy of massed force.
For all the talk of Iranian nuclear weapons, this is an early stage of the real Iranian threat – a war of attrition against Israel. Of course, Turkey, a major power and neighbor of Iran, is not interested in seeing Iran control the Arab world, nor are the other Arab states. The divisions in the Arab world might finally coalesce not against Israel, but against Iran.
All of this, of course, is quite premature. But given recent events in Gaza and Iranian power in Syria and Lebanon, it is not premature to consider the potential shape of a conflict. Hezbollah rockets from the north, Hamas rockets from the south, and Israeli forces dispersed on multiple fronts in ground operations would likely not break Israel, but they would strain it and would be a step in reshaping the balance of power in the region, which is the goal for Iran. This would be less about destroying Israel than about dominating the Arab world, the most interesting outcome for Iran.