By Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil and Dr Jacob Stoil
At 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, a single mother of three boys, Miri Tamano woke up in Beersheva to a missile defence warning siren. In under a minute, she woke up her children and rushed them to a safe room just before the house was destroyed by a direct hit from a Gazan rocket. The strike against the Tamano house was the last straw after days of escalating tensions along the Gaza border and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) retaliated by launching twenty strikes against Hamas affiliated targets in the Gaza Strip. At first glance, this use of the IAF may seem similar to the many similar strikes Israel launched over the last decade. However, it may also be the beginning of a new air-centric response to Hamas rockets. What is most interesting about this potential change in approach is not the change in and of itself but rather the forces that drove it. Unlike many changes to operational approach, this one is not driven primarily by changes in the military operational environment or international political realities. Instead, the possible shift towards a new air-based approach and the new emphasis on the employment of the IAF stems from domestic politics and frustration with recent approaches to the problem of Gaza.
The IAF has always had a role in Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) retaliatory and deterrence operations. In the pre-1967 period, the IAF served as part of joint operations against Syria. In one famous incident on April 7th 1967, Syrian artillery strikes and small arms fires led to an escalation which eventually brought the IAF in to bomb Syrian positions and IAF fighters to clear the skies of Syrian aircraft. The goal of this operation was to establish deterrence along the Northern border. Here the IAF acted in concert and in support of ground force. Similar in 1970, the IDF called on the IAF to launch a major operation targeting Soviet Air Force units in Egypt. This operation followed a series of ground operations and sought to achieve a decisive blow ending the War of Attrition. This pattern continued through the 1980s when the IDF launched Operation Peace to the Galilee which sought (and to an extent achieved) a decisive defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Here again, Israel used air power in support of the ground offensive. In these instances and many others, IAF served as one aspect of joint retaliatory operations. More significantly the retaliatory operations either anticipated the coming of a decisive engagement (e.g. the 1967 War) or sought to be decisive by themselves – at the very least restoring credible deterrence.
Although, since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War something resembling the classic pattern of deterrence operations continues on the Syrian border, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 changed the primary Israeli approach to establishing deterrence and seeking decisive victory. Since leaving Gaza as part of disengagement, the IDF has pursued a strategy of countering the hybrid threat through a concept often referred to as ‘mowing the grass.’ This concept has led Israel to five major ground operations in Gaza since 2006. At its heart mowing the grass is a concept for conflict management which buys time for an eventual political solution. Mowing the grass centres on the creation of deterrence and periods of quiet. In the concept when the adversary decides to escalate its level of violence Israel responds with restraint. As the adversary further escalates, Israel escalates its response. Eventually, the adversary crosses the threshold of tolerable violence, and Israel launches a major ground operation to severely punish the adversary and degrade adversary capabilities. This buys a period of calm which may last anywhere from several months to several years. However, almost invariably the same pressures which caused the adversary to escalate in the first place cause another escalation and the process repeats. In Gaza, this process has repeated itself several times resulting in Operation Summer Rains in 2006, Operation Hot Winter in 2008, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is now leading to a potential conflict in 2018.
As a concept, mowing the grass recognises that defeating the enemy is next to impossible. In Gaza, Hamas is intertwined with Palestinian society and governance. For military planners mowing the grass means that there can be no decisive outcome. Hamas remained in government, the communities near Gaza could enjoy some calm, but invariably the threat would return, and the process would repeat. In Gaza, once escalation began, Israel would respond with warnings to Hamas, followed by more escalation and limited air strikes. This, in turn, would be followed by more escalation from Hamas and more significant air and artillery strikes by the IDF. As Hamas escalation continued, the IDF would build up ground forces near the Gaza border. Eventually, this process would lead to a limited incursion and then major ground operation by the IDF.
In the early stages of the escalation, the IAF played a messaging role indicating the seriousness of Israel’s intent and the willingness to escalate. As escalation continued the role of the IAF became a facet of joint operations aimed at reducing Hamas capabilities but never seeing a decisive victory. The final phase of these operations carries multiple political costs, both domestically and internationally. This phase inevitably causes more significant civilian and combatant casualties among the Palestinian population in Gaza which can be ‘expensive’ to Israel in the international community. The IDF has increasingly worked to distinguish between the two on the international stage, resulting in an associated media strategy that provides almost real-time footage of some parts of major Gaza operations. To an Israeli domestic audience, mowing the grass is an acknowledgement of the inability of the IDF to bring victory or create lasting deterrence and the Israeli Government to achieve a lasting end state. Essentially as long as mowing the grass remained the central method of military response to the situation in Gaza, the Israeli public knew that every operation and the lives it cost only bought time until the next one required the same sacrifices.
Mowing the grass relies on a lawnmower powered by patience and societal tolerance for the costs associated with the approach. The capacity of the Israeli public to absorb the costs associated with mowing the grass also constrains Israel’s policymakers. As a conscript army that draws upon a relatively small civilian population, IDF casualties are seen by the majority of Israeli society as ‘our children,’ a notable departure from earlier Israeli generations’ perspective of seeing them as ‘a silver platter upon which the country was borne’ – a tragic but unpreventable loss for a greater good.
Traditionally, as in the Four Mothers campaign to pull out of Lebanon in the mid-nineties, concern with casualties as a justification for limitation of military action was the province of Israeli left-wing political parties. The right-wing parties, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, also venerated soldiers but did not use the potential loss of life as a justification for reducing normative tactical options. Instead, right-wing politicians tended to emphasise the IDF’s role as protector of civilian life; frequently, centrist and right-wing governments were drawn into Gaza operations following public frustration with repeated terror strikes launched from within Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu is facing pressure from a different angle. The Israeli right-wing has grown stronger and particularly more popular with younger voters in the past two decades, and Netanyahu faces challenges from the right both in his own parties as well as from other right-wing parties that are natural and necessary allies in his ruling coalition. In the parliamentary system, a lack of confidence from within the coalition can collapse a government and bring about early elections that reshuffle the political balance of power.
One voice of opposition, former MK Moshe Feiglin signalled that Netanyahu’s right-wing might be losing patience with the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy. In an open statement to the press Wednesday, Feiglin wrote that ‘Victory is unconditional surrender! Don’t send a single soldier to his death for anything less than that.’ Feiglin went on to complain that as long as the government is ‘once again planning us a glorious defeat, just like previous iterations, a defeat that in the end leaves Beersheba a prisoner of Hamas,’ Feiglin’s faction will oppose any Gazan incursion ‘and the unnecessary risk to IDF soldiers.’ Feiglin’s comments reflect a growing frustration with what many Israelis see as a lose-lose strategy. The limited scale of the ‘mowing’ operations does not disable Hamas in the medium let alone long-term, meaning that Israeli civilians continue to live under the constant threat of rocket fire. While not entirely preventing rocket fire into Israel, Gaza incursion operations also incur high casualties from an Israeli perspective; 67 IDF soldiers were killed in Operation Protective Edge, a number surpassed this century only by the Second Lebanon War.
Under these circumstances, air power seems like one of the only choices available to politically navigate the public expectation of responding to rocket strikes while also avoiding the lose-lose dynamic of the mowing-rocket cycle. Feiglin intimated as much, calling on the prime minister to avoid ‘once again sending soldiers to die in the alleyways of Gaza for a political performance of war.’ Should the escalation from Gaza continue, the domestic political situation provides Netanyahu few choices. He could continue with the old pattern of operations in which the IAF serves to signal escalation and then as part of the combined operation, but this would risk significant domestic fallout. The Prime Minister could seek a decisive engagement in Gaza in which the IAF would act to support the land campaign, but this would be militarily and diplomatically extremely difficult. Finally, he could find an option that achieves the effect of mowing the grass without the human cost. In other words, he could turn the main effort of the response to the IAF, with supporting effects provided by the navy and ground forces outside of Gaza.
Israelis view air power as relatively risk-free, and in fact, only one IAF plane and one helicopter have been shot down in combat in the last 20 years, resulting in five deaths and two injuries. By relying more heavily on an air response, Netanyahu can avoid criticism for ‘wasting’ IDF soldiers on an operation that yields little clear take-home in the eyes of his voters. This changes the balance between the IAF and the other tools of military power and may drive Israeli engagement to air-centric approach. For this to work, the IAF will have to launch more strikes than in previous engagements. No longer part of a joint plan, the IAF will shoulder the responsibility for inflicting most of the cost on Hamas. By attempting to win an operation through the air alone, the IAF returns to an almost Douhetian concept of operations. As Israel, discovered in the 2006 Lebanon War this approach is not without problems. Among other challenges, it encounters questions as to what happens if the IAF completes its target list without achieving the war aims. The presence of ground forces has traditionally stimulated the exposure of new targets for the IAF allowing it to increase the efficacy of its strikes. Without such multi-domain cooperation, the target list may be far more limited.
What is significant then about the potential turn towards an air-centric approach is that it stems not from military or operational necessity but from domestic politics. This may be familiar to US and European states, but it is new for Israel. Even if this current period of increased conflict in Gaza ends with a ground operation or before one is necessary the change in the conversation on such operations will have a dramatic effect on the IAF and Israel’s thought about air power. For Netanyahu or any subsequent Prime Minister, until Israel develops a new approach to Gaza, an IAF centric approach will be at the forefront of consideration. This pushes the IAF into a new concept of operations and turns it from a critical supporting aspect of the IDFs total war package into the lawn mower of choice.
Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil is a former NCO in the Israel Defense Forces, where she served as a combat medic and medical platoon deputy commander in the 9th Battalion of the Armored Corps. As a reservist, Shimoni-Stoil was a heavy search and rescue medic with the Home Front Command, mobilising in the Northern Sector during the Second Lebanon War. In her military capacity, she served in and around Gaza. After leaving her regular service, Shimoni-Stoil was hired by the Jerusalem Post and served in several capacities eventually being appointed the newspaper’s Internal Security correspondent. It was in this position that she covered both the increase in tensions and rocket attacks along Israel’s southern border with Gaza as well as the opening weeks of the Second Lebanon War. She later served as the Knesset [Parliamentary] Correspondent before becoming the Washington Correspondent for Times of Israel. Dr Shimoni-Stoil is now a lecturer in history at the Loyola University of Maryland. She has appeared as a commentator on radio and television channels worldwide and written for 538.com. She can be followed on twitter @RebeccaStoil.
Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include ‘Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate. He can be reached on twitter @JacobStoil.
Header Image: Israeli Air Force F-16I (Source: Wikimedia)
Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, any other government agency, or any institution.
 For examples of this type of information strategy see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG0CzM_Frvc&list=PL854689D6B2FCDD45; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmh1dhRGzzM&index=2&list=PLObnKQho8o8PNUxfldeGNOsDFdazchJH8; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfjW-CcvxRw;
 Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018
 Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018
 Press release from Moshe Feiglin, October 17, 2018