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Asaf Romirowsky on Lessons from the Palestinian ‘War’ against Israel

Filed under: Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)


A Clear Perspective on Conflict

“Lessons from the Palestinian ‘War’ against Israel,” Policy Focus No. 64, by Moshe Yaalon, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2007, 35 pp.

Reviewed by Asaf Romirowsky

Former Israeli chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon is perhaps the one Israeli military leader who is most philosophically attuned to the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. Following his discharge from the Israel Defense Forces, Yaalon joined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as its distinguished military fellow in November 2005. It was there that he wrote “Lessons from the Palestinian ‘War’ against Israel.

Clausewitz’s On War has become the seminal work on the theory of warfare and strategy. His famous assertion that “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means” has become a core axiom of global affairs. Indeed, in the War on Terror the West confronts a continuum of politics culminating in terrorism and warfare, which suggests that this conflict should be conducted in a Clausewitzian manner.

The first step is to understand that this war involves two (or more) parties, and unilateralism is not a valid approach. Accordingly, Yaalon views both Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections and the creation of “Hamastan” in Gaza in 2007 as directly resulting from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in August 2005.

Even some Israelis who favored the Gaza pullout knew that many Palestinians would view it as a strategic retreat and a victory for Hamas. The notion that “today we got Gaza and tomorrow we’ll get Jerusalem and Tel Aviv” continues to thrive in Palestinian society. Yaalon maintains, however, that Israel could restore its deterrence by responding immediately to every rocket or other attack regardless of whether or not these cause Israeli casualties.

The Costs of Restraint

In Clausewitzian terms, Israel can repair the asymmetry between offense and defense only by going on the offensive. The relative restraint Israel has demonstrated since withdrawing from Lebanon six years ago has eroded the indispensable sense of cause and effect among Israel’s enemies, who, along with their populations and Israel itself, have to come perceive Israel’s defense policy as being strictly reactive. Therefore, it is critical for Israel to restore the Clausewitzian dynamic.

Furthermore, Israel’s disengagement resulted in a loss of human intelligence, a key factor in the IDF’s past ability to thwart terrorism. As Yaalon points out, the most effective way to prevent acts of terror is by offensive operations in the terrorists’ immediate surroundings. Besides serving its immediate purpose, this allows for greater control of the area and enhances the safety of noncombatants on both sides.

Today, Israel of the postdisengagement era faces both major military threats on the ground and ongoing hostility via “terror on the airwaves,” such as Hizballah’s TV station Al-Manar, and from other foreign media. Israel now has much less ability to maneuver in Gaza than in the West Bank. It is hard enough for Israel to strike at terrorists in Gaza, and it is even more difficult to defend such military actions in the forum of world public opinion. Clausewitz’s “fog of war” is now a tool used by adversaries and complicit media.

As Islamism gains support in the Arab world, its advocates exploit the freedoms of open societies to promote their ideology. Moreover, as Clausewitz explains, “war contains a host of interactions since the whole series of engagements is strictly speaking linked together, since in every victory there is a culminating point beyond which lies the realm of losses and defeats-in view of all these intrinsic characteristics of war, we say there is only one result that counts: final victory.”[1]

The Clausewitzian perspective that Yaalon applies to Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians has proved the most valid. There are no swift or easy solutions; impatience and false hopes lead only to stopgap measures. In order to win the war on terror, Israel must deal with all the factors in the equation and not only with those that are relatively easy or convenient.  Until that transpires, it is important to learn from history and from the keenest observers of conflicts. Yaalon is an important guide.

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[1]  Carl von Clausewitz, On War (New York: Knopf, 1993), 704.

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ASAF ROMIROWSKY is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum and manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.