Israeli Army Faces Defeat

Israel’s leading military historian has a bleak message for the country’s generals: the army is winning the battle against Palestinian armed groups, but the final result can only be defeat – and perhaps civil war at home.

Martin van Creveld, professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes that the might of the Israeli army is proving to be “99 per cent irrelevant” in the battle now in its 17th month.

More important, he believes, will be the morale of the Israeli army, which is showing signs of strain at the burden of keeping millions of Palestinians under control to prevent terrorists entering Israel.

Already 280 Israeli reserve officers and NCOs have signed a petition refusing to serve in the occupied territories on grounds of conscience, and the first two “refuseniks” were jailed for 28 days on Monday. They are sergeants in the paratroops and the armoured corps.

Two reserve officers have abandoned their posts in protest at the strains put on their soldiers through manning checkpoints for impossibly long hours amid a hostile population.

“The Israel Defence Force is doing better than other armies faced with this challenge. Its intelligence is good – the key in this type of conflict. The number of casualties in IDF ranks is low. It is managing to prevent a large proportion of planned acts of sabotage,” Prof van Creveld said in an interview.

“For the first year we had no serious problems of morale. But soon we will enter the second half of the second year, and morale is going down. I think the number of refuseniks will grow as more are put in prison.”

On paper the Israeli army is the second most powerful on earth, most of its weapons as modern as those used by the Americans. “It really is very impressive. But it cannot cope with no more than a few hundred terrorists. The problem is that we have no targets to hit. Ninety-nine per cent of everything we have is irrelevant.”

Prof van Creveld is internationally admired for his standard text books on warfare, which are studied by the US military. But his unorthodox views – he has criticised the modern Israeli army as having grown flabby – make him an outsider at home, particularly as he never did military service.

He believes that “utter defeat” is the fate that awaits regular armies fighting nationally motivated insurgents, and Israel will be hard pressed to avoid this. The problem is not just casualties, which are deeply felt in Israel, but the sapping of morale.

“Fighting a weak opponent is difficult for a strong, sophisticated army,” he said.

“If you do it once, it is a crime, but at least it is over. We are committing an endless series of crimes, day by day, night by night, against the unarmed, against the young, against the pregnant. Even when the Palestinians are armed, they are still just poor fellows. Armies collapse when they can no longer look themselves in the face.”

The strain on the army, he believes, will raise tensions between Left and Right in Israel and threaten civil war.

The only solution is to build a wall separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, and ending the dream of the Israeli Right to settle the whole of the Biblical land of Israel.

Walls have served their purpose in history – the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the fence dividing Cyprus.

“We have to minimise friction between Israelis and Palestinians,” Prof van Creveld said. “I believe that if we do not do that, our state is doomed.”


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