News and Commentary

MILLER: Hamas, Israel, And The Fantasy of the War of Attrition

The latest conflict between Hamas and Israel reminds us that one thing is certain in the Middle East: there will always be war between Hamas and Israel.

As long as Hamas believes in the viability of a war of attrition as both a short-term tactic and long-term strategy to defeat Israel, the next war is waiting around the corner.

The perception of the function of guerrilla warfare is based on the writings of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong and their application in Vietnam under General Vo Nguyen Giap.

A self-educated military strategist, Giap was recognized as one of the foremost architects of guerrilla warfare in the 20th century.

Giap’s success and the withdrawal of colonial powers from both Asia and Africa gave guerrilla warfare mythical status as to how small bands of under-equipped but dedicated local forces could defeat larger, better-equipped armies.

Nowhere was this perception more enhanced than with the publication in 1965 of Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea. Taber’s conception of guerrilla warfare was that “the guerrilla fights the war of the flea and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantages: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with.”

Widely praised, poorly understood, mythical in character and insufficiently analyzed, guerrilla warfare took on the status of a panacea for Marxist insurgents whether in the jungles of Vietnam or the streets of Algiers.

The adoption of the guerrilla warfare fantasy ignored the fact that Mao did not defeat the Chinese Nationalists with guerrilla warfare but with a well-supplied conventional army.

No group has embraced the mythical character of guerrilla warfare and its corollary, terrorism, as have the Palestinians. Their persistence in fighting a war of attrition against Israel that they cannot win is illustrative of a failure to understand both the legacy and history of guerrilla warfare.

In the length of human history, there are only two examples of guerrilla warfare being successful against a non-colonial power, Castro’s war for control of Cuba and the Sandinista’s defeat of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. In every other instance of guerrilla warfare, a colonial regime decided that the costs of colonialism outweighed the benefits, picked up its tents, and returned to its homeland.

Despite Palestinian rhetoric, the Israelis have only one homeland, Israel. They are not going to return to Europe or the Middle Eastern countries from where most of their grandparents came after being expelled by Muslim governments. They are going to fight.

The French could leave Algeria and Africa and return to France. The British could leave India and Africa and return to Britain. Colonialism was based on profit and loss.

It was unnecessary to defeat the enemy. Simply to cause enough chaos to make colonialism unprofitable would get the colonial power to leave.

But an indigenous people, as the Israelis are, will react to attrition by raising the costs to the enemy in both blood and treasure. Hamas has callously made Muslim blood cheap and expendable, and the European countries are only too eager to step in and replace the wasted treasure, ensuring the next conflict will occur.

For the Israelis, this cycle will continue until the cost of guerrilla warfare is so horrendous that it touches the Hamas leadership directly and makes it economically unpalatable for the Europeans to use their resources to keep the cycle of violence going.

Israel should not accept an endless war of attrition that Hamas is unable to consummate but has enough international sympathy to continue. The guerrilla must be presented with a cost that ends the war of attrition as an option.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center. Follow him @salomoncenter