The Broken Windows Theory And Israel’s Asymmetrical Conflicts

by Maskil on January 22, 2009

Israel has not fought a full-scale conventional war since the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. Military operations since then have tended to be of an asymmetrical nature, fought against non-state opponents (although the Lebanon War of 1982 included both state and non-state adversaries).

At the same time, the Israeli military has had an “image problem” dating back to the 1982 Lebanon War. The onslaught of images, video, accusations and commentary reached a fever pitch during the recent operations against Hamas in the Gaza strip, with charges of disproportionate or excessive force, targeting of civilians, use of illegal munitions, war crimes and even genocide now the common currency of Arab leaders, the Western media, UN functionaries and Israel-bashers worldwide.

IDF and Israeli government spokesmen, Jewish organisations and other pro-Israel bodies and individuals have struggled manfully to set the record straight, and repair the damage to Israel’s reputation. Despite these efforts, however, we are rediscovering what the propagandists in the first part of the 20th Century knew: a dozen scholarly articles or detailed rebuttals can just barely undo the damage done by a single outrageous lie.

The defence of Israel’s reputation and record will have to continue into the foreseeable future. We need to ask, however, whether massive sustained operations on the scale of Cast Lead in Gaza are the right way to address the tactics of Hamas, Hezbollah, and anyone else who would imitate them. Is there a way to achieve the same or better results without a huge amount of damage to Israel’s neighbourhood and her standing in the world community, and without Israel’s citizens having to endure weeks, months or years of sustained rocket attacks?

Perhaps, instead of stoically enduring these bombardments for extended periods, Israel and the IDF need to play the neighbourhood cop on the beat, applying the broken windows theory to dealing with rocket and other terror attacks, as well as the build-up of armaments on her frontiers?

How might the urban decay and crime-fighting broken windows theory be successfully applied to the asymmetrical threats against Israel? It could involve applying the following principles:

  • Don’t allow massive build-ups of armaments to take place on Israel’s frontiers (frontiers being defined in terms of the capabilities and range of the weapons). Tackle the problem before critical mass has been reached.
  • Respond to each and every incident of provocation or terror, but in a time, place and manner of Israel’s choosing.
  • Mainly utilise pinpoint strikes and targeted assassination instead of relatively ineffective return fire against a now empty launch site.
  • Consider any piece of terror infrastructure “fair game” as a target for retaliation, even if totally unrelated to the original incident.
  • Target any member of the terror organisation, using a “top down” approach (i.e. starting with the leadership cadre), with no distinction between military and political wings and a special emphasis on media spokespeople. (There is no reason why Israel should respect the convenient and artificial distinction between the military and political wings of a terrorist organisation such as Hamas.)
  • Don’t limit the response to the area of direct conflict. Actions in host countries and against weapons or personnel in transit on land, sea or air should not be considered out of scope.
  • Don’t compromise human intelligence sources or other capabilities when selecting targets.
  • Media statements should emphasise the original incident to which the response relates.

Let’s face it: The war in Gaza didn’t play well in the media (exactly as it was intended not to). Israel must find a better way to “manage” these asymmetrical conflicts, preferably one that flies under the media and public opinion radar.

Israel cannot afford to squander its goodwill, media, public relations and diplomatic assets through a sledgehammer approach to dealing with occurrences of terror. Incidents must be responded to as and when they occur, arms smuggling prevented, military build-ups nipped in the bud and leadership cadres targeted at will. Take the fight to the other side, relentlessly. The old proverb could have been meant for just such situations:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

(An earlier draft of this post was originally published on the Israel Insider website on January 21, 2009, here.)

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