Saturday, December 9, 2023

India must learn from Israel’s failure

The scale and the barbarity of the terrorist attack at 0630 hours, Israel Time, on 7 October, breaching the impregnable high technology “Gaza Barrier” was unprecedented. 5000 rockets saturated the Iron Dome air defence system and a large percentage found their targets.
Twenty-five to thirty military posts/Kibbutz/civilian settlements were physically attacked by teams of 40-50 Hamas fighters who had infiltrated by ground, sea and air using vehicles, motorcycles, dune-buggies, boats, paragliders, para motors and hang gliders.
What followed has been mayhem. Until now, 1,400 Israelis including 304 soldiers and 56 policemen have been killed, 3,400 injured and approximately 200-250 have been taken hostage (Israel puts the number of hostages at 199) including eight to 10 IDF officers and soldiers.
It took the Israeli Defence Forces 72 hours to clear Israel mainland and it claimed to have killed 1,500 terrorists. In retaliation, IDF has carried out relentless air, drone and artillery attacks since 7 October in which 3478 Palestinians, including 500 at a hospital on 17 October, have been killed in Gaza. 51 have been killed in the occupied West Bank, and 12,500 Palestinians have been injured overall. IDF is now poised for the ground offensive – “Operation Swords of Iron” – with the aim of eliminating Hamas leadership and military infrastructure. Something it has attempted four times before in 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and 2021 without the desired success.
The world is divided between the ‘no tolerance for terrorism’ approach of the Global North that supports Israel and the ‘root cause theory’ approach of the Global South that supports an independent Palestinian Nation. India is unequivocal in condemning Hamas terrorism but also supports a viable and just Palestinian State and upholding of International Humanitarian Law.
As a hard-nosed defence analyst, I analyse the lessons that India can learn from the conflict so far.
Sin of being surprised
Surrounded by external—hostile Arab states, at least up to late 1980s—and perceived internal enemies—the Palestinian terrorists supported by the people— Israel has been a self-declared ‘Security State’ since its birth on 14 May 1948.
National security is given overriding importance and it has created state-of-the-art armed forces, intelligence organisations, world-renowned electronic/cyber capabilities and human intelligence penetration of enemy organisations.
It has disregarded world opinion to preemptively take the war to the enemy and come down with a sledgehammer on internal and external non-state actors.
To cater for threats from Palestinian terrorist organisations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad it has created the Gaza Barrier and West Bank Barrier which are a sophisticated wall-wire combo loaded with electronic sensors for surveillance/reconnaissance with autonomous weapons and manned by permanent posts for reaction. It has invested in a “fail-safe” air defence system—Iron Dome—to neutralise Hamas and Hezbollah rocket/missiles.
Yet, fortress Israel was surprised by the timing, scale and tactics of Hamas which resulted in massive casualties on Israeli mainland for the first time in its history. Why did this happen? The primary reason is complacency due to its perceived invincible intelligence and military capability supplemented by the rhetoric of an extreme Right-wing elected coalition.
Hamas capabilities were grossly underestimated and restricted to rocket attacks and sporadic killing of civilians/soldiers. Hamas was preparing for “Operation Toofan Al-Aqsa or Al-Aqsa Flood” for nine years, since its last drubbing in 2014.
To defeat electronic/cyber surveillance no digital devices were used. Rockets and drones were allegedly manufactured with the help of Iran.
Training in the use of para motors and paragliders—a first by any terrorist organisation—was reportedly done in Lebanon. Each of the 25-30 ground attack sites was carefully reconnoitred and route maps were prepared.
Iran advised on defeating electronic devices and Iron Dom sensors. Electronic/intelligence control rooms were attacked first by small teams and cheap drones to blind the defenders.
Multiple attacks by small teams overwhelmed the quick response teams and when they did react they were caught in preplanned ambushes.
It has been reported that a specific warning did come from Egyptian intelligence agencies directly to PM Benjamin Netanyahu but was ignored due to complacency and political arrogance.
A normal failing of strong political leaders who start believing their own deceitful rhetoric and ignore anything contrary to it.
Another report by a US think tank in August predicted an enlarged conflict in October involving Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, something which may well happen.
Worst-case scenario
All armed forces have one thing in common—a worst-case scenario irrespective of its low probability is always catered for as a contingency.
In a worst-case scenario, intelligence failure is built in as is the failure of the existing defensive posture. Failure of intelligence and electronic surveillance is catered for by supplementing it with physical surveillance/reconnaissance by patrols, mobile teams and helicopters. Surprise from the scale of enemy action is catered for by keeping highly mobile or helicopter-based reactive reserve. It is crystal clear that the worst-case scenario of a large-scale breaching of the Gaza Barrier and collapse of the first line of defensive posts was neither war-gamed nor planned for. In order to restore the situation, 304 soldiers have been killed and probably three times that number wounded which is nearly 60 per cent of the casualties in the three-month Kargil War.
A barrier/obstacle which is not defended offers no protection. The posts established to physically defend the barrier were lightly held and thin on the ground.
Troops based on conscripted soldiers were complacent and were caught napping. The reactive reserve was not only inadequate but tardy in response.
The famed Kibbutz self-defence is a lost art. I grew up listening to stories of my father whose unit was in Palestine in 1946 separating the warring Jews and Arabs about the fighting prowess of a Kibbutz.
A house divided
Nothing can be worse for a Security State than a house divided. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Right-wing coalition government have been in power for 16 years.
This coalition has scuttled all moves for an amicable settlement with the Palestinians and is committed to enlarging the borders of Israel with more illegal settlements in West Bank. It continues to treat the 18 per cent Arab population of Israel shabbily.
To impose its Right-wing policies, the coalition in power has proposed far-reaching justice system reforms to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court to question the bills passed by the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.
This led to massive protests by a largely liberal society. More than that, Netanyahu has divided the armed forces. Veterans at a large scale and surprisingly reservist soldiers have taken part in the protests.
He ignored military advice and sacked his Defence Minister. In a very divisive move, the Right-wing coalition supports the exemption of orthodox Jews from conscription.
Lessons for India
Surprise is a principle of war since time immemorial. In India, being morally surprised has almost become a habit.
Chinese intent in 1962 could not be assessed. In 1965, the scale of infiltration in Operation Gibraltar in Jammu & Kashmir surprised us.
In Sri Lanka, we failed to assess the psyche and intent of both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Kargil intrusions came as a surprise. 26/11 was never visualised.
There was no inkling of the Pulwama terrorist attack in 2019. Intrusions in Eastern Ladakh again caught us with our pants down.
There was no accountability and no heads rolled which I am certain will happen in Israel to the extent that PM Netanyahu may be replaced.
So far, we cover up failures and build false narratives to, ironically, reward those responsible.
We are also notorious for building false “all is well” political narratives, which these days are surprisingly supported by the military, which induces complacency.
This must stop. By default, due to the lack of technology and funding, there is no over-reliance on electronic/cyber surveillance. There is a need to further improve human intelligence and make judicious exploitation of technology.
As a manpower-intensive nation we must have layered and efficient physical surveillance/reconnaissance and reactive capability. Can Israel’s 7/10 be replicated in India? The strategic environment is different but the answer is an unequivocal yes. Imagine if there were multiple small teams of terrorists in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 in addition to the one that caused the mayhem. Our western sea coast remains vulnerable to such an attack. The entire belt from Kathua to Jammu in J&K with a predominantly Hindu population and a thin line of BSF Border Out Posts is extremely vulnerable as are some areas in Naushera and Rajouri districts. In the Muslim-majority parts of the Valley and other areas, terrorists can use similar tactics with a combination of attacks from across the LOC and from within. Khalistani terrorists can attempt similar operations in the border areas of Punjab. Drones are already in extensive use and it will not take long for terrorists supported by Pakistan to master and even better other innovations which have been used by Hamas. We also need to be prepared for similar tactics being used in the ongoing ethnic strife in Manipur. The simultaneity of multiple terrorist attacks overwhelms the security apparatus. All worst-case scenarios must be war-gamed and planned for.
With omnipresent threats on the borders, we can not afford internal instability. Ideological discrimination, alienation and targeting of religious, ethnic and tribal minorities gives rise to despair and desperation. We must find political solutions to the ongoing insurgencies in J&K and Red Corridor and the runt of these in the North East.
The much admired Security State of Israel has been brought down to its knees by the desperate Palestinians, even if it is through the diabolical Hamas. In all likelihood, the might of Israel will prevail, but unless it agrees to a just Palestine State, its punitive retribution on the hapless population will only sow the seeds for a more violent 7/10 in future. The famed Jewish slogan “never again” in relation to the Holocaust has now been adopted by the Palestinians in relation to the Nakba.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R)
The writer served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
As published in The Wire.


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