With a little military theory, the war on Gaza is easier to understand
There are a lot of extraordinary aspects of Israel’s war on Gaza: the skyrocketing death tolls, especially of women and children; the importance of the land to three major world religions; the constant evocation of defining, world-historical traumas in the Holocaust and the Nakba on both sides. But in a lot of ways, those exceptional parts mask the way that this is fundamentally a fairly standard—and very specific—kind of war.
It can be easy to miss if you buy Israel’s framing—that this is a fight between two neighbors, one of whom attacked the other in a cross-border raid, forcing the other to launch a military action in self-defense. That’s wrong on both the merits and, many experts say, as a matter of international law. The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and other Gaza militants is better understood as a case of insurgents waging war against an occupying power.1 In response, Israel has launched an even more classical—if particularly brutal—example of counterinsurgency.
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Understanding that dynamic—not a war between peers, but an asymmetrical fight between a well-equipped state military and a far-less well-armed quasi-state actor pressing up against its weight, helps answer some of the most superficially confusing questions about the war. For instance: Why does Israel keep targeting hospitals and residential neighborhoods of Gaza, despite knowing full well that the mass murder of civilians is turning world opinion against them? Why is Israel so intent on forcing Palestinians to flee south—and why did Hamas allegedly try to stop some from leaving, going so far as to (again, allegedly) shoot at them? What exactly is the relationship between Hamas and the wider Palestinian population? And what possible outcomes might both sides have in mind?
For answers, you can look back at historical counterinsurgencies. Let’s start with the canonical example. In 1948—just weeks after the British had left behind the mess they’d made in Palestine in fact—a new crisis erupted across the continent in the crown colony of Malaya. Pro-independence fighters with the Communist Malayan National Liberation Army, or MLNA, attacked and killed the European managers of several rubber plantations—whose riches were the main reason the British were trying to hold onto the Southeast Asian colony in the aftermath of World War II. These attacks kicked off a 12-year war became known as the Malayan Emergency; the ultimate British success in crushing the rebellion made it the model for pretty much every imperial counterinsurgency since, including the U.S. wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. It was in Malaya that the phrase “winning hearts and minds” entered the martial lexicon.
As in Gaza, a key British move was to delegitimize the enemy fighters of the MLNA—first as “bandits,” and then officially as “Communist Terrorists.”2 Accordingly, the empire’s first move was to launch what historians call “the counter-terror.” According to the historian Karl Hack, this period, which lasted for two years, was “characterized by high levels of state coercion and intimidation, sweeps, cordon and search including using hooded informers, widespread detention and large-scale deportation, and capital charges against captured insurgents.” This included herding thousands of suspected fighters and sympathizers into concentration camps; early in the war, British forces massacred 25 civilians accused of trying to escape the camp at Batang Kali.
Terror was the point. The overarching goal was not to claw back to territory or degrade an enemy’s military-industrial capacity, as in a war between peers; it was to intimidate and terrify the civilian population into turning against the insurgents who claimed to be fighting on their behalf. In December 1948, British High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney told his Colonial Office that their civilian targets—mostly ethnic Chinese peasants—were “as you know notoriously inclined to lean towards whichever side frightens them more.” To that end, Gurney advocated ignoring the laws of war. Survivors reported that British soldiers shot unarmed civilians without provocation. The British then “displayed the bodies of dead ‘bandits’ outside police stations, and on mobile vehicles, for identification, reassurance, and as a warning.” As Andrea Pitzer has written:
High Commissioner Gurney’s strategy for combating terrorism, which would become the boilerplate response given by democracies facing violence overseas, was that “to maintain law and order in present conditions in Malaya it is necessary for the Government itself to break it for a time.” He added that during the Emergency, “the Police and Army are breaking the law every day.”
After two years, the British implemented a more massive displacement program. Known as the Briggs Plan (for commanding Gen. Harold Briggs, who proudly took credit for it) it involved the “systematic resettlement” of 500,000 Chinese farmers and members of the indigenous Orang Asli group, together roughly 10% of Malaya’s population, into so-called “New Villages”—larger concentration camps on the Malayan perimeter that could be isolated and actively surveilled. Another 10,000 ethnic Chinese were forcibly deported hundreds of miles away to the People’s Republic of China. This was aimed at separating two ethnic groups the British thought were most likely to support the Communists from the general population, in hopes of isolating the MLNA and creating more space to operate. It was, in other words, an ethnic cleansing.
One resident, the novelist Han Suyin, described the camp he was forced into:
at the edge of a fetid mangrove swamp . . . behind . . . the barbed wire manned by a police post . . . Four hundred beings, including children, huddled there . . . I shall never forget their pale and puffy faces: beriberi, or the ulcers on their legs. Their skin was the hue of the swamp. They stank. There was no clean water.
Another key part of the Briggs Plan involved, in the British government’s official words, “exploiting these measures with good propaganda, both constructive and destructive.” This was necessary, they knew, for both converting Malayan civilians to the empire’s side—in part by promising eventual independence on the empire’s terms—and degrading the insurgent’s will and capacity to fight. It is what the New York Times and others today call “the information war.”
Israeli authorities are openly discussing a Briggs-style plan for the people of Gaza. In mid-October, Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence drafted and leaked a document in which it recommended the forced transfer of Gaza’s entire civilian population out of what is left of Palestine and into Egypt’s Sinai desert. The plan calls for tent cities to be constructed in the desert, to be eventually replaced by fully constructed cities separated from the new Israeli border by a security perimeter. These new villages—literally—would include the establishment of schools and media outlets dedicated to instilling a “moderate Islamic ideology” and “construct[ing] a public narrative internalizing the failure and moral injustice of the Hamas movement.” (In other words, they would also be re-education camps.)
The ministry notes, in a world-historical understatement, that “at first glance, this option … may present challenges in terms of international legitimacy.” To address that problem, it proposes a propaganda campaign, aimed primarily at the United States, in which Israel would try to convince the international community of the program’s inherent legality (based in part on the false premise that ethnic cleansing is a proportional defensive measure). To further its case, the Ministry recommends comparing the move to the refugee flows created by other wars, particularly the U.S. counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite its name, the Ministry of Intelligence operates more like a government think tank than a policy arm—it has no ability to implement such a program on its own. But there are signs that this nightmare is being considered by a broader swath of the policymaking establishment. This week, Hallel Biton Rosen, a military correspondent on Israel’s Now 14—a pro-Netanyahu cable channel often likened to Fox News—said on air that the “only thing” that could “protect the lives of our children and grandchildren” would be to “invade Gaza and expel its citizens, and to build new Jewish settlements over there.” Over the weekend, Israeli security cabinet member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter echoed the call for ethnic cleansing, saying, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba … Gaza Nakba 2023.” An Israeli video that has gone viral in the last day or so features Israeli soldiers saying they are carrying out their mission to “liberate, expel, [and] settle” Gaza.
This is obviously a wide step farther than the Briggs Plan—there was no concomitant effort, so far as I know, to seize Chinese homes and build new British homes or beachfront resorts in Malaya. That’s one difference between an empire and a settler colonial state. But even if the full ethnic cleansing prescribed by the Ministry of Intelligence doesn’t come to pass, over 1.5 million Palestinians have already been displaced by the war, including most of the population of the formerly bustling Gaza City. Thousands are making the journey south by foot, getting bombed along the way. Journalist Hind Khoudary was one of them in the last few days. “I saw baby blankets, baby slippers. I saw clothes, toys, bags. I’m sure people were too scared to go back and pick up the stuff they dropped,” she wrote for the Intercept. “We walked over dead, decomposing bodies … I can’t describe the sadness … A piece of my heart was left in the city, and I may never be able to go back to get it.”
As any Palestinian knows, such population “transfers” have a way of becoming permanent. Nearly seventy years into the independence of the British-approved Federation of Malaya (in 1963 it was combined with British crown colonies on Borneo to form the country of Malaysia3), many of the Chinese people and their descendants still live where the British put them, the New Villages transformed into semi-segregated Chinese settlements that are still home in some cases to tens of thousands of people. The forced removal of 750,000 Arab Palestinians from 1947-49 in order to create the State of Israel, has left even greater scars. Indeed, the greatest difference between the Gaza War and most other counterinsurgencies is that, except for the first few days, this one is being fought inside what is effectively a massive concentration and/or relocation camp, which was already packed with refugees and their generations worth of descendants from that earlier displacement.
The other thing to keep in mind about counterinsurgencies is that it is rarely only the more powerful force that uses violence against the civilian population. The historian Karl Hack titled the 2012 paper I’ve quoted from, “Everyone lived in fear: Malaya and the British way of counter-insurgency.” But as he notes, the title quote didn’t refer to the colonizers; it referred to the vanguard of the resistance.
The full quote comes from a former auxiliary policeman at the Simpang Tiga New Village (in every colonization, from Manifest Destiny to the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe to Israel, some of the colonized go to work for their colonizers), who said: “Everyone lived in fear of the communists during the Emergency.” MLNA fighters executed people who collaborated with the British. In part, the mass resettlement into the New Villages was done as a protection measure, Hack writes, to protect their collaborators from the independence fighters.
Attacks on the civilian population by the insurgents nominally fighting on their behalf is a fact of pretty much every insurgency I’ve ever read about. During the U.S. colonization of the Philippines, villagers who collaborated with the Americans were often executed by the guerrillas. On the island of Samar, the site of one of the most notorious American massacres of the war, the Filipino revolutionary commander Vicente Lukban ordered his men to burn the village of any fellow Samareño helping the invaders. In Haiti, during the U.S. Occupation of 1915-34, there was constant tension between peasants and revolutionaries, the latter of whom would sometimes raid villages for needed supplies or, again, to punish those who went along with the Americans. In the American Revolution, Loyalists to the British crown had their property seized and could find themselves hanged by the rebels.
Sometimes this is because guerrilla armies, not unlike standing armies in wartime, often benefit from having absolute psychopaths in their ranks. More often it’s because the militia and the civilian population have different goals—the former to achieve their broader war aims, including independence; the latter often merely for themselves and their families to survive another day. These tensions are such a known problem that, in his 1937 book On Guerrilla Warfare, Mao Zedong instructed fighters to always “be courteous,” “return what you borrow” and “replace what you break” when staying among civilians.
Going too far in an effort to bend the population to your strategy, as the Communists did in Malaya, can turn the population against the fighters; leaving the door open to imperial efforts to “win hearts and minds.” On the other hand, ignoring all distinctions between insurgents and civilians and treating them all as enemy combatants—as the U.S. did in the Philippines and Vietnam as well as in much of the War on Terror—can dissolve internal divisions and forge stronger bonds against the colonial state, ultimately achieving the ultimate war aim of expelling the occupying or invading force. The Israeli military, at the moment, seems hellbent on doing the latter.
One last note on this: Unlike in Malaya, and for that matter Iraq, the stakes of the brutal Israeli counterinsurgency in Gaza go far beyond the belligerents. For weeks now, the U.S. and Iran have been trading “warning” strikes against each other’s troops and proxies in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. strikes recently claimed their first lives. It seems that these far bigger countries—the latter of which is allied with the U.S.’s two primary, nuclear-armed geopolitical rivals in Russia and China—may be caught in an escalatory cycle that neither the Biden administration nor Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can figure out how to get out of.
Israel’s defenders don’t want to hear this, but the only party with sole discretion to stop this merry-go-round before it spins out of control is the Jewish state. An immediate ceasefire—in exchange for or alongside the release of hostages or a prisoner exchange—might be the only way to keep this counterinsurgency from spiraling into a much larger, “near-peer” war. The idea that even a temporary cessation of hostilities depends in any meaningful way on the acquiescence of Hamas, a far weaker force that already literally and figuratively shot its shot on Oct. 7, requires a total misunderstanding of the dynamics at play. The insurgents and the occupation forces are, reportedly, “days away” from making such a deal. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake they get there.
Calling Israel an occupying power isn’t an idle insult. Yes, Israel withdrew—or more accurately repositioned—its ground forces to the Gaza perimeter in 2005, forcing out thousands of Jewish settlers in the process. But, as the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights summarizes, “the majority of international opinion considers that Israel has retained effective control over the Gaza Strip by virtue of the control exercised over, inter alia, its airspace and territorial waters, land crossings at the borders, supply of civilian infrastructure, and key governmental functions such as the management of the Palestinian population registry.” More importantly, that is how Hamas sees Israel—and they are, as the Israelis keep reminding us, the ones who started this latest round.
This was not a new tactic—the U.S. military routinely called insurgents “bandits” during their early twentieth-century occupations of the Philippines, Haiti, and so on, placing them outside the law. But it set the tone.
Singapore was also briefly part of Malaysia but was expelled by the federal government after two years.