Meet the Israeli army’s new chief of staff

by Jamie

First published: 16 February, 2015 | Category: International

A big day for Gadi Eisenkot, as he is sworn in as the new chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

Eisenkot has decades of experience enforcing Israeli rule in places that aren’t Israel, serving as an officer in the First Lebanon War and as a commander in the West Bank during the Second Intifada.  In the latter capacity he ‘was one of the leaders of the “mowing the grass” approach to defeat Palestinian terrorism’, [1] and Israel's conscientious gardening in Gaza is testament to his lasting theoretical influence.

Following the Second Lebanon War, in which he participated as head of the IDF General Staff Operations Directorate, Eisenkot was associated with a further philosophical breakthrough in IDF strategy.  The war’s indecisive outcome provoked nation-wide anxiety in Israel and initiated a strategic debate within the IDF.  Along with his friend and fellow Golani Brigade alumnus Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni and former National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, Eisenkot was ‘one of the leading architects’ of what has become known as the ‘Dahiyeh doctrine’.[2]  A prominent Israeli journalist summarised the conceptual development as follows: whereas Israel had hitherto ‘attempted to cling to the distinction between “good Lebanese” and “bad Lebanese”’,

Israeli strategists’ new point of view is that Lebanon is an enemy…  In practical terms, the Palestinians in Gaza are all Khaled Mashaal, the Lebanese are all Nasrallah, and the Iranians are all Ahmadinejad… 

[Currently,] Arab civilians grumble about being punished because of their leaders, while fearing their leaders more than they fear us.  We need to make the fear we sow among them greater.

The strategy’s name commemorates Dahiyeh, a poor suburb of Beirut whose residents were in 2006 fortunate enough to be the first witnesses to the theory’s procedural corollary, urban carpet bombing. ‘Massive IDF attacks… were carried out not against Hezbollah military targets’, Human Rights Watch observed, ‘but rather against entire neighbourhoods because they were seen as pro-Hezbollah’.[3] The result was ‘massive destruction of the area’.[4]  According to the former head of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs National Security Doctrine Department, Eisenkot ‘supported the destruction of Beirut’s Dahiya suburb’ and ‘called for attacking Lebanese infrastructure as an act of deterrence’.

In 2008 Eisenkot promised Lebanese villagers that they would again experience the Dahiyeh doctrine in action:

What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on… We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases… This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.

In the event, the pledge was redeemed elsewhere. With Operation Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009), Israeli pilots put theory into practice across Gaza, inflicting ‘wanton’ destruction through ‘direct attacks on civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks’ that left ‘large areas of Gaza… razed to the ground’. An important doctrinal development saw white phosphorus, which has the peculiar characteristic upon contact with human flesh of burning through to the bone, ‘repeatedly fired indiscriminately over densely populated residential areas’. After the conflict, a UN inquiry concluded that Eisenkot’s promised strategy ‘appears to have been precisely what was put into practice’.

Eisenkot’s most recent achievement was 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, an operation he ‘planned and managed’ along with the IDF’s outgoing chief of staff Benny Gantz. The results certainly bore his stamp: 13% of Gaza’s housing stock was damaged or destroyed; 100,000 people were displaced; 274 of the territory’s 407 kindergartens were damaged and more than 2,100 people were killed, overwhelmingly civilians. 

The Dahiyeh doctrine applied to Gaza’s Shejaiya neighbourhood (2014)

Israeli journalists have largely welcomed Eisenkot’s appointment, recognising that his extensive practical-theoretical experience will stand the IDF in good stead in the coming years. Among his challenges, they note, will be to fight ‘the next round’ in the context of IDF budget cuts and to ‘find a way to suppress a popular uprising [in the West Bank and East Jerusalem]… without igniting an armed intifada’.

Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project and writes an Israel-Palestine blog.

 


 

[1] ‘Mowing the grass’ refers to Israel’s approach to ‘protracted intractable conflict with extremely hostile non-state entities’: ‘a patient military strategy of attrition’ combined with ‘occasional large-scale operations’ to establish ‘temporary deterrence’. (p. 68) 

[2] The label threatens to obscure the doctrine’s deeper intellectual history, which has its roots in the pioneering praxis of Ghengis Khan and Attila the Hun.

[3] Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir quote the Col. Gur Laish, head of the Campaign Planning Department of the Israeli Air Force, summarising Israel's strategy in 2006: ‘a heavy assault against Hizballah—its military assets, the centre of the government and its deployment in Beirut, and its communal infrastructure in south Lebanon’. On this basis, they claim that ‘Israel’s strategy was neither attempting to target civilian infrastructure, nor planning to pressure the population to rise against Hizballah’. They proceed to note that ‘nearly 30,000 residential units were destroyed or extensively damaged’ in Lebanon, as were the ‘Shi’ite villages where Hizballah built strongholds’, but are not moved to consider what this says about the IDF’s and their definitions of ‘Hizballah infrastructure’. Here is what Amnesty International concluded:

Israeli government spokespeople have insisted that they were targeting Hizbullah positions and support facilities, and that damage to civilian infrastructure was incidental or resulted from Hizbullah using the civilian population as a “human shield”. However, the pattern and scope of the attacks, as well as the number of civilian casualties and the amount of damage sustained, makes the justification ring hollow. The evidence strongly suggests that the extensive destruction of public works, power systems, civilian homes and industry was deliberate and an integral part of the military strategy, rather than “collateral damage”—incidental damage to civilians or civilian property resulting from targeting military objectives. (p. 3)

The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem notes that Israeli military ‘interpretations of the term “military objective”’ have been sufficiently capacious as to apply ‘even to patently civilian objects, which are prohibited targets’. (p. 41)

[4] Writing in 2010, Eisenkot insisted that since Israel had first distributed leaflets to civilians urging them to leave, its saturation bombing of south Lebanon had been ‘evidence of the IDF’s ethics’. ‘Hizbollah is the one turning the hundreds of villages and the Shiite regions in Lebanon into battlefields’, he continued; ‘I am convinced’ that the IDF’s strategy was ‘moral’ and ‘if we need to go to battle again, it will be proper to act on it again’. (pp. 37-38) Amnesty International cites one ‘particularly disturbing’ example of these leaflets, ‘which announced that “any vehicle of any kind travelling south of the Litani river will be bombarded, on suspicion of transporting rockets, military equipment and terrorists”’. ‘This’, Amnesty concluded, ‘flagrantly breaches the principle of distinction and the presumption of civilian status’. (p. 22) In any event, civilians who heeded the leaflets’ advice and evacuated came under attack as they fled (p. 23); the same fate met many in Gaza last year, where, as Eisenkot promised, much evidence was again provided of the IDF’s ethics.

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