Most readers need no introduction to the Israel-Palestine issue, one of the most widely discussed and passionately debated conflicts in the world. However, much has changed over the last week from a security standpoint. A number of military assumptions and theories have been proven wrong by the audacious attack of Hamas, named “Al-Aqsa Storm,” on Israeli territory, forcing defense analysts to re-evaluate their position.
Regardless of how successful or comprehensive Israel’s response is, the attack will always be remembered as one of the most brutally successful low-tech, cross-border assaults on a legitimate military power. For South Asia in particular – a region plagued with insurgency and cross-border tension for several decades – the attack presents numerous lessons in warfare that need to be learned sooner rather than later.
The Limits of High-Tech Solutions
For years, Hamas has bombarded Israel with rockets to determine the “saturation point” of the Iron Dome, meaning the point at which it can be overwhelmed with sheer numbers. As recently as 2021, Hamas fired over 1,500 rockets into Israel in the space of three days, but most of them were successfully repelled.
During its attack on October 7, though, over 5,000 rockets were fired into Israeli territory in just 20 minutes, taking full advantage of the enormous cost incurred by Israel against cheap but lethal rockets. An average rocket fired by Hamas costs around $600, while the missile shot by the Iron Dome to counter it could cost up to $60,000.
This ratio of 100:1 in the cost incurred was always a major problem, but the saturation point had never been exposed; the Iron Dome had never been overwhelmed before. The latest attack proved that no nation can completely repel over 5,000 rockets in a synchronized surprise attack, not even with the latest anti-air defense platforms. Hamas would only have to spend about $3 million for such a devastating attack (a pittance in warfare terms), while Israel would have to spend $300 million to protect itself (a significant amount by any standard).
For a region like South Asia, which reportedly clocked in nearly $100 billion on its military spending last year, where insurgents primarily use unconventional tactics, this should be a lesson. Even the most advanced pieces of technology have their limits, even when your enemy is vastly poorer than you. Any piece of expensive hardware, no matter how efficient it is, will have a saturation point of some kind, a point where it can get overwhelmed with inferior tech. And once your enemies reach that point, they would have done so with a fraction of the cost.
Failure of Intelligence or Imagination?
However, the real cause for concern in Israel now is not the barrage of rockets. After all, those can be repelled by building more anti-missile platforms, by outspending the enemy. It might be expensive, but at least it is possible. The real gamechanger was the way in which the invasion was conducted by Hamas operatives.
By using the air, land, and sea to insert gunmen into Israel, it would not be an exaggeration to say Hamas has ripped apart one of the fundamental assumptions of recent Israeli counterterrorism – that their primary threat was from the rockets themselves and not human infiltrators. If Israel’s defense planners had truly envisaged that large numbers of armed militants could fly in with paragliders and sail in with rafts, such an attack would have never taken the security forces by surprise. Low-tech attacks like this work only when the element of surprise plays in their favor.
It could thus be said that the Hamas attack demonstrated a major failure of intelligence, but more importantly, it displayed an even larger failure of imagination. Israel spent over $1.5 billion on research to create the Iron Dome system, but it is not built to shoot at human militants gliding or sailing or cutting fences into Israeli territory.
Carl von Clausewitz, one of the fathers of modern military theory, often emphasized the importance of human qualities like audacity and imagination over set structures like theory and doctrine. In a sense, that is precisely what we see here. We see a possible ossification of Israeli doctrine – overtly focused on incoming rocket barrages – on one side and an unexpectedly imaginative terrorist attack on the other.
For countries in South Asia, this should be a strong lesson to constantly reimagine new threats. The Mumbai 26/11 attack for example, highlighted the same issue. In that case, militants infiltrated India’s wealthiest city by boat – a threat not taken seriously before that – and mowed down hundreds of civilians on the streets.
South Asia is home to many of the most hotly contested borders in the world, where each power accuses the other of fostering insurgents as a proxy. In such a region, attacks where militants infiltrate another country for a bloodbath are not only foreseeable, but some would argue inevitable as well.
In recent years, countries like India and China have accused each other of building settlements along their side of disputed borders in South Asia. It seems like the consensus is that such moves will create long-term security or strengthen legitimacy. However, the recent Hamas attack unveils a major threat looming over such moves – the vulnerability of civilians.
Israel has followed an aggressive border and ethnic resettlement strategy in recent years, particularly in the West Bank. A United Nations report earlier this year claimed that Israel planned to double the settlements in the Syrian Golan, with about 700,000 settlers already living there. From the Israeli side, the rationale has always been that these settlements were required for long-term peace and even that the settlers could act as the “first line of defense” against an invasion.
However, Al-Aqsa Storm has dealt a possibly crippling blow to this theory. Rather than an asset, the civilian population became a vulnerability. Hundreds of civilians both living in and visiting southern Israel were brutally gunned down and in some horrifying cases, kidnapped by the invading militants. While the attack came from Gaza and not the West Bank, the principle of civilian vulnerability remains the same. The more civilians you have on your side of the border, or in a hostile area, the higher the risk of similar incidents.
The images of women and children being snatched away and abducted on motorcycles by armed gunmen is one that will stay in the Israeli psyche. The brutal attack exposes the vulnerability of having civilians on the Israeli side of such a dangerous border. Far from being a bolstering presence for security, civilians inhabiting or visiting the border areas are now at risk. Any public gatherings of civilians can be targeted with simple means like paragliders and wire-cutters, unless an unprecedented level of militarization is permanently enforced throughout the border.
This too is an important lesson for South Asian countries that share the Israeli thinking that bolstering a civilian population near a disputed border would boost security. In peacetime, perhaps that is true. But once a war begins, the effect is exactly the opposite.
South Asia is not new to the concept of proxy warfare, where terrorists are armed and used by rival states to deny any direct involvement in the attack. Israel insists that Iran was directly involved and training and funding Hamas operatives for the attack. Iran vehemently denies this, although Iran’s leader did make statements condoning the attack.
It is also noteworthy that gunfire has been exchanged between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah, further strengthening Israel’s suspicion of Iranian involvement. There are also questions being raised about Russia’s involvement in all this, particularly because of the visit of several Hamas leaders to Moscow over the last few weeks.
Many have pointed out that the timing of the attack comes when an Israel-Saudi Arabia friendship finally seemed plausible. Normalization between the two powers, no matter how mild, would have certainly reshaped the regional power structure, with Iran at the losing end.
The lesson here is not so much a hidden one, but it is no less important. Military strategy and political strategy cannot be separated. That Israel, despite embarking on a paradigm-shifting friendship with Saudi Arabia, did not notice or foresee an Iranian operation requiring months of planning and procurement is shocking to say the least.
South Asian nations would do well to heed the possibility that if even a country like Israel, which has typically worked hard on its human intelligence, could make such a lapse when the regional power dynamic changes, this is a fate that could befall any nation.
Some of these lessons are obvious and some not. South Asia is one of the most conflict-prone regions in the world, with three nuclear powers disputing territorial claims and a host of smaller nations with a track record of insurgencies, proxy warfare, or cross-border combat.
An attack with this level of audacity and ingenuity should make all the regional governments pay attention and look for lessons – especially because insurgents and non-state actors around the world will certainly be doing so as well. It is totally conceivable that a repeat of such operations will be attempted in this part of the world.