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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK
Israel's firepower challenged
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By Paul Adams
The BBC's defence correspondent
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In 1997, a senior Israeli military officer was denounced by government ministers when he announced that the army was preparing to wage guerrilla war in the occupied territories.

The officer was accused of generating alarm and playing politics, but other senior military and intelligence officers were already voicing similar concerns.


He who is wise should never engage the weak for any length of time

Israeli Professor Martin Van Creveld
"I can see an intifada, or popular uprising, including stone-throwing and roadblocks, combined with guerrilla warfare - like in Lebanon - with roadside mines and gunfire," said one, quoted at the time by the Jerusalem Post.

Five years on, the Israeli army is not quite engaged in guerrilla war in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but events sometimes seem to be moving in that direction.

The second Palestinian intifada has moved through several phases, from stone-throwing and molotov cocktails - scenes similar to the first uprising, in the late 1980s and early 1990s - to gun battles, roadside ambushes and - most terrifying of all - suicide bombs.

All too familiar

While Israelis as a whole reel from the mounting toll inflicted by suicide bombers, the army is perhaps more concerned that recent weeks have seen a devastating sniper attack on an Israeli checkpoint and the disabling of two Merkava battle tanks.

For the military, this is uncomfortably familiar, inviting parallels with events in southern Lebanon, where Israel's occupation ended two years ago.

Israeli troop in Hebron
Israeli troops currently control most towns in the West Bank
Hezbollah guerrillas harried their opponents with roadside bombs and rocket attacks, eventually forcing Israel's withdrawal. Some analysts believe Hezbollah's example has stirred Palestinian militants to follow suit.

Both conflicts have provided uncomfortable lessons in what military theorists call "asymmetric warfare", the use of unconventional tactics to counter an enemy's overwhelming conventional military superiority.

When the superior power takes on highly motivated gunmen, fighting to protect their homeland, the effect on morale can be corrosive, particularly if the superior power starts to take casualties.

Years of practice, and support from Syria and Iran, turned Hezbollah into an extremely effective fighting force.

The disparate Palestinian militant groups and security organs have yet to coalesce into something equally threatening, but the longer this conflict rages, the harder Israel may find it to maintain the advantage.

Military imbalance

In the words of Israel's foremost military historian, Professor Martin Van Creveld, "he who is wise should never engage the weak for any length of time."

During the 1987-1993 intifada, Creveld warned that a force trained and equipped to fight conventional battles - in wars seen as existential struggles - might suffer if asked to perform duties more naturally suited to riot police.

Palestinian boy and Israeli soldier in Jerusalem
In conventional wisdom, it is an unequal battle
The second intifada has proved infinitely more complex than the first, with Palestinians gunmen holding, and using, a variety of weapons. But the military imbalance is still glaringly obvious and the death toll among unarmed Palestinian civilians has appalled outside observers.

One result has been that a growing number of soldiers and officers have refused to serve in the occupied territories.

Israeli newspapers say that a record number of them - 21 - are now in jail. The movement representing so-called "refuseniks" claims that 400 reservists and officers have now signed a letter declaring their refusal to serve in the territories.

Despite years of rioting and low-level guerrilla activity, the Israeli Defence Force has yet to develop an effective response, relying instead on heavy-handed reprisals that arguably serve to make a bad situation much worse.

As the Israeli army smashes its way into Palestinian cities, the imbalance of power is clear for all to see.

But the armed forces of this regional superpower, victors over combined Arab armies in the past, are now locked in an asymmetric conflict with stone-throwers, militiamen, and suicide bombers - and the outcome is far from certain.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Middle East
US envoy breaks Arafat isolation
05 Apr 02 | Business
Iran wields oil embargo threat
04 Apr 02 | Middle East
Bush intervenes in Mid-East crisis
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