July 19, 2024
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Surprise Attacks and Militerrorism: Israel’s New Strategic Landscape

Did you ever play that children’s game where you hold your hands out, palms down, and the other player tries to suddenly flip his hands over and slap the backs of your hands? For a minute or so, you can maintain heightened readiness, but after that your attention begins to lag. Now imagine playing that game while the other side patiently waits an hour before they try to slap you. You’d lose, for sure. That helps describe why it is so hard to guard against surprise attacks.

Another reason why it is difficult to maintain readiness is the ease with which the other player can mildly jerk their hands and fool you into a sudden reaction. Each time you react, it costs you, so eventually you restrain yourself from being so sensitive, and you skip a few reactions you would otherwise have done. That’s what happened in the case of the Yom Kippur War when Prime Minister Golda Meir felt there had been too many unwarranted mobilizations of the army, and failed to respond to subtle warnings of the impending attack.

In retrospect it may seem easy to blame Israel for failing to anticipate a surprise attack like October 7 (henceforth “O7” for short). But maintaining a heightened sense of security long term is trickier than we civilians may imagine. It may be impossible. Successful surprise attacks are as old as warfare, and not uncommon—Alexander the Great at Sogdiana; Pharaoh Tutmose III at Megiddo; Hannibal at Trasimene; George Washington at Trenton; the Nazis through the Ardennes Forest.

Surprise attacks are by nature not symmetric. Often the defender has created significant defenses, but the attacking side can carefully analyze and secretly plan how to overcome those defenses. Israel built the heavily fortified Bar-Lev Line after 1967, never imagining it could be defeated, but Egypt did just that in the Yom Kippur War, in part by employing lightweight, benign-appearing boats carrying water cannons which quickly blasted away the sand beneath the Bar-Lev bulwarks, weakening them before Israel could react. It’s not easy to anticipate things like that.

Israel had built impressive defenses around Gaza, and in typical surprise attack style, Hamas’ O7 planning overcame each component: knocking out cameras, drones, communications, military bases, a centralized command center. They hang-glided in, bulldozed fences, rode in on mopeds, used stolen security codes, and so forth, in a carefully choreographed sequence that confused and incapacitated Israel. And then the shocking new component, terrorism, began as thousands of Gazans killed anyone they could find in face-to-face slaughter, and abducted hostages. (After 9/11, Americans seem to think terrorism means “causing terror.” That’s wrong. Terrorism means “attacking civilian rather than military targets.”)

Prior to O7, the goal of a surprise attack was to give the attacking army a strong initial advantage in a coming war. If the defending nation survived a surprise attack, it could take days, weeks or months to recover their full fighting strength—think of the U.S. after Pearl Harbor. But the O7 attack broke that mold. The military surprise strike was all just a setup for the terrorism that followed. This represents something new, which I will call “militerrorism.”

In a militerrorist attack, an initial military strike incapacitates or stuns the defender, and very quickly a second wave, terrorism, achieves the attacker’s true goal. Unlike conventional surprise attacks, there is no time to recover or to cushion the initial blow and then deliver a counterpunch. All the damage is done very quickly. Civilians are killed, and/or hostages taken, before the defender can possibly respond. In that regard, it is rather like a nuclear strike—the damage is massive and immediate. And yet, unlike a nuclear strike, there is hardly any deterrence possible—”tit for tat” policies like “mutual assured destruction” are unconscionable where terrorism is concerned. If the attacker pulls back in a defensive crouch, as Hamas did by hiding under civilian structures along with their Israeli hostages, the victim is left with a “Hobson’s Choice”: Do nothing, or reply with a devastating war.

Consider, if the IDF is momentarily incapacitated in a new O7, how Israel might still defend against the initial attack. One possibility is to harden the civilian population itself. Most Israelis have gone through weapons training, so if every Israeli were mandated to carry live weapons at all times, the next O7 could be far less one-sided. But that comes at a terrible price: Guns always at the ready would mean higher murder rates and suicide rates. (Currently, Israel is unique; instead of restricting guns, Israel limits bullets—ammunition control rather than gun control. It seems to work well.) Perhaps Israel could select, say, 10% of its population, tested for emotional stability, and mandate that only they carry live weapons at all times. Israel currently seems to be trying a similar idea, mixing armed guardians into the general population, but that may be too burdensome to continue indefinitely.

Terrorists would certainly try to neutralize this effort, e.g., by disguising themselves as Israelis in their next big attack, as they have tried before in smaller attacks. When I tried to devise a defense to such disguised terrorists, I found myself wandering down a technological rabbit hole—could Israel create a chip-based “Identify Friend or Foe” system for every gun? Well, radio jamming could defeat that. Could Israel then add “Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum” to those chips’ communication? Not easy, and even that might be defeated through reverse engineering, or perhaps using a distant electro-magnetic pulse. Eventually I realized I was falling into the same mode of thinking that had produced the Bar-Lev line—I was hoping for a strong technological defense, but no matter what Israel may devise, it likely could be defeated in some way or other in a new surprise attack.

Even more worrisome, the very nature of warfare is now poised on the brink of dramatic changes. In Ukraine, the use of drones is beginning to resemble scenes from the “Terminator” movies. Ukrainians have invented drones that can be assigned a target, such as an enemy Russian soldier—and that drone will autonomously chase him down wherever he goes, and kill him. Reports describe the targeted Russians desperately running, dodging, hiding, until they are eventually so exhausted that they actually give themselves up to be killed. When I imagine such weapons deployed en masse by Hezbollah against Israeli civilians, I am horrified at their nightmarish potential. Can Israel counter this, perhaps with a huge fleet of “drone-killer” drones? No doubt it must try, but again, there is no assurance that terrorists won’t find some chink in any armor Israel devises.

If you’re still not convinced, imagine Hezbollah launching an O7 attack with 100,000 missiles, or coordinating with Syria (freshly armed by Russia since the U.S. pullout) to provide the initial military stun, followed by a horde of terrorists. Israel’s entire north could be destroyed. The next few decades may see monstrous capacity for determined terrorist groups to wreak havoc on Israel.

This leads me to conclude that there is one—and only one—way to prevent the next O7. Israel must preemptively destroy any terrorist group that has the will, motive and means to replicate an O7 attack. That means Hamas (assuming it will eventually reconstitute itself), Hezbollah, and perhaps even smaller groups like the PFLP or PIJ.

Israel may have a narrow window of opportunity against Hezbollah. Currently, while they are raining missiles on Israel, there is clear justification for Israel to commit to war. But if Hezbollah were to suddenly stop its attacks on Israel, it would be nearly impossible for Israel to convince the outside world that Hezbollah is probably doing exactly what Hamas did before O7—faking the appearance of peaceful intent, in order to to lull Israel into a false sense of security before an eventual surprise attack. It would also be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to convince most Israelis that they ought to embark on a new and far more difficult war.

Decade by decade, the nature of terrorist attacks has morphed and intensified, starting with Fedayeen sharpshooters in the 1880s, and British colonialist incitement of Arab rioters in the 1920s. Every few years, new methods threatened Israel in new ways—sniping from Golan or across Jerusalem’s Green Line, cross-border incursions, airplane hijackings, suicidal bombing murders, intifadas, bus bombings, missiles, incendiary balloons, tunneling, hostage-taking. But O7 was more than merely a new phase of this multigenerational terrorism against Jews. O7’s militerrorism threatens Israel’s very existence with the possibility of cataclysmic mass murders. Israel might have no strategically sound option other than to preemptively begin another devastating war to ensure its own survival.

* Suggested reading: “Surprise Attack!” by Richard K. Betts (unfortunately out of print) or “Intelligence and Surprise Attack” by Erik J. Dahl, both from various CIA reading lists.


Dan Dyckman received his M.D. from Brown University in 1984, followed by an internship year in a Connecticut hospital, a master’s degree in biostatistics from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1987, and a computer science degree from UC Berkeley in 1991. He is now retired.

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