The Hamas strategy employed in the 2014 Gaza War represents the new face of war that threatens to undermine the effectiveness of conventional militaries, endangers civilians in irregular conflicts and distorts the international legal structure. American policymakers and military leaders should take heed and act to avert the potentially serious consequences for U.S. national security.
Battles have been fought for millennia in cities, amid large civilian populations. Many wars have been waged against unconventional adversaries willing to kill their opponent’s civilians and hide among their own. Misinformation has been disseminated and the mantle of justice claimed in the service of countless causes. However, the 2014 Gaza War featured a hybrid non-state force – Hamas – that perhaps uniquely combined four elements:
Acting with reckless disregard for civilian safety, if not deliberately putting them in harm’s way;
Distorting internationally-recognized legal standards to exploit legal protections afforded civilians and the casualties caused by this exploitation;
Portraying its opponent, through an information operations campaign, as legally culpable for what were lawful, defensive responses to aggression; and
Securing advantageous pressure from the international community on its opponent to terminate legitimate defensive military action.
Commissioned and supported by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), this Task Force closely studied the evolution of Hamas’s strategy and Israel’s response, based on primary source research and discussions with senior Israeli, Palestinian and United Nations (U.N.) officials. Contrary to accusations of widespread unlawful military conduct, we observed that Israel systemically applied established rules of conduct that adhered to or exceeded the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) in a virtually unprecedented effort to avoid inflicting civilian casualties, even when doing so would have been lawfully permitted, and to satisfy the concerns of critics. However, it is the conclusion of this Task Force that Israel’s military restraint unintentionally empowered Hamas to distort both the law and facts for their own purposes to the ultimate detriment of civilians’ safety, for which Hamas bears sole responsibility.
Future, and perhaps even ongoing conflicts, will match the U.S. military against adversaries employing Hamas’s unlawful tactics that increase civilian casualties so as to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. military operations, encourage international actors to condemn and pressure the United States and sap its will to continue such campaigns. When confronting such a foe, unnecessary greater restraint in U.S. military operations will not deliver victory. Therefore this Task Force recommends American political and military leaders take additional steps now to prepare to encounter this new face of war.