The rules of successful rebellion

By historical standards, the Palestinians have waged an ineffective terrorist campaign. But the cost

How effective are the Palestinians as terrorists? Will the troubled health of their leader, Yasser Arafat, make a difference to their tactics and success - or is Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, the only man who can really influence the Palestinians' future?

If the world has a laboratory for counter-insurgency then it is undoubtedly the state of Israel, with its overwhelming technical and physical security apparatus and its forcibly recruited army of informers within Palestinian ranks. But even Israel is not immune from the basic ground rules of wars of insurgency, with their determined kill ratios and heavy civilian death tolls.

Rule number one is that any insurgency war is a contest of attrition between two select leadership groups: the institutional political-military leadership of the occupying power and the handful of guerrilla figures who declare themselves to be the legitimate representatives of the occupied.

In the struggle between these rival leadership groups, violence, not votes, determines the political future. The public will of the people is irrelevant. Democracy and public opinion have no bearing on the outcome. Inevitably, wars of insurgency are wars of terrorism. Militarily unable to confront the superior forces of the ruling power, the insurgents will target and attack softer targets: "collaborating" policemen/officials, public buildings, and cafes and bars where the "enemy" - family groups eating pizzas - are vulnerable. In a recent interview in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, Hamas's newly appointed leader, Khalid Meshal, made the logic plain. "We are in an uneven war. We are facing a full-fledged aggression against an almost defenceless people with very limited weapons . . . You can't succeed in a political struggle by simply begging the enemy to be fair to you."

Israel is a good example of an insular conservative ruling power. The political leadership of successive Israeli governments - Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Sharon - are all former senior generals from within the Israeli security establishment. The ethos of this securitocracy rarely changes regardless of who is nominally in charge. The conventional western media definitions of "doves" and "hawks" are, from a Palestinian viewpoint, meaningless. In Europe, Sharon is falsely castigated as a bellicose warmonger. In reality, he represents the views of one faction within the Israeli security establishment.

To be successful, an insurgent group must, by direct violence or through economic or political disruption, shatter the rival securitocracy's consensus and force radical change. The war must become unsustainable.

The leadership pattern among insurgents often mirrors the ruling power. The first act of most nascent guerrilla factions is to murder their more moderate rivals. Violence is used to terrify those on your side guilty of "fraternising" with the enemy and simultaneously to achieve absolute political dominance.

Although they all claim to be liberators of mankind, most revolutionary groups are profoundly hierarchical and intolerant of internal dissent. All public criticism of the leadership is viewed as an act of treachery. Hamas's war in the occupied territories began in 1987 with the conventional tactic of killing suspected informers.

Rule two is that the rebels always lose militarily. Poorly armed guerrillas will always sustain far higher casualty rates in any conflict with conventionally armed, western-style military forces. To win the war, the rebels must be able to preserve their leadership cadre physically and continually recruit whole new divisions of combatants to replenish their losses.

The golden mean for this kill ratio was first articulated by the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in 1946 on the eve of the Franco-Vietminh war: "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." He was wrong and right. By the time the American successors left in 1975, the kill ratio was 54 Vietnamese for every one US soldier who died, but even at those odds Ho won. Over decades, North Vietnamese ability to keep killing US soldiers, despite the Vietminh's own awesome sacrificial losses, fatally undermined the US political/military leadership's will to sustain the war.

According to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, more than 3,500 Palestinians and 927 Israelis have died in the current intifada. Historically, such a kill ratio - well under 1:4 - is unsustainable for a ruling power. The amoral battlefield of guerrilla warfare is such that most of the 426 Israeli civilians killed within Israel proper have been victims of random suicide bombings on buses and in restaurants. The impact on the economy, tourism, the cost of additional security in every place of public entertainment has been immense. Without external financial support from the US, the cost of security measures would be politically unbearable.

Sharon's aggressive killing policy towards middle-level Palestinian militant operatives and the political leadership of Hamas has proved to be an extremely successful anti-terrorist policy. The Israeli crackdown sharply curtailed the ability of all the Palestinian factions to kill Israeli civilians in Israel proper. Two or three Israeli civilian deaths from terrorism a month is a nuisance, not a threat, to the Israeli state. Under rule number one, successfully destroying the rival leadership is akin - as with the capture of the leader of Peru's rebel group Shining Path, Abimael Guzman - to winning a major conventional victory.

But insurgents are not like conventional army units which, once broken, can never regroup. Dead martyrs are sooner or later replaced by new leaders and new tactics. Man-carried explosive vests can be replaced with suicide car bombs, as in Iraq, or with other kinds of explosive devices.

Just because the ruling power wins today does not mean the other side will lose tomorrow. In Rhodesia, Ian Smith's mendacious regime slaughtered wave after wave of Robert Mugabe's Zanla guerrillas, but the guerrillas kept on coming and Smith finally ran out of white manpower to fight them. The Palestinians may lack the means, but no one doubts that factions such as Fatah and Hamas have an infinite pool of recruits to draw on.

Rule three is that the rebels' casualties don't matter but the ruling power's do. In every guerrilla war there are atrocities. Vengeful armies shoot civilians, burn villages and torture and imprison hundreds and thousands. It all makes great propaganda for the rebels' cause and increases the base of their support. Given the likely death toll in their own ranks, insurgent leaderships, including those of the Palestinians, are usually even more callous towards losses, justifying them as heroic sacrifices on the path to freedom. "If the criterion was the quantitative loss of any given people, then no one would ever be liberated," says the Hamas leader, Meshal. "The Vietnamese lost three million, the Algerians lost 1.5 million, and so on. Human loss is just a given in situations like that. But it is the outcome of the conflict that really matters."

In the Algerian war of independence, from 1954-62, the FLN (the guerrillas' terrorist campaign) killed more than 10,000 European civilians in 42,000 terrorist incidents. In retaliation, the French military leadership killed 145,000 rebel combatants, it is estimated, plus at least 700,000 civilians. (More chillingly, 70,000 Muslim civilians are recorded as having been murdered by the FLN themselves.) But for the French, suffering 28,000 combined military and civilian casualties was traumatic. The FLN's war erupted in the streets and cafes of mainland France, destabilising the French establishment and forcing its leader, Charles de Gaulle, to abandon the French colonists (the pieds-noirs) to their fate.

Rule number four is that ruling powers never win unless they expel or drive out the hostile population.

Legitimate wars of insurgency are usually fought over deep-seated political issues, colonial occupation, racial or religious inequalities, or oppression of minority groupings. Killing today's leaders may suppress the revolt, but new generations among the oppressed re-emerge, as with the Irish, to continue the struggle. As long as the underlying ground of conflict remains unchanged, so does the potential for future revolt. The cost of maintaining the armed peace often proves crippling for a ruling power despite its seeming victory, as white Rhodesia discovered.

How well are the Palestinians doing as insurgents? The true answer is: not very well. Ariel Sharon's securitocracy has destroyed most of their operational networks and blunted their killing power. Even the recruiting of 16-year-olds, such as the suicide bomber who left three Israelis dead in Tel Aviv's vegetable market a few days ago, is a sign of weakness not of strength. In time, the security wall being built around the West Bank will inevitably enhance Israel's internal security and make it even harder for Palestinian insurgents to kill Jewish civilians.

And yet the cost, economic and political, to Israel of suppressing the revolt has also been immense. Since the intifada began, there has been a net outflow of Jews from Israel: the uncommitted are voting with their feet for a peaceful life. Moreover, though Israel continues to control the West Bank, it cannot control the Palestinian population there (2.3 million and rapidly growing).

With Yasser Arafat now in France and Ariel Sharon seen as responsible for Israel's strategic weakness, a new leader may emerge from within the Israeli establishment who will recognise that the only long-term solution is a viable peace agreement with the Palestinians. That may be enough for the insurgents.

Kevin Toolis is the New Statesman's terrorism correspondent