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Edward Luttwak: “The Israelis are bombing to kill Hamas, not civilians”

The author and strategist on how militants were able to invade, and how Israel responds.

By Will Lloyd

Edward Luttwak first came to international prominence when he published Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook (1968) at the age of 26. Soon afterwards John le Carré compared him to Machiavelli, and Luttwak never looked back. Many more books on strategy followed. In the decades since, Luttwak has divided his time between battlefields, Pentagon contracts and the pages of literary reviews, where he writes on occasion about cattle ranching in Bolivia. He once told me that he would never write an autobiography because nobody would believe a word of it.

Professor Luttwak’s latest book, with Eitan Shamir, is The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces. What was initially planned as a discussion about that book changed over the weekend, when Hamas terrorists launched a brutal surprise attack against military targets and civilians across southern Israel. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WL: How did this happen? 

EL: Before this attack, the last news from Gaza was that the Israeli government had reopened crossing points there. That allowed thousands of Palestinian workers to use special permits to go to work in Israel and in the West Bank. Why did they have permits? This happened because there was Israeli confidence that the Hamas government was going to do something that [Yasser] Arafat had never done: to care, not only for Palestine, but to care for the Palestinians. There was this confidence that Hamas wanted to relieve poverty in Gaza. There was a path towards some kind of peaceful agreement. Hamas had not been launching rockets. The rockets that landed in Israel recently were very few, and they were launched by Islamic Jihad, Hamas’s competitor. The Israelis were able to periodically destroy Islamic Jihad rocket holdings because their agents in Gaza were given a free hand by Hamas to attack Islamic Jihad.

This was the situation for the Israelis. On the one hand they had a good spy network in Gaza, that was giving them actionable intelligence, that was giving them specific locations of these Islamic Jihad rockets. On the other hand, Hamas was not sending any rockets and Hamas was telling the Qataris that they had decided that they should reach an agreement with Israel, and so on. The Qataris had repeatedly paid for the reconstruction of Gaza after previous bombing attacks and incidents. This overall political atmosphere of positivity and Israel’s productive network of spies in Gaza, giving them very detailed information against Islamic Jihad – well, this created a traffic of true espionage information. And it was under this traffic that Hamas plotted.

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The attack did not involve many people. They were specifically trained to do single things. The total number would have been no more than 1,000 or 1,500 people. And that secret was kept because the Israelis believed they had a working spy network. A decision to allow 20,000 people into Israel involved a known risk. But they believed that this situation was on the mend, and that finally there was going to be a solution in Gaza, with work and development and all that. This is what dulled the security.

Now, the defence planners, they were over optimistic. Grossly so. The total number of troops deployed all around Gaza went down. They grossly underestimated the number of troops you have to keep there just in case, to be on the safe side. The defence planners were not on the safe side.

The Israelis got misinformation from Qatar. The Qataris have been playing a very important supportive role for the Israelis. They were giving money to Hamas – which Hamas took for itself, and to some extent for the population of Gaza – on the condition that they don’t do things like attack Israel. Hamas deceived the Qataris as well.

But the greatest military error was to not prudently garrison around Gaza. That prudent garrisoning was whittled down more and more, because of the atmosphere of increasing political confidence – manifested in this news that 20,000 labour permits were going to Gazans. The defence planners reduced the numbers in observation posts on this basis. Before there would be 12 people guarding a post, then it went down to nine, then six, then three – until these positions could be easily overwhelmed. The error was overoptimism.

And the ultimate mistake – the mistake Israel has been making for ever – is to think that Palestinian leaders are different from other Arab leaders, and that they really cared about their population. The Israelis thought that Hamas wanted to relieve poverty in Gaza for instance. They did not. The Hamas plan is to conquer Israeli territory for Islam, as part of the global conquests of Islam. The leader of Hamas has said that there is not a square inch of this planet that should exist beyond the rule of Islam. They do not say a word about Palestine. They talk about Islam. They talk about Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] – pretending that it is in imminent danger. The recurrent Jewish belief that some Palestinians care about their population is rather absurd. There is not a single government anywhere in the Arab world that really cares about its own population. They care about many things, but not about the welfare of their own people.

[See also: What comes next in Gaza]

Edward Luttwak preparing to speak to the Senate in Washington, 2007. Photo by Jamie Rose/Getty Images

WL: What are we to make of the Wall Street Journal reporting this week that Iran was involved in plotting Saturday’s attack? 

EL: The implication was that although Hamas was targeting Islamic Jihad, which is an Iranian agency, the Iranians overlooked this due to their strategic need to attack Israel. I don’t know what planning happened here. Nothing that Hamas did was particularly sophisticated. They simply took advantage of the fact that the Israelis believed that they were on the way to a more peaceful situation. These were Israel’s errors alone. For example, that famous tank that they kept filming on the weekend, which Hamas captured; now, I was once considered an expert on armoured warfare… You don’t put a single tank at a checkpoint. There was just one. It’s like the observation posts, where once 30 soldiers were guarding them. This is overoptimism from Israel that was professionally improper. When you are planning security, you are not supposed to engage in political analysis – that’s for your government. Military planners shouldn’t be saying we don’t need to have 30 guys on each post doing boring observation duties. Military planners are not supposed to be optimists.

WL: Was Israeli society distracted from basic questions of security by the intense political battles being fought over the judicial reforms since January? 

EL: Yes. They were completely distracted by the internal struggle over the judicial system. What was this battle about? Well, a separate judicial culture had been growing in Israel that drifted more and more away from the political culture of the country. None of the judges were religious. Many Israelis are – they might not be Orthodox, but they are religious, they attend festivals. The judges were secular. The judiciary in Israel had a kind of Hampstead culture. In the meantime much of Israel was not Hampstead – it was a combination of Hampstead and your East End of London in the old days. A great many somewhat religious Israelis went to the polls to solve this problem. A lot of the Orthodox were motivated to vote for the first time by things like Pride marches in Jerusalem. The government that resulted had a bare majority but it did have a majority. The new minister of justice wanted to appoint judges – as many ministers do in Europe – but the judges said no. 

Strangely, when demonstrators flooded the streets in this period, they said they were doing this for “democracy”. They were demonstrating against a government that had just been elected. They didn’t say the election had been faked. They simply defined democracy as their beliefs in all the conventional things, all the modern things. The standard left agenda. They demonstrated all over Israel. Many of them were retired people. This was exactly analogous to what happened in the United States when Trump was elected – a disavowal of the legitimacy of the system. We arrived, then, at a new definition of democracy: democracy is what the liberal establishment says it is. There is a culture of contempt for the common man. 

WL: Isn’t what happened over the weekend going to remind Israelis that maybe you can play these games over democracy in the United States, but Israel is not in that kind of neighbourhood?

EL: Correct. We cannot afford these questions in Israel’s neighbourhood. As you can see from the reaction of Israeli society to what happened on Saturday, this did not diminish national cohesion against the enemy. There are no reports of people refusing to be mobilised. Reservists have been showing up at mobilisation bases before the announcement to mobilise even reached them. Reservists abroad have been scrambling – fighting over aeroplane seats to join their units. The opposition politicians were basically sitting around the table with Benjamin Netanhayu within hours of the attack. Cohesion was unimpaired. You have to remember that during the demonstrations in Israel, the demonstrators were all carrying Israeli flags. They were conveying the correct message, namely: “We are Israelis.” People have not been divided in their reaction to these attacks. I myself am going to Israel, and as of now, I cannot get a seat back due to the demand. It may take me several days to get there.

[See also: How the Islamic Republic colonised Iran]

WL: Is there a danger that the strategy that the Israel Defence Forces are pursuing in Gaza now degenerates into a siege, like the kind we saw in Aleppo?

EL: No, they will not target civilians. Aleppo was all about targeting civilians. This situation is nothing like Aleppo, where the Syrian government was bombing to kill people. The Israelis are only bombing to kill Hamas. They are bombing selectively. If they don’t have an actual operational target they will not bomb. In Aleppo there was no pretence. 

WL: When you were participating in the Six-Day War in 1967, did you anticipate that decades later, Israel would still be fighting?

EL: Yes, absolutely. I was there in ’67, I was there in ’73, I was there in ’82. This is a sequential process. First they were fighting all the Arab states. Then they knocked out Jordan and Lebanon. Then they knocked out Syria and Egypt. Then, of course, they faced Arafat and the Palestinians. The important point was not progress in defeating the Arabs but growing Israel. The measure for Israel is not defeating Arabs. Israel’s population is much greater now than it was in 1973. The Arab states failed to contain this growth, and these failures continue today. The real measure of Israeli success is this continued growth.

WL: How long do you think this war will last? 

EL: Everybody understands that Hamas is a dictatorship. Many people in Gaza oppose them. But Hamas has no elections and allows no opposition. If you demonstrate against them you will be killed. It is an Islamic dictatorship that does not acknowledge Palestinian nationhood, nor does it allow a role in society for Palestinian Christians. They repudiate Palestinian nationalism. The demonstrators who are demonstrating right now for the Palestinian cause [there have been protests in London, New York, Toronto, Sydney and other cities] are showing cognitive dissonance.

Interestingly enough, the non right-wing political leaders in Israel, who have joined this new coalition government, made one condition. That is that the war would not stop until Hamas was gone; the war would not stop for any reason, either domestic pressure or international pressure. Here you had people who were viewed as liberals – which they are in many respects – but their condition to join the coalition was that there could be no abstract solution: Hamas has to be destroyed.

[See also: The bonfire of the Middle East]

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