Last month, the New York Times reported on preparations underway in Estonia for an invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These kind of preparations are entirely reasonable, for NATO will almost certainly not come to the defence of Estonia. The Kremlin has both the means, the precedent and the motive to take on at least one of the Baltic States at any time in the future. What is remarkable is the way in which Estonia is preparing for this eventuality. It is not investing in hundreds of new tanks, or vast new squadrons of aircraft, or building a nuclear weapons programme.
Instead, the Estonians are planning an insurgency. They are assuming that Putin will roll over the border and succeed in a conventional invasion, and then they plan to bleed the Russian forces dry until they leave. “Since the Ukrainian war,” reported the New York Times, “Estonia has stepped up training for members of the Estonian Defence League.” This is a semi-formal militia which is planning to become “insurgents, right down to the making of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the weapons that plagued the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Estonian officials have been greatly informed by recent events in the Middle East. “Encouraging citizens to stash warm clothes, canned goods, boots and a rifle may seem a cartoonish defence strategy against a military colossus like Russia. Yet the Estonians say they need look no further than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to see the effectiveness today, as ever, of an insurgency to even the odds against a powerful army.” Britain’s Independent reported this week that similar plans are afoot in both Lithuania and Poland.
The broad thrust of this logic is of course true. In Afghanistan, it has been true for centuries. Why empires — British, Soviet, American — continue to invade Afghanistan should be beyond any reasonable military strategist to explain. On the eve of the most recent attempt, back in 2001, Ahmed Shafid, a former Balochistan guerrilla fighter turned activist-journalist and author of “Taliban”, told Radio Free Liberty that, “The Taliban are likely to scatter in small groups, and they’re likely to carry out guerrilla war with US troops. They’re not going to provide a sitting target for them.” This, of course, came to pass in exactitude.
In Iraq, the same thing happened with various Iraqi and foreign guerrilla fighters making life impossibly hard for the Western occupiers. As violence increased, the Americans and British ramped up their special forces-led strategy and, crucially, co-opted community leaders in Anbar province to provide militant support. This produced a remarkable decrease in violence which lasted for some years, but it was only successful because the conventional troops were able to ally with irregular local forces. When Daesh surfaced after the US and British withdrawal, its mistake was to define itself as a state and not an insurgency. Daesh has now lost half of its territory, failing on its own terms. Had it stayed as an anti-Assad rebel group, it probably would have survived. Instead, Daesh the State presented too appetising a target.
Israel also knows the value of an insurgency, as do the families of Britons killed by the state’s founders. One hundred and forty British servicemen and women, police and dozens of civilians were killed by Jewish terrorists between 1944 and 1948, an astonishing figure considering that 179 British troops were killed in Iraq between the 2003 invasion and the withdrawal in 2011. It was not just Zionist militias in action in the then British Mandate territory of Palestine; the Palestinians also mounted their own Arab revolt against the British for allowing too much Jewish immigration, as they saw it, resulting in a blockade against Jews both fleeing the Holocaust and displacing many of the Palestinian people. Whichever way you look at it, British policy in Palestine was not being decided in Whitehall; it was being dictated by insurgents. While the nascent Israeli militias got what they wanted, it was Anglo-Jewry who paid the price, just as British Muslims are today.
As a highly recommended paper by lawyer Paul Bagon put it in 2003, “Setting a trend that has clear resonance in a contemporary context, the sad conclusion of anti-British violence abroad in Mandate Palestine will be shown to have been the victimisation and vilification of a minority community in Britain,” namely Anglo-Jewry who became the subject of vile anti-Semitic criticism from the British media because of the violent actions of a minority of Jews abroad.
That morbid echo from history is taking place in Gaza today, where Hamas is probably invincible. Israeli policy is not being dictated in Tel Aviv, but on the streets of Gaza City. What is going on in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland has been modelled on the Middle East, and although it would surely not be politic for European military commanders to admit that they are modelling themselves on Hamas, by alluding to similar insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq that is exactly what they are doing, implicitly so.
Predictions that Hamas is about to disappear into the ether have been going on for exactly a decade. In 2006, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was certain that Fatah would win the Palestinian elections. She was proven — on this as on many other things — entirely wrong. An anonymous senior military source told The Week during Israel’s 2014 war against the Palestinians in Gaza, that, “It’s nearly impossible to quantify Hamas’s capabilities or its ability to survive the current attacks. But I would say that given its history, the ‘Hamas is finished’ scenario is an exaggeration… The movement has shown that it’s capable of taking a punch.” The following year, Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israeli spy agency Mossad, advocated talks with Hamas on the basis that it could not be beaten militarily, or using the kind of tough and illegal security measures he had himself implemented. “Hamas is still there even though they were beaten from the air and from the ground,” he told Al-Jazeera in May. “They are there to stay for a long period of time.”
The reason that it is important to say this now is because the next war in Gaza is surely already being planned. It will not be in 2017, I predict with some confidence, because in the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration it would be a propaganda disaster for Israel which would dwarf the hits its reputation received during 2014’s Operation Protection Edge.
It may be the year after, though. Just as Putin sends his men and women into combat when his domestic reputation is flagging, so too will Netanyahu require a boost. After all, the Israeli doctrine of “mowing the grass” is now well established. There were wars in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, yet to send Israeli troops into battle when their likelihood of lasting success is so low, and the risk of civilian deaths is so high — let alone that Israeli soldiers will also be killed — is, if not a tactical blunder of monstrous proportions, a war crime. Any future invasion of Gaza will only be a political act to satisfy the Israeli far-right or to play up to Israeli patriotism. Many thousands will die because of this.
Hamas will never be beaten, hard as that may be to stomach for those who have been its victims. It is time for Israel to accept this, and respond at last to the militant groups’ repeated attempts to negotiate.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.