12/03/2012 02:54 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

Invading Gaza: Why Israel Was Wise to Step Back From the Precipice

On November 14, Ahmed Al-Jabari, the Operational Commander of Hamas and the organization's number two, was killed in his car by a surgical airstrike executed by an Israeli jet. The Official Israel Defense Forces Twitter offered the following on: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead." Jabari's assassination, combined with the IDF's statements of intent on social media, were always going to provoke an angry retaliation from Hamas. After a week of intense hostilities, recent diplomacy efforts have concluded in a ceasefire --- for now, Israel has stepped back from the precipice of another Gaza invasion, the last being in 2008. Under the banner of conventional warfare, the Palestinian militant group would be no match for a vastly superior IDF, but the nature of contemporary conflict has shifted markedly in favor of the non-state actor. Irregular tactics employed under a different set of rules and empowered by the notions of the Arab Spring would prove troublesome for Israel -- perhaps more so than at any other time in the history of the conflict.

Israel's forces are some of the most well equipped and trained personnel in the world. In 2010, the Center for Strategic and International and Studies estimated the strength of the IDF's active ground forces to be 133,000 soldiers (one third regular, two thirds conscripts), bolstered by a formidable contingent of 500,000 highly trained reserves. That's almost 10 percent of the Israeli population trained to use arms in defense of its nation's political objectives, and almost equals in number the combined individual force strengths of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, and significantly surpasses each country in capability terms through superior training and manpower management. With over 2,500 tanks (including the Merkava 4 -- one of the most advanced of its kind), 10,000 armored vehicles, superior anti-armor and artillery inventories underpinned by a clinical battlefield repair and recovery capability, Israel maintains a distinct conventional advantage over its neighbors. Supporting the ground forces from the air, the Israeli Air Force operates more high quality combat aircraft than its Arab neighbors combined, has a lethal contingent of attack helicopters and drones, uses its own satellites for intelligence and targeting purposes and synergizes tactical effectiveness through advanced communications and a comprehensive battle management network. Capability and firepower remain the true measure of military might and, against a conventional army, Israel would be a formidable opposition.

A Palestinian reaction to Israel invading and occupying Gaza, however, would be far from conventional. In non-state actor warfare Goliath receiving a bloody nose from David is not uncommon in modern history. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) buried by roadside bottlenecks or carried in vehicles and motorbikes, triggered by innovative mechanisms including cell phones, timers, command wires and infrared sensors, form the weapon of choice within a non-state actor's arsenal. Suicide bombers have also become a potent and effective tool, using unsuspecting individuals that now include women and proving extremely complex for any traditional force to defend against.

Such unconventional warfare, executed by an indigenous opposition with unwavering resolve, has undermined some of the world's most powerful militaries. Political and military objectives by state actors in conflicts such as Vietnam (1955-70), Northern Ireland (1966-2007), Afghanistan (1979-88), Iraq (2003-11) and Afghanistan (2001-present) have suffered from significant compromise, short term success or failure and produced millions of fatalities in the process. The Viet Cong remained undefeated in South Vietnam; Sinn Fein (considered to be the political arm of the IRA) now forms part of the Northern Ireland Assembly; the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war and a rampaging Mujahideen; the U.S. left an uncertain Iraq beset by sectarian and ethnic divisions; and the fate of Afghanistan in 2014 remains to be decided, but is unlikely to conclude with a defeated Taliban. The advantage that an organic resistance has over any occupying force is considerable -- as the Taliban frequently remind the West: "you have the watches, we have the time."

History also dictates that most counter-insurgency conflicts have taken place thousands of miles from the domestic borders and major cities of the occupying force, making homeland security harder to penetrate due to geographic disposition. Breeches of domestic security clearly do occur, as 9/11 demonstrated, but are relatively rare. As the British conflict against the IRA in Northern Ireland proved, terrorist attacks against densely populated areas within its own borders were more frequent and difficult to defend against due to proximity. The major centers of population in Israel would become the brunt of incessant targeting, not just by IEDs and irregular means, but also by conventional methods.

Information on the origins of Hamas stockpiles is speculative, but Iranian, Russian and Chinese military systems have played a key and eye-opening role in the recent hostilities. The Iranian produced Fajr-5 long distance rocket, a relatively new capability for Hamas, can travel up to 75 km, making Israel's capital vulnerable from Gaza for the first time since hostilities began (although Iran only claims to have supplied the Palestinian military group with the technology and know-how). Russian-designed Grad rockets with an ability to penetrate targets out to 40 km, as well as small arms, RPGs, anti-tank weapons with armor piercing capability and Man Portable Air Defense Systems such as variants of the Russian Surface to Air Missile family, all form part of Hamas' arsenal. If equipment capabilities are compared in isolation Hamas would be annihilated but, as has been demonstrated by America's struggle to deplete a resilient Taliban, the facets of irregular warfare favor the non-state actor.

As a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations, Israel is answerable to the International Criminal Court of Justice and bound by the Geneva and Genocide conventions as well as the UN Charter. Ongoing disputes that breach the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding Israel and the occupied territories demonstrate that issues do exist, but the deterrence of international accountability remains a powerful lever. Hamas, viewed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., would take whatever action is needed to secure its political objectives, involving tactics extending well beyond its national boundaries -- IEDs and suicide bombers plaguing public transportation and heavily populated areas could become a frequent occurrence in the cities of Israel.

During warfare, many sovereign states (but not all) are bound by Rules of Engagement (RoE) that act either as legal terms, guidelines or limitations for soldiers, sailors or airman and their use of force. For example: a rule may be that a soldier can only open fire if a target is assessed to be a threat to life. RoE is designed to protect a combatant from breaching international legislation, but in scenarios involving irregular warfare against an opposition that doesn't wear a uniform the guidelines, especially if legally binding, can put state-based military forces on the back foot.

One of the most significant developments in the region since the last occupation of Gaza in 2008-09 concerns the notions and momentum behind the Arab Spring. Rebel uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria have proved formidable opposition for conventional forces, albeit with backing from the West. Support for Hamas would not be restricted to its indigenous population -- ideologies and motivations opposing an Israeli invasion would attract a continual flow of fighters from around the world, likely to include Hezbollah, who have already indicated that Israeli cities will be targeted in any future conflicts with Lebanon. Combined with existential support from the Syrian and Iranian governments, as well as what might indirectly come from Egypt given its democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government, Israel could face a complex enemy with unprecedented capability and resolve.

The effective and attritional nature of irregular and asymmetric warfare should not be underestimated by Israel. Lessons from modern insurgencies and conflicts should be heeded along with a realistic expectation that conflict would not be restricted to the confines of Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, powerful passions and notions stirred by the Arab Spring would generate regional and global support for the Palestinians, morphing Hamas and its affiliates into a potent and unpredictable enemy that operates by a different set of rules. Beginning with the latest ceasefire, Goliath would be wise to learn from previous encounters with David and perhaps, for once -- a handshake would be more prudent than a punch.