Gaza Conflict 2021: Observations and Lessons

JINSA’s Gemunder Center Gaza Assessment Policy Project
October 2021

For two decades, the U.S. military has fought enemies who often represent no state, wear no uniform, make no effort to distinguish themselves from civilians in densely populated areas, and respect neither the laws of war nor the truth. The United States might confront such adversaries again, even as it leaves behind its post-9/11 strategic focus on terrorist threats, and not just in the form of non-state actors. Near-peer competitors, too, are adopting strategies that include conflict below the threshold of war, irregular warfare, and information operations.

That is why, as retired U.S. generals, admirals, and military legal experts, we undertook this study of the May 2021 armed conflict between Israel and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip. Our analysis of this conflict—based on primary source research, a factfinding trip to Israel, and discussions with senior Israeli and United Nations (UN) officials 1— yields legal, strategic, operational, and technological observations about the challenges confronting Israel today and that the United States could face in the future. Based on our analysis of Israeli military operations in this conflict, we also identify lessons that might assist American leaders in preparing for and conducting future conflicts effectively, efficiently, and in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC).

Perhaps the most telling feature of the Gaza conflict was the strategy mismatch between Israel’s purely military and operational objectives to degrade Hamas’ military capabilities— assisted by impressive advances in identifying and precisely striking targets—and Hamas’ information-based strategic objectives of delegitimizing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in global opinion and degrading the IDF’s operational advantage. The ability of an unscrupulous adversary to constrain military operations or even achieve strategic advantage against a much more capable opponent through the use of human shields and disinformation about both facts and law is a particularly concerning harbinger of what the United States might soon face.

Our consensus judgment is that IDF military operations complied with LOAC and consistently implemented precautions to mitigate civilian risk, some exceeding those implemented in recent U.S. combat operations that we participated in, despite confronting an adversary that often sought to exacerbate that risk deliberately. Yet, we found a significant gap between this reality of IDF LOAC compliance, and of Hamas’ violation of it, and the public’s perception. Israel’s messaging efforts were unable to close this gap.

Learning from Israel’s experience, the United States should prepare to face future adversaries, from loosely organized terrorist groups to conventional armed forces, that willingly put civilians at risk and blame the other side for it. It will have to contest such conflicts emphatically, and preemptively, in the information domain as much as in the physical. The U.S. military should train to operate in environments significantly more complex than Gaza—just as densely populated by civilians, but farther afield, with more limited intelligence, no air dominance, and a contested electromagnetic spectrum—while remaining committed to LOAC compliance. But the U.S. military must also be clear-eyed about setting realistic expectations for what that compliance will look like in such operations—it might not be feasible to take the same extraordinary but costly precautions Israel employed in Gaza. Investments, together with partners like Israel, in new technologies to counter enemies’ advancing capabilities and enable mitigating risk to civilians will be critical.