Numerous definitions of asymmetric warfare are in use in various kinds of publications. Thomas (2001), describing the problematic nature of defining asymmetry, says that it is mostly cultural; a Chinese dictionary defines asymmetry as things that are not in accord and are out of balance, not matching or facing one another. A Russian dictionary explains asymmetry as the destruction or absence of symmetry. The American Heritage Dictionary defines asymmetry as “lack of symmetry or balance”. In military terms, the notion of asymmetry is best understood as a strategy, tactic or method of warfare or conflict which affects the balance of forces (Thomas, p. 34). In citing a US National Defense University (NDU) study, Thomas writes that an “asymmetric threat or technique is a version of ‘not fighting fair’. He disagrees with this study’s definition, saying that if this was true, then the Serbs and the Iraqis could claim that the war against them by NATO and the Allied forces was not fair, because it was waged from far, and by precision weapons, which they do not possess. As the foregoing shows, then, asymmetry, more particularly asymmetric warfare, can have more than one interpretation.
It seems, as a result, that the best way to arrive at an exact definition of asymmetric war is by analyzing a case study, such as the seven years of the constant bombing of the city of Sderot, a city in Israel’s Northern Negev, by HAMAS rockets.
Sderot and the surrounding areas became the target of Kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip by the HAMAS and other extreme factions of the Palestinians almost daily since the year 2000. The statistics show that during this time, more than seven years, a total of 2,383 rockets were fired at the civilian population of this city, of which number 45% landed in inhabited areas (HCC report, December 2007).
The Palestinians in Gaza consider rockets and mortars as an asymmetric response to Israel’s military superiority, because these weapons are simple, available and cheap (ibid.). The purpose of their attacks is to disrupt the social existence of the civilian population of Sderot and surrounding areas by terrorizing the population on a daily basis. The concept of this strategy, according to the HCC report, was inspired by Hezbollah’s Lebanese model, which ended with Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon; and Hamas considered this a successful strategy. Viewing the Lebanese case as a model, though, is erroneous, since the area under attack this time is under Israeli sovereignty and, therefore, the results of this strategy should not be the same as happened in the case of the withdrawal from Lebanon, which constituted a different context of warfare.
The dry statistics reveal that 11 people were killed by this shelling and 435 were wounded, most of them civilians, since 2001. There were 1600 cases of traumatic stress. This unprovoked rocketing affects around 190,000 people in Sderot and surrounding areas on a daily basis. HAMAS is supported by Iran and Syria in those countries’ attempts to increase the effectiveness of the rockets, their distance and accuracy, and also to provide the Palestinians with other weapons to increase the ability of the latter in their anti-Israeli activities. The driving motivations for this war are political and militant Jihad ideologies.
The asymmetry that is evident in this state of affairs is not related to the kind of weaponry used by the two sides, but rather to the ability of HAMAS to hurt the Israeli civilian population without a matching response from the Israeli army, which has to exercise restraint because of political and legal considerations. The asymmetry here stems from Israel’s vulnerabilities, which pertain to an Israeli value system that calls for minimizing damage to the enemy’s civilian population. This “Achilles’ heal” is exploited by HAMAS in purposefully attacking civilians. The Israeli tactic of targeted killing was designed, in effect, to minimize collateral damage in this war and also as a measure of reducing the effects of the asymmetric war against HAMAS. Targeted killing is an attempt to change the concept of war tactics from recognition of the fact that conventional weapons, as strong as they are, are useless when responding to the threats of insurgents, revolutionaries and terrorists (Staten, 1998).
Gaza is not a state, and the Palestinians who live there are not bound by international laws and treaties, codes of conduct or moral principles. This situation creates asymmetry, since Israel is a state; as such, the conduct of its army is dictated by international law, and even punishing the Palestinians’ constant shelling of Israel’s civilian population has to be justified by international law. This means that Israel is waging a lawful war against lawless people, and that is the real source of the asymmetrical context of the conflict.
Although the Israeli forces conduct military and civilian operations to reduce the quantity and effect of the daily rocketing of Sderot, it seems that the real answer to this problem, a strategy that will provide a solution to the situation, has not been found. The situation, indeed, is becoming worse. Several proposals have been aired to deal with this aggravated problem: one is to enter Gaza with a massive military force; another is a buffer zone between Sderot and the Gaza Strip. However, as things stand today, the asymmetry of the situation complicates the ability to restore balance to the area.
The case of the shelling of Sderot remains, for the time being, a classic case of asymmetric warfare: asymmetry in the ability to use certain response tactics, asymmetry in the fight of a lawful against a lawless people, and asymmetry in the value systems of the two sides to the conflict.
*Dr. Avishag Gordon is a senior Information Expert in the Computer Science Library at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. She also teaches in the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of Haifa, and is a research fellow at ICT. Contact: [email protected]
American Heritage Dictionary. (1985) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 137.
Rocket Threat from Gaza Strip 2000-2007 (year)–A Report of the Intelligence of Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (HCC), p. 4.
Staten, C.L. (1998) Asymmetric Warfare–The Evolution and Devolution of Terrorism: The Coming Challenges for Emergency and National Security. Retrieved from www.emergency.com/asymmetric.htm
Thomas T.L. (2001) Deciphering Asymmetric Word Game. Military Review, July-August, pp. 32-37.