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Which side is limited?

The concept of “low intensity conflict” (LIC) 1- lack of relevancy in a changing Middle-Eastern geopolitical reality.


For many years, the fight against terrorism and guerilla was considered non-conventional fighting and was termed “low intensity conflict” (LIC) or “limited conflict”. In the following lines, I will claim that the “restraint” is only conceptual and conscious – in reality and in the field there is no restraint or limitation in the military clashing point between regular forces and terrorist organizations, rather there is maximal use of all firing platforms, weapons, manpower and even the intensity of the fire, both on part of the regular forces and the terrorist or insurgency groups. I will also claim that the definition that uses a “restraining” term, such as LIC, might lead to a mental block in operating the IDF’s forces against insurgency elements while these elements are employing unlimited military capabilities.

LIC is defined in the IDF’s dictionary as follows: “A political-military conflict between rival states that is less than conventional warfare but more than the routine competitive relationship between them. Occasionally, it entails prolonged conflicts regarding principles and ideologies and the range of conflict is from subversion to the use of military force… the conflict is managed with the combination of means involving the use of political, economic, intelligence, military and propaganda tools… in the majority of cases, this is a local conflict, but there are cases where it influences regional and international security”2

In this article, I will focus on examining the relevancy of the “Low Intensity Conflict” concept as defined in the IDF’s dictionary and claim that the definition is misleading and irrelevant in the reality of modern military conflicts and modern economic reality. The wrong perception created by the use of the LIC concept is expressed in four central spheres:

The extent of firepower used in the context of military confrontations with terrorist and subversive organizations.

The manpower allocated to fighting terrorism and subversion.

The lack of economic congruence between the resources allocated in reality and the real extent of the threat.

The assessment of the threat from terrorism and subversion as part of the Israeli security perception.

In this article, I will not address legal and judicial aspects in Israel (such as arrests, security prisoners’ rights, interrogations, etc) in light of the fact that in these fields the restrictions the state took upon itself as part of its legal and social method constitute a moral basis for its activity. This is in contrast to other countries that operate in the context of their fight against terrorism and guerilla with the backing of emergency laws in which the limitations are far fewer (for example, the US activity in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The extent of firepower used in the context of military confrontations with terrorist and subversive organizations

During the conflict with the Palestinians, since 2000 until the present, the IDF utilized all of its firing platforms, going from “the light to the heavy and from the accurate to the less accurate”:3

In the begging of operation “Ebb and Tide”: use of light arms, sniper rifles, and company level anti-tank rockets.

Following that, attack helicopter cannon and anti-tank missile fire (first time on 12/10/2000).4

Several months later – precision-guided munitions fire

Since March 2001 and onwards – tank shell fire.

Targeted killings with the help of attack helicopters

Targeted killings with the help of fighter jets (23/7/2002 – Salah Shehadeh).

Finally, since June 2006 and onwards – artillery fire into open areas in which the cells firing Qassam rockets roam.

In the tactical level, in which the “face to face” combat between the standing army troops and the terrorists and subversion forces take place, it was actually the “reverse asymmetry” that stood out in the past seven years. In many cases, the terrorist and subversion organizations make use of all the methods and techniques, including: taking shelter amongst civilian population and making use of ambulances, the elderly, women and children in order to transport weapons and even as attack platforms for suicide bombings, manufacturing of weapons, and adoption of combat methods stressing the weaker side’s advantages (mortar fire, attack tunnels, fence-circumventing attacks, etc). In these “face to face” battles, there is no element of “limitation” on the terrorism and subversion activities. In addition, there is a relative lack of asymmetry between the two warring sides in manpower and firepower. In contrast, the standing army troops are limited in the use of combat techniques, the types of weapons and extent of fire. This is in accordance with moral and legal dictations of action in an attempt to minimize collateral damage and injury to innocents.

Another example is the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. During the fighting against the Hezbollah terrorist group, the IDF operated all of the possible firing platforms (tanks, helicopters, fighters jets, artillery) at an unprecedented level: during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF fired 170,000 artillery shells in contrast to the 52,000 fired during the Yom Kippur War, in which the IDF fought against several Arab armies and was in a significantly inferior position in the beginning of the war. Meaning, when the state of Israel was under an immediate and existential threat, it fired less than a third of the total amount of artillery shells fired in the Second Lebanon War, in which there was no existential threat.

Despite using such intense firepower, it was the IDF that “suffered” from several operational limitations as a regular standing army due to several reasons: firstly, due to the fact that it is an army operating under the limitations of a democratic state; secondly, in light of the public opinion’s influence on the planning of the fighting and its implementation (for example, the Kfar Kana event); thirdly, in the context of the need to operate within the international and internal consensus; fourthly, the necessity to operate in accordance with the decisions of the international community and institutions; fifthly, the fact that the conflict zone is covered by the watchful eye of the international media; and finally, due to the objective challenges of all modern regular armies in face of terrorism and subversion (for example, intelligence, targets, differentiation between terrorism activists and the civilian population).

The manpower allocated to fighting terrorism and subversion

On 28/9/2000, a day before the beginning of the “Ebb and Tide” events, the total amount of manpower deployed in the Gaza Strip region was two brigades, each containing only two regiments and a control center. Since then, during the development of the fighting against the Palestinians, the deployment of manpower has increased to three brigades operating seven regiments in order to protect and defend the Jewish settlements during “calm” periods and included three brigades and two combined brigade-level teams for mission, including offensive operations, during peak periods. During Operation “Defensive Shield” in March of 2002 (the peak of fighting in Gaza, Judea and Samaria), five divisions were deployed in the region.

These changes are proof of the fact that the IDF deployed the majority of the regular army during these times, in addition to calling up reserve troops. These details indicate that the IDF could not have deployed greater forces even if it wanted to, both due to the broad control span and the maximal utilization of the forces, but also due to the fact that in these cases the political leadership did not did not declare war.

The lack of economic congruence between the resources allocated in reality and the real extent of the threat:

Beginning in 2000, a clear trend is visible of investing national resources in counter-terrorism and counter-subversion similar or identical in extent to those that were customary in the past during conventional wars between countries and standing armies. In the regional level, this was exemplified in the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifadah, and in the global level, the deployment of coalition troops, lead by the US, to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Between 1990 and 2000, the State of Israel suffered from an unprecedented level of terrorist attacks, especially suicide bombings. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics’ data, it can be established that following the terrorist attacks, there was an increase of 1.53% in Israel’s security expenditure in 1996, but the more significant increase took place in 2000 with an increase of 4.79% following the onset of the “Ebb and Tide” events – with the majority of the activity only taking place in the last three months of that year. The most significant increase in Israeli security expenditure took place in 2002 following Operation “Defensive Shield” when it rose 9.97%. Indeed, it was in these years that the IDF fully adopted the concepts of “Low Intensity Conflict” and “limited conflict” in order to describe the threat to the state as limited in its extent.

These facts are surprising when they are viewed in the context of the local security expenditure in Israel during wartime: during the First Lebanon War in 1982 the increase in local security expenditure was 5.1%, not much more than the change in 2000 and half the rate of increase in 2002. This indicates that the State of Israel invests financial resources in dealing with terrorism and subversion as much as, and in certain cases even more than, during wartime.

The assessment of the threat from terrorism and subversion as part of the Israeli security perception.

The assessment of the threat in the Israeli security policy during the Yom Kippur War was existential. This can be understood from the Israeli intention to (according to foreign publications) use nuclear weapons and from the statements of leaders, such as Moshe Dayan, regarding the “destruction of the third temple”. Meaning, the threat was perceived to existentially threaten the State. The First Lebanon War, which began as a one-front operation, was limited in scope in comparison to the Yom Kippur War. In light of its characteristics, this war was only given a status of a strategic threat.

Following that, during the 1990’s, but except following the First Gulf War, there was no comparable-sized threat to the State of Israel. On the other hand, this decade was full of radical terrorism events that exceeded the status of known tactical-operational threats. For example: the beginning of suicide bombings in public buses (the number 5 bus in Tel-Aviv and the number 18 bus in Jerusalem), the Wailing Wall Tunnel events and the Nakaba Day events in 1999. As noted earlier, it was during this time that the concept of “Low intensity conflict” was fully adopted in order to attempt and describe the threat to the citizens of Israel that, despite not being existential or strategic, severely damaged the citizens’ sense of security and instilled a sense of fear and anxiety. This also hurts the internal stability of the country, meaning, despite being seemingly “limited”, the threat is unlimitedly dangerous.

The lack of conceptual adequacy

In historical perspective, (1970 to the present) when looking at the formation of the aforementioned concepts, one can see that they were created during a period in which the perceived threat assessment in the Israeli security policy was operational and focused on the Arab national armies in Israel’s vicinity and somewhat further.

The following table demonstrates this point:

Key Events
1972: Munich
1973: Yom Kippur War
1976: Entebbe Operation
1982: Peace of Galilee War
1992: First Gulf War
1996: Series of terrorist attacks
March 2000: withdrawal from Lebanon
Sep’ 2000: Al-Aqsa Intifadah
2006: Second Lebanon War
Characteristics of terrorism              5
Classical terrorism
1981-2000: Modern terrorism
Post-modern terrorism
Formation of LIC/asymmetry
1978-1982 initial formation
1982-1990 conceptual and perceptive differentiation
Instilling the terminology and use for operations
Examination of relevance
Threat assessment in Israeli security policy  6
1973: existential threat
1982: strategic threat
1991: existential?
1990-2000: operational threat
Strategic threat
2007: Iran – existential?

Table explanation:

Classical terrorism – terrorism that targets position-holders or decision-makers in order to achieve political goals that will facilitate the realization of the terrorist organization’s goals. For example: the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov, the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the assassination of Minister Rehavam Ze’evi.

Modern terrorism – terrorism that targets the broad population in order to instill fear and anxiety that will bring about political measures by the government in a manner that will promote the terrorist organization’s goals. For example: the suicide bombings that took place during the 1990’s following the signing of the Oslo agreements, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Al-Aqsa Intifadah.

Post-modern terrorism – a “mega attack” intended to create tremendous reality-altering damage in order to shape new “rules of the game” that better suit the goals of the terrorist organization. For example: the 9/11 attacks.

The evolution of the “LIC” concept – the concept developed within the IDF’s professional jargon during the middle of the 1980’s and took root during the 1990’s.

The table demonstrates that the geopolitical reality in the Middle East and around the world is constantly changing. These changes directly highlight the fact that the LIC concept is lacking and no longer suitable for the many operational challenges that the terrorism and subversion organizations present to regular armies. Current definitions of LIC or “limited conflict” might lead to intellectual stagnation in operating the regular armies and the countries fighting terrorism and subversion in face of unlimited potential threats. This is due to the fact that the division of reality to “low” and “high” polars does not reflect the operational reality in which the scopes of manpower and firepower used by both warring parties is identical, or at least very close to the scope of manpower and firepower used by regular standing armies in “total” wars.

What is the alternative?

The article so far reviews the LIC concept’s development process and its taking root in the IDF professional jargon since the 1970’s to our times in order to establish the claim that the aforementioned concept was intended to express a state of conflict that, despite not reaching the scope of “total war”, is by no means limited: not in the scope of the manpower used, not in the extent of the firepower and variety of firing platforms used, and not in the amount of national economic resources required for dealing with the conflict. As the years past, this concept lost relevancy and, since the beginning of 2000, is no longer relevant and even leads to intellectual stagnation.

In addition, I pointed to the fact that the concept’s taking root in the IDF’s plans and professional jargon indeed peaked during a period in which the relevant threat assessment in the Israeli security policy was only on the operational level and, hence, the threat was only analyzed as a (relatively) lower priority. On the other hand, that was a period in which the state of Israel suffered from events that had unprecedented effect on its citizens’ sense of security.

In light of this, I advocate choosing a different concept that describes the reality of a “Full Military Conflict” (FMC) that is very close to a state of war, but is not limited. In this special situation, terrorist organizations possess capabilities that could inflict strategic blows to national infrastructure, loss of life, and economic and political damage. However, there still remains maneuvering room for the political leadership to not declare full out war due to the international, legal, judicial and economic ramifications this declaration would have.

The aforementioned proposed concept for describing this reality is suggested as a relevant alternative to LIC, which, as I claimed, does not effectively and fully portray reality and, hence, is no longer relevant. On the one hand, the use of “Full Military Conflict” as a concept will not limit the potential of military capabilities that can be used in the conflict, and on the other hand, will provide adequate flexibility in operating the forces since, consciously, there will be no limitation by the LIC concept. However, semantic changes are not enough. We must internalize the difficult environment in which terrorist organizations constitute no less a danger than total war. The declaration of “Full Military Conflict” must also be followed by legal authorization identical to emergency laws during total war. For example, the rights of security prisoners or interrogations should not be limited because they were considered part of the limited theoretical reality of the LIC concept.


The theoretical organizing that is termed LIC might be convenient due to the conceptual delineation it created between classical characteristics of combat and modern terrorism. However, the present reality shatters the “conscious partition” between a limited and extended phenomenon.

The manpower, firepower, national economic resources and, above all, the citizens’ sense of security demonstrate that limited LIC is by no means limited. Even at the end points, in which the combatants actually fight, there is no asymmetry and the firepower capabilities are not limited.

In these days, during which the State of Israel, the defense establishment, and especially the IDF require such vast resources and strategic efforts in order to rehabilitate the northern part of the country, and at the same time the IDF is training so extensively, it is wrong to term the catalyst of this process as “limited”.


1 It is important to note that in Hebrew the term is also translated as “limited conflict” and many allusions to the term in the article are addressing this “limited” or “restrained” aspect of the term.

2 IDF dictionary, Israeli Ministry of Defense publication, 1998.

3 This operating perception was developed by Brig. General Imad Fares while he was the commander of the Givati Brigade. This perception was wholeheartedly adopted by the commanders and soldiers of the brigade, both morally and operationally.

4 Coordinated with the coverage department in the IAF headquarters

5 According to Dr. Boaz Ganor’s insights

6 See additional details further on