MegaMullet: Hamas v. Israel War

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TLDRUpFront: Hamas can start a war, and Israel can win the war, but neither can win the peace. Failing to get to the roots of mutually held grievances by Palestinians and Israelis is just pulling weeds. Permanent dismantling of Hamas and the removal of Netanyahu’s government, and repudiation of his governing style, are required to allow space for something else to grow in the region.



(editor’s note: Putting a MegaMullet of this size together in <24hours and on an event of this size means I’m reserving the right to make revisions to the text for grammar, clarity, and addition of sources I used. If more substantive changes are needed due to new information making inaccurate certain findings, I’ll make a change here. See “Discussion” before sources for a FAQ Q&A arising from this article as it will be updated for the next week or two.)


Stephen Kotkin recently reintroduced a valuable analytical construct to the Russian-Ukrainian war, which is distinguishing how to win the war vs. how to win the peace (1).  Over the last few months, he has raised this analysis repeatedly: even if Ukraine achieves military objectives, that is not necessarily winning the peace with neighboring Russia. And even before the invasion, I pointed out Russia could defeat Ukraine militarily but would certainly not obtain any lasting peace from it. Though made famous by President Nixon as a campaign slogan, this framework of winning the war vs. winning the peace goes back much further.   Kotkin points out that a state can lose the war and win the peace, such as was the case with the US war in Vietnam which, despite losing militarily, ultimately benefitted from currently strong ties between the two countries. A state can also win the war and lose the peace, as the US demonstrated in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Keep this framework of of winning the war vs. winning the peace in mind for this MegaMullet which provides contextual background, incident analysis, a few forrays into my research for key parts, and thoughts on the way ahead from here.

Background of the Conflict 2006 – 2020

Going into the full background of the Israel v. Palestine conflict reaches back thousands of years, depending on who you ask. Even going back decades involves more than a few MegaMullets. What’s important to know by way of intermediate background for the Hamas v. Israel war that began on Saturday are a few elements I’m going to outline below.

Palestinian-administered territories are split into two distinct geographic areas, the West Bank and Gaza.

The West Bank is the larger of the two, both in territory and population. A landlocked territory it is surrounded on all sides by Israel except to the east, where it shares a border with Jordan. It is about ~6,000km^2 in size and holds close to 3M people. The Gaza Strip is a much smaller 365km^2 strip of land holding 2.4M people within it that is completely surrounded by Israel over the majority of its landward borders, except for a small sliver bordering Egypt in the southwest and the Mediterranean Sea to the west.

Gaza Strip (left) and West Bank & Jerusalem (center) territories within Israel.

Governance of these territories is important to understand as background to the conflict. Up until 2005, Israel occupied the Gaza Strip. However, from the 1993 Oslo Accords, Yassar Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was the head of the Palestinian National Authority, often shortened as Palestinian Authority (PA) which administered both the West Bank and Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip on behalf of Palestinians.  Not recognized as a full state, because that’s complicated, but with international recognition as a quasi-state status. However, in 2005 Yassar Arafat died and with him the ability to suppress political factions within the PA from exerting influence and carving out their own spheres of power.

To simplify things, there are two factions and two leaders to focus on that arose from the aftermath of the death of Arafat to focus on relevant to understanding the Hamas v. Israel war. Of course, the reality is more complex, so consider these factions and leaders as stand-ins for a host of more complicated personal, political, and power relationships.

For a more detailed background on events leading up to 2005, see one of my earliest “InfoMullet” posts from back in the LiveJournal days. Written in 2003 it gives some bridging context of the time-between Oslo and the outbreak of Palestinian Civil War in 2006. 

Fatah was the largest organization within the PLO and held most of the old guard that fought and served alongside Arafat. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is the internationally recognized president of the PA and ostensibly administers both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Most of the legitimacy Abbas and Fatah has however only comes from this international recognition and is not shared by Palestinians themselves. They largely view Fatah, and Abbas specifically, as corrupt and feckless. Struggling with internal divisions and this sense of low legitimacy among Palestinians, resulted in a disputed election in 2006 resulted in split results between Fatah and Hamas for control of the PA.

Hamas, originally founded as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood operated as a resistance movement using clandestine terrorist methods in the First Intifada (1987) growing into a strong insurgent force by the Second Intifada (2000) (see below for why I’m distinguishing their phases). Far more militant and uncompromising in its hostility to Israel than Fatah, Hamas made strong gains in a contested election of 2006. After a failure to reach a power-sharing agreement, Hamas and Fatah engaged in a brief Palestinian Civil War.  The result of the war was a Hamas seizure of the Gaza Strip, after which both Israel and Egypt enacted a permanent blockade beginning in 2007. This blockade is supported by the Sisis-led military junta in Egypt which has never been friendly to Hamas which they associate with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian could’ve been called “loose” prior to the Arab Spring but hardened in 2013 when Sisi returned to power after ousting elected President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they matched Israel’s commitment to completely isolate Gaza as a result.

From this, the real control of President Abbas and the PA is limited to the West Bank. Hamas has entrenched itself as an emerging-state actor controlling the Gaza Strip. Though lacking in international recognition, it de facto is the functioning government of that territory.

Abbas and Haniyeh attempted reconciliations of their organizations in 2014, but the process went nowhere. And the territories have remained divided ever since.  Neither Fatah nor Hamas has held an election since 2006. Although Hamas enjoys more popular support than Fatah, it also employs authoritarian methods of suppression within Gaza to stifle dissent, eliminate transparency and accountability to its actions, and hold onto power. Abbas, from the old school, likewise has managed to magically hold onto power without ever being elected again but most suspect him of just buying his way there.

In addition to internal Palestinian disputes, part of the reason no reconciliation could be reached was the active involvement of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stir the pot.  He was Prime Minister from 2009-2021, and again took office in 2022. Netanyahu’s bellicose approach to the Palestinian question favored having a militant opponent like Hamas more than Fatah.

Ironically, this means Netanyahu dealt more with Haniyeh than he did Abbas, delegitimizing the nominal Fatah governing power of the PA and propping up by way of importance Hamas.  Hamas’s political existence is predicated on its perception as the implacable foe of Israel, and in a way, Netanyahu’s political career is predicated on the perception he is the implacable foe of Hamas. In a perverse way, they need each other.

Not (Just) Your Father’s Grievance

In the United States, we tend to think of the Palestinian and Israel conflict as one of long-standing grievance based on the status of statehood, land claims, and disputed territories going back to the mid-20th Century.

And that’s not wrong.

But on top of that additional grievances arose during the Second Intifada adding to these. These were the status and access of Jewish worshippers to al-Aqsa Mosque, considered one of the holiest Islamic sites in the world, and the never-ending drumbeat of ultra-conservative Jewish settlers forever nibbling away parts of Palestinian territory.

If you need a summary of a cycle of violence in Palestine v. Israel conflicts, it goes something like this. The existing grievance of Palestinians perceiving themselves as an occupied people living under apartheid is aggravated by provocative acts of al-Aqsa showmanship and settler encroachment.  Palestinian protests are intertwined with groups that have pledged to wipe Israel off the map; so the existing grievance of Israeli’s perceiving themselves under existential threat is aggravated. An escalation ladder is climbed where who does what first matters less than eventually, it’s Hamas shooting rockets over a border fence and Israel conducting air strikes.

This is where a distinction is important. It should go without saying that Hamas is not representative of all Palestinians and the same applies to those engage in al-Aqsa and settler provocations. I am normally loathe to wade into Israel politics, once declining to give any NYE AMA 2018 election forecast result for Israel. It was a good call too as that cycle resulted in five elections before Netanyahu’s rise in 2022. These actions do not enjoy broad political support by all Israelis but by fringe groups that enjoy the protection of conservative parties who need their few parliamentary seats to maintain governing power.

A representative example of these groups is the Khanists, a niche religious ideology within Israel of ultra-hardline ultra-orthodox Jews. Khanists believe any non-Jew living in Israel is a threat to both Jews and the state, that the state should be a theocratic, rather than secular, entity. Represented politically by the Katch (“Thus”) party until that was banned from Israeli politics in the 1980’s and designated a terrorist organization by the United States. A political arm resurfaced in Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) formed in 2012. Although the party won few seats in the legislature, those few seats were crucial to Netyanhu’s return to power and thus its leader  Itamar Ben-Gvir gained the position of National Security Minister in 2022. A real peach Ben-Gvir has boasted of being indicted 53 times for provocative actions against Israeli law and designed to enrage Palestinians and is rumored at one point to have a portrait of Baruch Goldstein in his living room. (Goldstein was the Israeli terrorist and illegal settler who opened fire on 800 Palestinians in prayer killing 29 and wounding 125 in 1994.) Although not the only group engaging in al-Aqsa and settler provocations, Khanists and provocateurs like Ben-Gvir are usually in the mix somewhere. Consider them a proxy example only.

On the flip side of the grievance equation, organizations like Hamas exploit the provocations (current, past, or imagined) of groups like the Khanists to stir the pot with terrorist and insurgent actions against Israel. These attacks then exacerbate the grievance of Israelis perceiving themselves as living under existential threat of extinction by far (Iran) and near (Hamas and Hezbollah) actors. Again Hamas is far from the only militant group in Palestine, I could list dozens. But the role these groups serve, using Hamas as a proxy, is the same in this cycle.

Finally, we have Netanyahu’s government exploiting the local social currency of the grievance of security coves for the provocations of Khanists, stirring the pot with military reactions in Gaza and the West Bank.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Since the blockade was established,, over 15 military operations have occurred in and around the territory. Some were instigated by Hamas over the perceived grievance of the Palestinians of oppression, others were instigated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) over the perceived grievance of threats to Israeli security. Sometimes both. This doesn’t necessarily even count the police actions that regularly occur associated with al-Aqsa and settler provocations.

Two cases are exemplars of this cycle. In 2021 Israeli police conducted provocative actions in and around al-Aqsa Mosque in parallel with hotly disputed land claims leading to forced evictions of Palestinians from their home. Back-and-forth minor violence between Palestinians and Israelis led up the escalation ladder leading to protests, riots, police retaliation, the firing of rockets by Hamas, and military reprisal by the IDF. When the dust settled, 275 Palestinians were killed and several thousand were injured, 20 Israelis were dead, and several hundred were wounded (2). Afterward, Itamar Ben-Gvir opened up political offices in the seized neighborhood.

These numbers are bad enough, but in terms of an overall level of violence, we can put them in context by normalizing to the United States population. The Palestinian population in the two territories is about 5M, and the Israeli population is about 10m, or 1/33rd and 1/10th of the United States population. Adjusting casualties to scale – this one clash lasting only two weeks would have been like seeing 18,000 deaths from the Palestinian perspective and nearly 700 from the Israeli.

In another incident in 2023, Jewish religious extremists attempted to circumvent a ban on prayers in al-Aqsa during Ramadan. They were encouraged to do so by Ben-Gvir, who sought to enter the Mosque in January. Though police intervened and stopped Jewish attempts to infiltrate the Mosque, rumors spread that ultra-orthodox Jews might sacrifice a goat on the holy ground, leading to a sit-in by Palestinians that, when evicted by Israeli police, resulted in 400 injured (3). In US terms, that’d be like disrupting an Occupy Wall Street protest and injuring ~13,000 in the process.

The commentariat can wrap itself around the axle on the specifics of any one incident. Who started what? How many killed were militants or legitimate targets based on security practices? Who had the better land claims under what system of law going back over 200 years?

My argument is this level of debate misses the forest for the bark on the trees. When an area has a high level of ongoing violence, grievances associated with that violence become anchored. The Palestinian grievance of occupation and perceived apartheid exacerbated by specific issues of the Gaza Blockade, al-Aqsa Mosque, and settler land disputes become anchored. Israeli grievances of threats to their security by rocket attacks and terror attacks arising from Palestinian-administered areas become anchored.

Oddly, in this way, the Netanyahu administration and Hamas mutually benefit one another and ensure their stay in power, resulting in everyone else suffering for it. And this is why neither side can win the peace. It is not in the best interests of Netanyahu or Hamas to have long-lasting peace or stability because, in a way, the reason for the political existence of either group is predicated on an ongoing cycle of either creating or exploiting grievances leading to serial violence.


Abraham Accords & Normalization 2020 – October 7th, 2023

Into this cycle was injected the diplomacy of President Trump, and primarily his son-in-law Jared Kushner. In August 2020, an effort was announced to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries known as the Abraham Accords.

For decades relations in the Middle East between Arab countries, except for Egypt and Israel, were anchored to the Palestinian Issue.  Normalization was an end-run around this barrier by creating bilateral relations that were not tied to the advancement of reconciling Palestinian issues. In the beginning, the United Arab Emirates was the first one to sign on.  Since then, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have also signed on.  Meaningful progress, but regarding Middle East power players, not the big league.

Therefore, Netanyahu’s strategy to win the peace seemed not to run through Palestine itself but by normalizing relationships with as many other Arab countries as possible, thus diminishing the importance of the Palestinian issue to Israel’s regional relations.

And he was hoping to land the big fish soon. Over the last year, negotiations between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu of Israel, facilitated by diplomats of President Biden’s administration, sought to normalize relations between the two major power players in the region, who just so happen to also be the United States two biggest allies in the region. Indeed, at a recent United Nations speech, Prime Minister Netanyahu portrayed the Palestinian issue as an afterthought, a conflict the resolution of which will arise as a byproduct of broader normalization, saying: ““When the Palestinians see that most of the Arab world has reconciled itself to the Jewish state, they too will be more likely to abandon the fantasy of destroying Israel and finally embrace the path of genuine peace with it (8).”

MBS has reasons to seek this normalization. As the leader of the Sunni-aligned Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and opposed regionally to Iranian Shia efforts of encirclement, the normalization between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel would give cover to other Arab states to normalize further isolating Iranian-backed emerging-state actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. For more analysis on MBS and the Saudi-Iranian conflict as it played out over the region see this MegaMullet from 2017.


Preparation for War: Two Hypotheses

Though information is still forthcoming, two different but not mutually exclusive narratives have emerged regarding how Hamas prepared to pull off the largest assault on Israel in decades.  This complex operation consisted of multiple groups coordinating actions at multiple sites that would’ve required extensive rehearsal, coordination, logistics, and staging.

Strategic Ruse Hypothesis

One perspective I’ll call the “strategic ruse” comes from Reuters reporting (4). The sources for this reporting are listed as being someone close to Hamas and three individuals inside Israel’s security establishment who asked not to be identified.

In this hypothesis, since their last war in 2021, Hamas led Israel to believe it was more interested in “winning the peace” than starting another war. Under former Prime Ministers Bennett and Lapid, Israel increased work visas for construction jobs and other trades to reduce unemployment and improve economic conditions in Gaza. This is exactly what “winning the peace” might look like in an alternative universe. In return, Hamas refused to take the bait of continued provocations by Jewish worshipers and Israeli police at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the West Bank and periodic incidents of settler violence. When other militant groups attacked Israel, Hamas stood aside and didn’t participate, or not to their normal level. Indeed, Hamas was getting mocked by none other than Fatah’s Abbas for its milquetoast response to Israel’s provocation.  But under this hypothesis, under the strategic ruse, it was all a ploy. And Hamas conducted extensive preparations under the nose of Israel’s vaunted intelligence complex.

This ruse involved training over a thousand fighters in exercises and operations that, when combined, would play out over the deadly invasion on Saturday. However, knowledge of the overall plan was limited, so very few units knew the mission they were training for. This way, even if infiltrated, Israeli intelligence wouldn’t be able to determine the purpose of this training. Some indications were clearer, however. According to Reuters, Hamas even built a full-scale mock settlement that they practiced landing upon and assaulting, not unlike SEAL Team Six building a mockup of the compound they would assault to kill Osama bin Laden.

Under this hypothesis, the purpose of the military assault was to retaliate against continued al-Aqsa and settler violence provocations. Supporting this hypothesis, the attack was named Operation al-Aqsa Storm, and the seizure of hostages, in addition to providing human shields against Israel’s retaliation, led to the possibility of mass-prisoner exchanges to free those arrested at the Mosque as well as Hamas militants.

Iranian Spoiler Hypothesis

The other hypothesis arises from Wall Street Journal reporting (5), based on ‘senior members’ of Hamas and Hezbollah. According to this hypothesis, Iran began coordinating an attack among four militant groups (Hezbollah and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine from the north; Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank).  The primary strategic outcome was to end the normalization process with Saudi Arabia before it could be finalized.  The attack and a predicted Israel massive reaction would effectively end the Saudi-Israel negotiations for further normalization and perhaps risk rolling back previous normalizations. A secondary goal was to ‘strangle’ Israel from all sides.

The meetings in Beirut reported by the Wall Street Journal organizing the attack were allegedly attended by Iranian Revolutionary Garud Corps (IRGC) officers and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

One consequence of this hypothesis, with up to nine Americans now confirmed dead and the potential of more to come being killed, wounded, or as hostages, is that any Iranian involvement that is confirmed may bring the United States closer to the reaction than it might otherwise be.

Neither Hypothesis is Mutually Exclusive to the Other

Evaluating the two hypotheses, the first thing to note is that they are not mutually exclusive. First, it’s hard to fathom for me how an operation of this complexity and execution is prepared for in just two months. So, the strategic ruse hypothesis has the credibility of giving sufficient time for preparations and drills to be undertaken.  However, the strategic goal of the ruse hypothesis is unclear. There are many ways Hamas could retaliate for Israel’s provocation that doesn’t require taking an existential risk on its existence. It can attack civilian and military targets on a much smaller scale and has proven adept at capturing hostages for prisoner exchanges. However, if the normalization of Arab – Israel relations is itself seen as an existential risk, then I can see Hamas preparing and then Iran being brought in or parallel developments overlapping.

Distinguishing Terrorism, Insurgency, and Emerging-State Actor Organizations & Their Tactics

Hamas is a designated terrorist organization by the United States. But this designation can create confusion in how it operates, and this confusion extends to misperceptions of what exactly the attack on Saturday manifested as. One of my earliest research efforts were using systems thinking and simulations to parse the confusion between terror networks, insurgencies, and what I came to term emerging-state actors.

The indented text below is a lightly edited crib from the earlier research, but you can check out the original article, including the simulations, below (6). The article is open-access.

Consider the figure below:


The bottom axis is a continuum of tactics employed in furthering an agenda by non-state actors. On the left of the horizontal are non-state actors who seek to achieve their agenda through unconventional warfare defined as “…operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area” [14] (p. 261)

On the right side of the horizontal continuum are those non-state actors who further their agenda through a “…violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s),” [14] (p. 125), the key distinction being to what extent the non-state actors are operating in a clandestine or more open fashion and seeking legitimacy over the local population. The continuum ends at irregular warfare excluding conventional full-spectrum operations and nuclear war as being beyond the reach of non-state actors.

The distinction between terrorist and insurgent is based on the question of how much of a threat to the state the non-state actor poses. Kilcullen describes how in “Western popular culture the conception of terrorism became that of disembodied cells of radicalized, nihilistic individuals [who]…could not and did not tap into a mass base that drew its legitimacy from popular grievances, as traditional insurgents” [4] (loc. 3123). But many insurgencies, Kilcullen continues, especially those of the 21st Century, operate in a conflict where the insurgents “challenge the state by making it impossible for the government to perform its functions, or by usurping those functions—most commonly, local-level political legitimacy; the rule of law; monopoly on the use of force; taxation; control of movement; and regulation of the economy” [4] (loc. 2529). So, insurgencies differ from terrorism in their intent of challenging the state, however, most insurgencies still operate in a clandestine fashion. This is because an insurgency does not yet have a monopoly on the activities within the territory they occupy, so the non-state actor can neither operate nor govern openly. This territorial control leading to open-governing distinction is vital amongst the non-state actors. Once an insurgency controls the territory to the exclusion of any other force and establishes enforcement of the law, commerce, and social activity, they have evolved to something more than an insurgency.

In 2007 the United States military published the Joint Operating Concept on IrregularWarfare to guide future joint force commanders on a wide variety of types of irregular warfare. The Joint Operating Concept briefly treats this concept of insurgencies acting in sovereign fashion in a footnote “[s]tate-like adversaries refer to non-traditional adversaries that have evolved to the point of attaining state-like power, authority, and influence over a population” and later acknowledging that “these adaptive actors may possess some of the power of states and adopt state-like structures” [6]. This final definition allows the creation of a vertical continuum of the threat to the state. At the bottom, small groups of individuals pursue policy change but have little chance of disrupting state function. In the middle, an insurgency begins to threaten the governing of a state by disrupting the means to do so. At the top, an insurgency has begun to capture territory and govern openly becoming a state-like actor. The only difference at that point remaining from a state-like actor and a state is international recognition.


The summary of emerging-state actor theory is a progression of dynamics. Displaying it first as a causal loop diagram and then a sequence of progressive steps, stop me when any of this doesn’t sound familiar to what’s occurred (6):

  1. A failure of governance by the state actor and inability to tolerate civil reforms decreases legitimacy, increases grievance, and leads to general uprising and resistance.
  2. This resistance manifests first in the form of clandestine terrorism which increases the perception of instability, further decreasing the legitimacy of the state. Likewise, violent acts reduce the incentives of the state actor to credibly govern the ethnographic group from within which these actions emerge.
  3. Local grievances create militants who join a local non-state actor or bring one in from afar.
  4. The non-state actor uses militants and finances to conduct military actions.
  5. As the non-state actor increases the controlled population, it begins extracting coercive revenues through criminal activities and recruiting locally from within this population.
  6. Within its territory, the non-state actor attempts to monopolize the use of force, taxation, control of movement, and regulation of the economy. By operating in a sovereign manner, the non-state actor shifts to an emerging state actor.
  7. Coercive revenues and territorial revenues finance governing mechanisms that can begin building legitimacy to shift the controlled population into a governed population.
  8. As the emerging-state actor gains a governed population, it also gains taxation revenue and increases its draw of non-local foreign recruits by propagandizing its non-local grievances, which may or may not align with local grievances.
  9. The loops complete a positive feedback loop of exponential growth. More militants mean more military actions, which means more territory and access to controlled populations, which become governed, fueling finances, which fund more militants and military actions.
  10. The limits to growth occur through negative feedback loops defining the outer territorial control of the emerging-state actor in the short term, and a dynastic rise and fall of its own perception of legitimacy within the ethnographic segments of the populations it governs.

The definition of an emerging-state actor then is one that uses methods of irregular warfare to capture territory to influence populations (“coercive power”), which it then attempts to govern in furtherance of its objective to become a functioning state (“legitimate power”). I recognize that although the term for this category might be new in this application, the behavior and model is not, as other actors, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hezbollah in Lebanon have taken this route as indicated by the segmentation (6).

Replace ‘capture of territory’ to ‘gain power through contested elections and then hold it through authoritarian force’  and you have a pretty good description of Hamas. Because although it began in the space of a clandestine terrorist network and shifted eventually to an insurgency, it is now operating as an emerging-state actor.

Consequences of the Attack

This is important because in no way, shape or form should Saturday’s action be limited by a conceptualization of a “clandestine terror attack.”  This invasion of Israel consisted of multiple battalions of over 1,000 mobile-mechanized light-infantry fighting in an irregular warfare style. Multiple breaching actions on the security buffer enforcing the Gaza blockade were carried out by commando teams under cover of a rocket barrage that would make a Russian MLRS operator blush by comparison.  Breaches opened were expanded with bulldozers through which rushed improvised fighting vehicles carrying fighters while boats and paragliders coordinated attacks.


The extent of Hamas invasion at furthest incursion into Israel. (Source: Wikipedia)

Incursions occurred in seven different locations resulting in over 20 active fighting areas. Hamas targets in this invasion ranged from legitimate military to unlawful civilian attacks. One can argue that military bases and military checkpoints enforcing the Gaza blockade are lawful targets of warfare for a self-identified resistance force. But assaulting civilian communities and attacking the Re’im music festival does not fall in that category. The music concert, attended by some 3,500 attendees, was targeted by organized militants riding motorbikes shooting down unarmed and fleeing civilians. As of writing, the casualty count in this incident alone resulted in at least 250 killed, as many if not more wounded, and the seizure of dozens of hostages. This ranks the attack as creating twice as many fatalities as the Paris Attacks of 2015 and approaches when all recovery is complete, the level of the My Lai massacre, a war crime committed by the United States military in Vietnam.

Again adjusting these for per capita US populations for comparison, the Reim music attack alone would be like twice the fatalities of the 9/11 attack. Overall the Hamas invasion of Israel, using this same basis of comparison, is as if 9/11 killed and wounded 28,500, about four times more significant.

This is not “just” terrorism as if Hamas set off a few car bombs, but irregular warfare conducted through operational surprise on a massive scale.

Taking a step back from the ticker-tape of suffering in the attack, a few things are worth pointing out. The colossal failure of Israel’s security forces in preventing the attack extended into reacting to the attack. It is one thing to miss the signals of attack, and quite another to fail to react to border crossing incursions, the overrun of military and civilian locations, and then allowing those forces to return with hostages back into Gaza. In some cases, attacks went unanswered for hours while civilians were left alone. Likewise, sustained fighting lasted through the weekend and, in some cases, into Monday as militants left as a rearguard who had fortified themselves in captured areas had to be rooted out.

It’s easy to lay the blame for this on the celebration of Sukkot, which is a Jewish seven-day holiday. However, it’s not that Israel hasn’t been attacked on holiday before. 50 years to the day the Yom Kippur War began under similar conditions. A deeper look shows that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were substantively deployed in active operations…at the West Bank.

The combination of the cycle of provocations I described above between Israel al-Aqsa and extremist settler provocations leading to Palestinian militant reactions with the strategic use of Hamas meant that most of Israel’s available military focus was focused on the wrong place.

However, as of writing this, if Hamas was expecting the other two militant groups in the north to carry their weight, they would be disappointed. Although there have been some light border incursions across from Lebanon, there is no significant action of similar size, scale, or complexity as the Saturday-Monday assault from Gaza. Israel has redeployed forces to cover the major axis of incursion and is much less likely to be caught by surprise.

Hamas employed many zero-day hacks in this attack. Its use of paraglider assault teams, as far as I know, is novel. Its rapid execution of coordinated breaching operations that began with the infiltration teams escalated to bulldozers and ended with prepared vehicles racing through the holes was also something we haven’t seen as much before. Israel will adapt to these threats, and the next time they are used, their effectiveness may be reduced.

What did Hamas gain?

But standing back, this begs the question. What was Hamas attempting to achieve? Assuming the strategic ruse hypothesis of two years spent preparing and the use of multiple zero-day hacks, which won’t be as effective ever again, it appears Hamas gained little strategic outside the death of hundreds of Israels and hostages to potentially protect against retaliation and exchange in a future swap. They gained information operations win, as much of the attack was broadcast live on social media. But that sword cuts both ways. It’s one thing to share a video of your forces attacking the so-called apartheid oppressor’s military forces and quite another to have a video of families and children attacked in a similar manner.  Indeed, when world opinion does shift against Israel during past serial raids, it is because of the dehumanization of the brutality of military operations caught and shared on video. And in this regard, Hamas may have outdone itself. It’s bad enough that attacks, such as on the music festival, appeared to be a little more coordinated than organized mass shootings killing hundreds. Into this mix, opportunists are sprinkling beheading videos taken from other conflicts and assigning blame to Hamas.

Even if the only strategic goal coming out of this attack was neutering the normalization process, Hamas may have overshot what was necessary to accomplish it. From an outsider’s perspective, it almost seemed that they didn’t actually think they would be as successful as they were. And as is the case in so many militaries, when a long sought-after and denied objective is reached, failures of discipline lead to excessive brutality, mayhem, and murder.


Aftermath: Israel’s Right of Retaliation includes Dismantling Hamas – but does not extend to Grozny Rules or Genocide

Because make no mistake, Israel will seek to eliminate Hamas once and for all. And it has every right to do so. But in doing so it, and especially its military forces, must also recognize limits to their actions.

In the wake of 9/11, America exerted a legitimate right to hunt down and capture or kill, the al-Qaeda organization that precipitated the attack. When the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leadership under the Pashtunwali principle of nənawā́te or Asylum, the United States extended its right to retaliate against the Taliban harboring them. There are many valid arguments over what followed, with the Afghanistan War expanding from regime change of the Taliban and dismantling al-Qaeda to trying to insert western-style Federal governments as part of that regime change and expanding to the mind-boggling bad idea of regime-change via the Iraq War. But that’s a different topic. Indeed, I have an entire HistoricalMullet series of recovered earlier blog posts documenting the lead-up and execution of that adventurist disaster. But at its core, the right of a state to react to military aggression and attacks is well established.

These rights come with obligations, though, codified as principles of warfare. Though there are many sources in international law, but five principles useful for this analysis are defined in the Department of Defense Law of War Manual as (7):

  • Military necessity justifies the use of all measures needed to defeat an enemy as quickly and efficiently as possible that are not prohibited by the law of war. Incidental harm in these actions is justified as long as it fits within the principle of proportionality.
  • Humanity forbids the infliction of suffering, injury, or destruction unnecessary to accomplish a legitimate military purpose
  • Proportionality is that even where one is justified in acting, one must not act in a way that is unreasonable or excessive, often known as requiring an economy of force to accomplish military objectives. As much as is needed but no more.
  • Distinction obliges parties to a conflict to distinguish principally between the armed forces and the civilian population, and between unprotected and protected objects. Parties to a conflict must apply a framework of legal classes for persons and objects by (1) discriminating in conducting attacks against the enemy; and (2) distinguishing a party’s own persons and objects.
  • Honor recognizes that a belligerent’s rights are not unlimited, and those engaging in violence under a justified right also accept an obligation of how to act in that conflict in accordance with international law and traditions of war.

By way of example, legitimate justifications 9/11 provided to the United States to seek to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban would not suffice as a justification for the nuclear annihilation of Afghanistan as it fails on military necessity, distinction, and proportionality. Likewise, the Bush and neocon justifications for indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition of torture of prisoners failed on the Honor principle because it committed an intentional end-run under well-established military law by political leaders. Not every drone strike President Obama or Trump authorized is justified simply because we are in the Global War on Terror.

To this extent, Israel has every right to seek to dismantle and eliminate Hamas as a threat. And Prime Minister Netanyahu is only too eager to engage in that. 300,000 military reserves have already been called up, and Israel is preparing to push into Gaza.

But the principles of war are where those rights end and obligations begin. The IDF, as a professional military force, generally understands this in principle, their laws of war manual is not altogether wholly different than the United States. However the risk of institutional indiscipline does not arise in times of calm but in times of crisis.

Legitimate retaliation has its limits. And under international law and the generally accepted rules of warfare these limits do not include wholescale unrestricted retaliation against a civilian population, either by collective punishment or indiscriminate military action. The Hamas militants running amok massacring fleeing civilians at Remi cannot be answered by Israeli bombers running amok cratering every building in Gaza that still has stairs going up.

Even when an emerging-state actor lives within and exploits the grievance of the population of Gaza. I’d be a hypocrite of the worst kind if I wrote extensively on the danger of escalating to so-called Grozny Rules in Ukraine, revisiting Russia’s abhorrent unrestricted bombing of civilian cities with no air defense in the midst of the Syrian Civil War, and didn’t point out that the same limit applies to Israel’s ongoing actions in Gaza.

Likewise, Israel has already had Gaza under blockade for over 16 years, restricting the movement of goods and people. In the wake of the Hamas attack, Israel’s Defense Minister declared that this would extend to a full-scale siege by limiting food, water, electricity, and gas (10).  That would put the city under total siege, effectively using starvation as a method of warfare which is against the Geneva Convention unless limited in action to only including military targets. It’s one thing to surround a building occupied by Hamas and starve them out. But laying siege to an entire city with the express purpose of starving the civilian population is prohibited. But don’t just take my word for it, this tactic is also prohibited under Israel’s own Manual on the Laws of War, which states that if a city is to be put under siege to target a military objective, then civilians must be allowed to be able to leave.

This means that just as Israel has the right to militarily dismantle Hamas, Israel has an accompanying obligation to establish safe corridors and the provision of basic necessities for civilians to leave areas of conflict within Gaza or even Gaza itself.  And Israel’s already started in on the first half. As of writing this, Israel air raids have begun a near continuous bombardment of Gaza, resulting in over 1,000 Palestinian casualties. Land forces are beginning to make raids and move in, both to attempt rescue of hostages and begin the dismantling of Hamas. The next appropriate step for Israel is to declare what safe havens and safety corridors civilians under bombardment can use to leave the area and provide for them.

Israel can win the war with or without conducting these measures. Hamas has signed a suicide pact, and Israel can call that bill due. But Israel cannot, and will not, win the peace if their legitimate reaction to Hamas’s aggression spills into an overreaction against Palestinian civilians. This is the paradox of “pulling weeds.”

Serial Raids without addressing Grievance is like Pulling Weeds

The paradox of pulling weeds comes from extensive work I did in my Ph.D. dissertation simulating the interaction between grievance and carrying capacities in systems of asymmetric and irregular conflict. Although I have an article on this under peer review, below I quote a large extract from Chapter 4 of my dissertation where I use simulations to test the concept of “serial raiding” as a policy option in response to terrorist behavior arising from ungoverned spaces (which can be physical or online). In the below extract, I’m modeling “casting capacity,” which is akin to the ability of an actor to conduct information operations. But by replacing it with military capabilities or violent capabilities, the results would be similar (9).

Safe havens can exist in foreign physical spaces requiring military interventions or online digital spaces, suggesting account purges, de-platforming, and website bans as policy options. Unlike foreign physical spaces, interventions into online spaces may come from either state or private commercial actors attempting to enforce content policies.

How perceived grievance operates as a carrying capacity of the system of terrorism is an important concept to understand for crafting effective policies to combat terrorism. The perceived grievance is the source of violent radicalization and can restore violent radicalization networks disrupted by policy interventions as long as it exists.   Experiments into disrupting safe havens illustrate this finding. Whether physical or online, safe havens protect non-state actors from state intervention while providing a location to organize and network among the radicalized [12, p. 5367]. Cultural scripts created in the safe haven, whether through organized, dedicated information operations [12, p. 5219] or simply the interaction of large numbers of radicals, facilitate violent radicalization [12, p. 5816].

… Then we subject the safe haven to two policy experiments. The first is serial raids [35, p. 37], such as military operations in a foreign country, de-platforming, or periodic account purges for a digital safe haven.  Second, counter-radicalization interventions in the safe haven focus on grievance reduction, which could range from aid programs, additional support services, or other information operations efforts to address the underlying grievance. We assume that targeting the grievance provokes no backlash…

A key insight here is the relationship between long-term grievance and the casting capacity of cultural scripts. In the simulation, the safe haven casting capacity of non-state actors develops to meet the demand of the grievance via an implicit adjustment generic structure [36]. Over time, the value of grievance in (below left) generates a desire to create the infrastructure necessary for the casting capacity of non-state actors at the same scale as the grievance (below right). In goal-seeking behavior, casting capacity increases or lowers to the level of grievance.

Continuing the analogy, counterterrorism policies like serial raiding to disrupt casting capacity are like pulling weeds in a garden without cutting off the water supply or attacking the roots. The weeds will grow back.

We can observe the pulling-weeds effect in first for the S2G Serial Raiding of Safe Haven policy which aims to disrupt the casting capacity. Even though serial raids periodically eliminate the casting capacity to zero – it always grows back to the level of carrying capacity of grievance (below right). The coupling generates the oscillating pattern of the Activated Population. Periodic raids disrupt casting capacity, but that capacity will return as long as the underlying grievance remains. When counterterrorism serial raiding creates backlash effects, the grievance increases in (below left), and the casting capacity in (below right) grows to increasingly higher levels, becoming worse than doing nothing at all.


TLDR? Perceived grievance determines the carrying capacity of violence in a system. The carrying capacity can restore or renew temporarily disrupted networks of violence.

In other words, Hamas’s serial raids into Israel and Israel’s serial raids in retaliation may reduce capacity for a short period of time. However, the carrying capacity of grievance in the latent system will determine how that capacity ‘grows’ back. The grievance of Palestinians in feeling oppressed and subjected to violence or the grievance of Israel in feeling unsafe from terrorist violence. Putting aside violation of international law, Israel could well dismantle Hamas entirely, pulling out every weed, as it were. But if it did nothing to address the underlying grievance of the Palestinians, Hamas, or something like it, would simply ‘grow’ back over time. And the cycle would continue.

Long Term Solutions Require Actors who can Win the Peace

Hamas has proven it knows how to start a war. But it cannot win one. Netanyahu can win and probably will win the war. But neither Hamas nor Netanyahu’s governing policies, encouraging the cycle of grievance through provocative al-Aqsa confrontations and settler expansions prompting cycles of serial raiding back and forth across the buffer zones, can secure peace.

Because despite Hamas’s best efforts, I don’t think it can kill normalization. Crown Prince bin Salman is a cold-hearted ruthless son of a Salman. Even though normalization is polling 2% support among Saudis, I do not doubt that behind-the-scenes, MBS can still pragmatically and realistically cut deals to normalize relations with Israel. In some ways, a wink-wink nod-nod normalization has been de facto, if not de jure, for years now. In MBS’s view, the main threat to Saudi Arabia lies to its east, with Iran; if anything, the Palestinian cause is a distraction. The two powers in the Middle East with the most to lose, and thus the most incentive to oppose Iranian ambitions, are Israel and Saudi Arabia.

This means the path to normalizing Arab relations with Israel and reducing the grievance experienced by its citizens of existential risk still remains open. But that’s only half the equation. The Palestinian grievance of oppression and perception of living under apartheid still needs to be addressed as well. And that won’t be done under a governing style similar to Netanyahu.  Although it’s not a full resolution, tolerance of aggressive provocations in situations like the al-Aqsa Mosque and illegal settlements and settler attacks on Palestinians do nothing to resolve Palestinian grievances. And it is that grievance that groups like Hamas, or their successors, exploit to threaten the security of Israel.

So, alongside the complete dismantling of Hamas, it wouldn’t be a bad outcome if Netanyahu’s government collapsed. Or at least was forced to incorporate a more diverse governing coalition than the hardliners he has in it now. Although it seems contrary to imagine any reaction other than rallying around the flag, there is precedence. Israel’s history is full of examples of hard looks being taken not just at the enemies who attacked it, but the leadership who’s on the job failures allowed attacks to occur. When your margin of error between survival and extinction is as small as Israel’s, there’s not much room for rallying around the flag behavior.

Netanyahu thought he could spend a lifetime fueling a grievance in Palestine and then pursuing a strategy that relegated it to a back burner side issue while seeking an end-run through normalization. He has been more focused on internal political reforms than securing the Israel state from the very enemies he claims he opposes. He’s cut more deals with Hamas than he has Fatah, and as mentioned above, in a perverse way, both he and Hamas leadership are the only factions in Israel that benefit from sustained conflict while everyone else suffers.

Either the collapse of his government or a unity cabinet (which as of the time of writing, was under negotiation), seeing the exit of hardliners like Ben-Gvir could be necessary for both immediate pragmatic and longer-term opportunities. In the immediate term, Netanyahu’s winner-take-all approach won’t work for a country girding for what is likely to be a costly, sustained, and bloody conflict in the city of Gaza dismantling Hamas. In addition to more liberal elements, including Arab representation (and many Israeli Arabs have denounced the Hamas attacks) would help defuse accusations this is an anti-Arab retaliation. Plus, if normalization with Saudi Arabia now comes with some kind of price tag in reconciling Palestinian issues, Netanyahu will need wider support than he has to pay for it.

We also still don’t know to what extent gross incompetence or bad luck played a role in Israel missing the largest military attack against it in 50 years. While hostages are still being held and military actions are underway, soul-searching will be limited. But that time will come. And if it’s determined that dereliction or willful fantasy by the Netanyahu administration contributed to the catastrophe, he will have to pay for those consequences as well.

Ultimately, to move away from the pulling weeds cycle of grievance perpetuation, Hamas must be dismantled, and Netanyahu’s government, and governing style, must go with it. Hamas started the war, Netanyahu can win the war, but neither in their current form can win the peace.


2nd, 3rd, and nth order impacts from Hamas v. Israel War

As the attack was so successful and victims involved both nationals of noncombatant nations and multinational corporate interests, what can we expect from them in terms of response to Hamas or its enablers in situations like this? (As in, if Google basically went after Iran).

Let’s split this into independent direct and indirect responses. In terms of direct responses, you usually see those arise in areas where local law enforcement/military are considered insufficient. A classic example is hiring PMCs or even kidnapping insurance in areas of low legal stability because you can’t rely on local forces if your executive or worker gets kidnapped or threatened. But in most places, you don’t have Mossad and the IDF.
In Israel, I can’t imagine anyone, even the United States, thinking, “We’re probably better off doing this alone than working through the IDF.” So I don’t expect to see SEAL Team Six conducting operations solo in Gaza to free American hostages unless it is through a partnership with the IDF. It just doesn’t make operational sense. For corporations, in high-profile cases like this, even with ‘kidnapping’ insurance (which it’s not clear is going to be present here) the usual route is to coordinate through the FBI for hostage release and/or the Department of State; often they’ll partner up together, and then the US Government takes lead on coordinating with Israel forces so that there’s a joint approach.
Hamas is going to want to divide and conquer on hostage negotiations to cut deals where it can, and in some cases these inquiries might result in offers to release XYZ person for payout of $ or cyrpto currency put in this account. But any US organization considering that is going to have their corporate counsel tap them on the shoulder and remind them that Hamas is a designated terror organization in the US. So I just don’t see many practical avenues for independent direct action.
Indirect action down the road is a different matter. The mitigation is mainly due to the culture and structure of the business. Google may have some really smart hackers in it, but they have employees in a lot of places that Iran, as a sovereign state actor, can retaliate and put the hurt on. So they’re unlikely to solo black hat some operation in retaliation if say Iran is shown to have been behind this. But a more military culture group? They may have a different opinion, but again, their options may be limited. What you’re more likely to see, especially in organizations related to tech, is long-term less sympathy to social media representation of extremist groups like Hamas. But you also may not because it’s a big world and opinion gets divided on the Israel-Palestine question.
For indirect or delayed responses by a sovereign state actor like the US, outside the realm of Israel control, there’s a much higher likelihood of independent second or third-order action down the road. Currently, there’s not much evidence of Iranian direction that’s been validated. But if that gets proven, with 14 Americans killed, the chances of a proportionate and distinct retaliatory response go up. And that’s where the US has a lot of cards to play. They can use non-violent sanctions against Iran or its key allies, they can tap a Latin American country and offer a goody to say, round up, and expel all Hamas and Hezbollah organizers in an area. Or we may decide on a kinetic response that is made public to show…or a clandestine response. The current obvious lever to pull is the $6B exchange for hostages. Even though the money hasn’t been released yet, and it’s ostensibly for non-military use, the optics are just really horrible right now. So I imagine that’s probably going to fall apart, but given the amount of American dead, again, if an Iranian connection is established, I expect a response.
In the Israel space, however – anything related to Hamas, Hezbollah, we’re going to probably work *through* Israel. Material resupply, sharing of intelligence, maybe even provision of personnel (not that they really need it and that could just hugely complicate things.)

What are the chances a rise in anti-Semetic incidents escalates form this, and what are the chances it’s coordinated by a state or non-state actor? Or is it just playing off underlying sentiment?

This is something I researched in my dissertation, and I have a big article on the system of violent radicalization and how it leads to public mass killing and terrorism coming out soon (see below for the link when it’s published.)

The technical terms of these two phenomena are ‘swarm’ (localized radicalization unorganized by outside actors) and ‘fishermen’ (non-state actors ‘fishing’ to organize violence). I’ve simulated these effects, and when swarm or fishermen is more likely in a paper the unfortunate reality is that ‘fishermen’ only really makes sense when the population at high risk of committing the violence is small, and the violent ideology is held in niche groups. When there is a large domestic population of people at high risk of violence, however, or the violent ideology furthering it is deeply held, no outside actors are needed.

Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is a widely held ideology with significant high-risk populations. Kind of like white supremacy or violent misogyny, there are enough localized actors who may self-radicalize that foreign non-state actor coordination isn’t necessary to spark off incidents, even terrorism. And the terrorism itself, depending on how it’s conducted, can become a self-perpetuating contagion (see link below).
This doesn’t mean there isn’t any non-state actor activities stirring the pot. They can be involved in spreading cultural scripts of conspiracy narratives, perpetuating the othering…but their signal is often small relative to the domestic signal doing the same. They are just one of another many sources amidst many sources.
Generally, emerging-state actors in this situation, if we’re talking Hamas, will want to exploit this attack for inward-directed resourcing. Gaining of recruits, funding, political support…safe havens abroad. They know they’re about to go under siege for months if not years to come, so they’re using (I expect) whatever information operations they can both to highlight their own activities and gain resources for the fight to come.
Unfortunately, when it comes to anti-Semitism, distinguished here from being against Israeli policy, there are enough entrenched domestic populations to carry the water with or without foreign actor organizations. And within those populations, at much smaller numbers, are the high-risk populations.
As one example, we discuss in this presentation the Great White Replacement Theory terror contagion, which is explicitly anti-Semitic and behind many of the synagogue attacks. I don’t think they will be more or less motivated today than they were last Friday to attack houses of worship. Their worldview and ideology is in some ways, explicitly opposed to Islamists like Hamas. But they may piggyback along the general sentiments to exploit the anti-Semitic aspects of it; divorcing the message from anything perceived being supportive of Muslims. But the concept of “why are we spending money to prop up Jews” is definitely something they may pick up on.
TBD: peer reviewed research article on radicalization leading to terrorism placeholder (coming in October)


You described this as being like 9/11 only multiple times worse for Israel. What are the chances Israel embarks upon a similar wide-ranging and long-lasting campaign like the United States did in the Global War on Terror? That resulted in the outright invasion of two countries, conventional interventions in several more, covert interventions in dozens… could Israel be looking at such a similar wide-ranging global approach? In the US there seemed to be a reluctance to question leadership, at least early on, if they claimed to be prosecuting a ‘war on terror.’

Circumstances matter. Israelis have a better track record than the US of not rallying around the flag and holding leadership accountable, even during operational or strategic surprise attacks. Also, being close, their buffer for margin of error is less. Egypt and Jordan, for example, are relatively stable neighbors. Saudi Arabia has every pragmatic interest to align with Israel against Iran, and I trust MBS’s ability to enforce his will on his people more than I do the current opinion poll. It might set back normalization for 6months to a year, but I don’t think it will stop the effort.
Syria is not as stable a neighbor as Jordan, Egypt, or even Saudi Arabia, but is a known entity that Israel can, and has handled, easily with air assets over the last few years.
That leaves Lebanon, especially its Iranian proxy of Hezbollah, as the wild card. The Hezbollah threat is different in nature than that which Syria might pose, and in some ways harder to counter, but also not as strategic a risk. Also, if Hezbollah or its allies were going to do anything in conjunction with this attack, they missed the window. Leading me to believe they either weren’t expecting it to go this large, got cold feet, or weren’t as involved as some reports indicate.
There are going to be changes in Israel’s policy. And that may extend to foreign engagements. But I don’t necessarily see a 20-year GWOT of conventional land-army invasions and regime changes, if for nothing else that Israel can’t logistically support it or afford the redirection of troops. An intelligence campaign? Definitely. I wouldn’t want to live in the suite next to Hamas’s chairman in the Qatar hotels right now, that’s for sure (though he’s probably gone underground even overseas or will shortly.)


Principles of War and Civilian Harm

I’ve received many questions along this theme, and have aggregated some of the more common ones.

Are civilians a valid target in war?
On their own? Generally not. Under the principles of wars above non-combatants are ‘distinct’ from combatants and do not constitute a military necessity unless they are engaged in directly furthering military aims. For example, civilians working in a munitions factory would be engaged in a military activity and the military necessity of destroying that factory may justify the death of civilians there. But the force used must be proportional and of an economy that does not result in unnecessary damage to civilian populations surrounding the factor. Nor could gatherings of civilians supporting the factory workers on the other side of town be considered valid targets. This is foundational to almost all laws of war and the basis of many war crimes and crimes against humanity.  This does not mean civilians are immune from harm or guaranteed safety. But the actor undertaking the act of belligerence and force has the obligation to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, both in individuals and properties.


What if the civilians support a state or emerging-state actor that is hostile to the interest?

This is not a legitimate cause for military targeting. Coming out of World War II and the atrocities that occurred therein, a lot of work has been done through international law, national law, and military manuals on the laws of war as referenced above to create very nuanced and specific definitions. This doesn’t mean they are followed with the same exactitude. Indeed often the laws of war, unfortunately, serve like a Pirates of the Carribean “more of a guideline” than a code. So it’s easy to find actors violating the rules and laws of war, and thus gaining a belief that the definitions are fuzzy. The definitions are actually very crisp. It’s the actors’ adherence to those that become fuzzy.


As in all principles, there are edge cases. In certain extreme conditions combining military necessity and proportionality have been used to argue for justified harm to civilian populations in full-spectrum operations. Classic historical questions of this case tend to be on very large scale: given evidence of Japanese resistance in Okinawa, was there higher military necessity and better proportionality to use a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite those being civilian targets, rather than continued sustained firebombing and a ground invasion of Japan? A more recent example occurred during the Cold War, where nuclear deterrence mixed counterforce targets (e.g. military installations, missile silos, force concentrations, navy ports etc.) with countervalue targets (e.g. civilian population centers).  As this was used in a deterrent capacity, it’s argued these targeting were a legitimate means to prevent unnecessary harm by avoiding nuclear war. As is said, hard cases make bad law and none of these are on the scope, scale, or circumstance being looked at less-than full-spectrum operations such as we see in state vs. emerging-state actor conflicts.

What if the civilians have prior service and may be called up as reserves? 

The principle of distinction would require the target to have some kind of military function. For example, targeting the mustering location of reservists as they are mobilizing to go to war under some circumstances might be considered legitimate. Attacking a picnic where reservists were believed to represent most people would not be.









(6). T. Clancy, “Theory of an Emerging-State Actor: The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Case †,” Systems, vol. 6, no. 2, p. 16, May 2018, doi: 10.3390/systems6020016.



(9) Chapter 4, T. Clancy, “The Lifecycle of Violence & Instability of Non-State Actors VOL I,” Dissertation, WPI, 2022. [Online]. Available: