“Mowing the Grass”: Five Things We Can Learn from the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – Forward Observer Shop

“Mowing the Grass”: Five Things We Can Learn from the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) has been locked in a state of war with Israel since 1964.  On the one hand, we have essentially quasi-state entities like the PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah; Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups who see themselves as fighting wars of national liberation.  On the other hand, we have the state of Israel, who sees itself as fighting a defensive war against terrorists.  For as long as this war has raged, including two intifadas costing thousands of lives, and numerous Israeli cross-border operations, there’s no end in sight to this conflict.  And that’s partly due to what’s widely considered to be critical failures on the part of Israel’s strategy, as laid out in operations in 2006 (Operation Summer Rains into Gaza against Hamas; and the Second Lebanon War/Operation Just Reward against Hezbollah in Lebanon) and 2008/9 (Operations Hot Winter and Cast Lead into Gaza).  And these, of course, have been followed by numerous other operations in more recent history.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have come to refer to the past decade’s worth of cross-border operations as “mowing the grass.”  The grass (groups like Hezbollah and Hamas) gets too high, and here comes the IDF to mow it back down.  But the grass never stops growing, so the Israelis, finding themselves in a war that they can neither win nor afford to lose, have adopted a strategy of outright attrition.

In 1948, David Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first prime minister, which led him to develop a strategy for dealing with his Arab neighbors.  His first key assumption was that Arab violence against Israel would persist indefinitely, and his second was that Israel had numerical and geographic disadvantages.  Therefore, Ben-Gurion argued that Israel could not win a war of annihilation, but could win a war of deterrence.  And we’ve seen the strategy to deter aggression, and outlast their Arab neighbors until Israel’s permanence is accepted, ever since.  And ever since Israel has stood firm and committed to this strategy through multiple rounds of violence, we’ve seen a succession of peace treaties on behalf of Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994), and the tenuous Arab League Peace Initiative (2002/2007).  Israel isn’t going anywhere, and many Arabs have begrudgingly accepted that – but not all.  What follows is a series of points that we Americans should consider concerning the prospect of a civil conflict here at home.

1. There may not be a single Western nation that supports a conflict to restore Constitutional governance and defense of our Bill of Rights.

American leaders have never been favorable towards permanently resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they just want to stop the fighting.  If it takes an armed revolution to restore our rights, we will likely see similar efforts on behalf of Western nations to stop the fighting instead of end the war.  (No more rights violations, no war.  It’s a pretty simple concept.)  Don’t go expecting our friendly Western allies to parachute into Market Garden, America to fight off the tyrants.  We need to consider the consequences of the attitudes of the governments of Mexico, Canada, and NATO countries in the event of a domestic US conflict.  What they do in response could have significant implications.

2. Use of overwhelming force is employed to deter the will to fight/win.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Israel was plagued with Arab guerrillas intent on continuing attacks against the Israeli state; against both civil and military targets.  In response, the IDF engaged in a series of reprisal operations seeking a high ‘blood cost’ against the Arabs to deter future guerrilla attacks.  And the strategy of deterrence began to bear fruit.  What’s the purpose of Speed, Surprise, and Violence of Action?  Partly to psychologically impair our adversaries; and they can be used both at a tactical and strategic level.  Why do some police state forces use Mine-Resistance Ambush-Proof (MRAP) vehicles?  Why do many police officers wear sunglasses while telling you to remove yours?  Why do police state forces like DHS stack on the front doors of those who’ve committed simple, non-violent crimes?  Psychological effects; deterring the will of others to fight.

3.  Overwhelming, intrusive force is used to keep the peace for longer periods of time.

This is “mowing the grass.”  The shorter you mow it, the more time you’ll have between expeditions.  So when Israel crosses over the border into Gaza or Lebanon and finds tunnels and rocket caches, their goal isn’t to root out and defeat their adversaries as much as render incapable their adversaries’ means of attacking Israeli civilians.  Is this a prudent strategy?  Is rolling up your sleeves once every few years and degrading your adversary’s ability to fight you better than constant, year-round small unit action?  If you can’t outright annihilate your adversaries, this may be the best you can hope for.  And it’s not for their lack of desire to defeat Hezbollah, but it goes back to their strategic disadvantage: geography.  And geography is a strategic advantage for Hezbollah: their option to stay in their zones of support and fight, to lure Israeli soldiers into ambushes (as we saw plenty of this year), or to leave the area and move to a portion of Lebanon outside the acceptable reach of Israel, a place where the Israelis must cede even if they clear it, is a decisive advantage.

4.  Enemies that stay in the fight, adapt.

As previously mentioned, in the 1950s and 1960s Arab guerrillas began to infiltrate into Israel to carry out guerrilla attacks against civilian and military targets.  At best, these were harassing attacks incapable of achieving the goal of the Arab states, which was to remove Israelis from Israel.  So the Arabs adapted.  Instead of harassing guerrilla attacks, in 1967 a coalition of Arab states — Egypt, Jordan, and Syria — invaded Israel with the aim to destroy the state.  This is known as the Six Day War, where Israel’s borders actually expanded due to the military defeat of the Arab armies.  From 1967 to 1970, forces from Egypt, the USSR, Jordan, Syria, and the PLO continued a minor war against Israel.  This marked a shift from unconventional, guerrilla warfare to conventional, force on force warfare to meet their goals of a war of annihilation.  The enemy adapted.  In 1973, Arab states again attempted to invade Israeli territories, and were eventually repelled.  The Arabs invaded on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, and the war bears the name of this day.  Seeing that conventional warfare against Israel was useless, the Palestinians began an insurgency in the early 1970s.  The enemy again adapted after seeing its strategy would not achieve its goal.  Since then, attacks against Israel have almost completely been unconventional in nature, focusing on harassing attacks and killing as many Israelis as possible, with no real strategic goals other than leveraging the global community for Israeli concessions of land, and hoping that Israel will one day give up and leave.  The Palestinians continue to support Hezbollah and Hamas for one reason — the fight against the Jewish state — and believe that their struggle can be won through guerrilla, terrorist actions that wins small gains against Israel.  The Arab strategy of muquawamah (Arabic for resistance) against Israel is one that focuses on attrition, and they’ve come full circle from non-state actors waging guerrilla war against Israel, to Arab state invasions of Israel, and back again to non-state and state-supported guerrilla warfare.

5.  Military might doesn’t always change opinions or attitudes.

While Israel’s strategic objective of “mowing the grass” does appear to achieve their near- and intermediate-term goals (a continued existence), Israeli operations have done nothing to achieve the long-term goal: a state of peace between Jews and Arabs.  Successful and failed operations against Hezbollah and Hamas have done little to change the unfavorable attitudes towards Israel of Palestinians and Arabs.  The Israeli near-ability to kill at will hasn’t changed the minds of the Palestinians; in fact, it probably does just the opposite.  Just because one side has the ability to inflict casualties, induce fear, and deter aggression doesn’t mean that opinions actually change.  So just because FREEFOR may have the ability to drag tyrants into the streets doesn’t mean that the rest of the tyrants will cease in their ways.  There’s plenty of evidence to show that they will re-double their efforts and continue.  Like the Israeli-Arab conflicts, ours won’t be over in a week.

Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. I appreciate what ya’ll do. I wanted to write a bunch of pithy comments coupled with some atta boys but it’s probably all the same props you hear all the time.To the point,,, I know that the sacrificial love you have for our freedoms and liberties is paramount. I love ya’ll for it. I would volunteer my services to the cause if need be. God bless you all,

    1. Hey Will – We appreciate your support. You just taking the time to comment with some kinds words is thanks enough. We’re glad to do this stuff and we hope it helps. If you’d like to help us, would you please share our articles to everyone with an ear?

  2. Excellent article and very thought provoking. I echo Will’s response. Keep up the good work and God Bless!!!!

  3. Came across this article. Interesting angle on the subject. Based on your reading list,I figured you might appreciate a few thoughts from the Israeli experience:

    * It isn’t just what neighboring governments choose to do, it’s what they’re capable of doing. Israel’s enemies are also working to ensure that overt moves against them in neighboring countries bear a heavy cost, and in some cases like Lebanon, the ability of the local government to resist is effectively nil. The flip side is that pushing too far can result in major internal military operations (Jordan’s Black September), or external incursions that lower the local popularity of Israel’s enemies (which 2006 did).

    * Finances are key to continuation of the conflict. Another very under-appreciated element, but the PLO has had economic development arms, conducted the world’s biggest bank heist, and relied on foreign donations laundered through NGOs. Hezbollah is heavily involve in the global marijuana and meth trade. Etc. Then there’s 3rd parties like the UN, which effectively remove a monetary burden of care from the Palestinian war leadership. That’s a de facto donation. The Palestinians made sure they penetrated these efforts heavily via requirements to employ locals, and turned UN efforts into front organizations for all intents and purposes.

    * Unity matters. Israel has wobbled here in recent years, and it has had a noticeable effect on their effectiveness. Multiplying internal fissures within your enemy’s territory is a constant imperative, as is encouraging lower competence in various ways (q.v. Agree & Amplify tactics, fronts, etc.). At present, Iran has created disunity among Israel’s enemies, and Israel is exploiting this on a macro scale. This dimension is a VERY under-appreciated part of the conflict, as it is often indirectness squared.

  4. Great article Sam! The idea of COIN, as practiced in the ME, has been tested for over a decade by the US. The ability of governments to effectively deal with a determined insurgency is minimal at best. Goverments can kill a lot of insurgents, but have little success in winning the wars. As FreeFor faces leviathan we need to keep that in mind. Joe’s comment above on unity is paramount to us as well. The US has not been victorious in a COIN operation to date, (meaning a lasting outcome). It is even coming under fire from within: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/coin-is-a-proven-failure/


    1. COIN is NOT a proven failure. COIN has been practiced by governments around the world with good success. It has a proven track record. Those who say that COIN is a proven failure are looking solely at the results of two, ill-conceived conflicts where COIN won in numerous places on tactical and operational levels. Folks who say that COIN failed have a myopic view of COIN and are ignoring the larger context. When properly applied and widely adopted, COIN works against insurgents. Pretty simple.

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