The Challenges of Asymmetric Urban Warfare: The Israeli Experience 1982-2014

Claudia Læssøe Pedersen

    Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis


    The main purpose of this thesis has been to analyze the political and military challenges facing Israel and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in its asymmetric urban warfare from 1982 to 2014.
    In addition, the purpose has been to clarify how these challenges and experiences can contribute to the future practice and analysis of urban warfare. To achieve these purposes, I have carried out historical reconstructions of urban battles in Lebanon 1982, the West Bank 2002, and Gaza 2008-09 and 2014 and thus made it possible to analyze the challenges and experiences faced by the Israelis in both the physical “kinetic” and the social “cognitive” battlefields. Here it will be shown that the challenges of the kinetic battlefield transcend into the cognitive battlefield with effects and consequences at the strategic-political level.

    In the kinetic battlefield, an identified recurring challenge facing the IDF was the fact that the rules of engagement (ROEs) were contradictory, as they stressed the need both to minimize civilian casualties and the loss of own troops. However, this inherent conflict was resolved in relation to the kinetic battlefield prior to the Gaza Wars, thus prioritizing IDF soldiers’ lives in ROEs over Palestinian civilian lives. On the other hand, ROEs became a major challenge for the Israelis in the cognitive battlefield during the Gaza Wars. Another significant and recurring challenge or experience for the IDF was the recognition that its forces had received inadequate urban combat training. The Israelis also had to deal with the continuous development and increased sophistication and creativity in battlefield preparation and lawfare performed by the asymmetrical non-state actor, which only increased the complexity.

    Within the cognitive battlefield, a significant development in focus and attention to LOAC has been shown. Thus, there also appears to be a connected development through the present set of cases between the focus on LOAC and an increase in lawfare. Based on the selected cases, it is suggested that the inherent tension between humanity and military necessity within LOAC is strained to the limit or even pushed beyond the reasonable framing of LOAC in the cognitive battlefield. Thus, a main Israeli challenges was the struggle for legitimacy, not least when massive criticism and accusations of violations of LOAC increased, especially the principles of distinction and proportionality. This criticism got tailwind through the media and thus became a combatant in the battle for public opinion.

    In Beirut in 1982, the international press was present in the middle of the battlefield, which posed a significant challenge to the Israelis and discouraged the presentation of the IDF as the ‘most moral army in the world’. In the West Bank and Gaza, the IDF largely cut off the press from the battlefields and was thus accused of hiding misdeeds. Most Israeli efforts in the cognitive battlefield to gain legitimacy have failed, as information from both the political level and the IDF often proved to be unreliable, and destruction and casualties seemed disproportionate. Furthermore, the Israelis largely failed to explain the complexity of the asymmetric urban battlefield.

    Finally, the thesis has identified developments in strategic and political consequences. The most important consequence of the war in Lebanon was the serious delegitimization of Israel internationally. In contrast, in the Gaza Wars 2008 and 2014, the legal dimension proved dominant. Although the Israeli image suffered once again in the Gaza Wars, the legal implications and potential consequences were significant.
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Southern Denmark
    Date of defence6. May 2022
    Publication statusPublished - 20. Apr 2022

    Note re. dissertation

    Print copy of the thesis is restricted to reference use in the Library.


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