Arab Way of War : Gaza Variation

Some years ago I presented to a number of classes at the Special Warfare School one of the subjects that has interested me greatly for half a century…the cultural aspect of war, specifically the Arab way of war. From my studies and observations on the ground for  many years, the impact of culture on warfare is of primary importance, and one which is all too often forgotten or drowned in a morass of stereotypes and wishful thinking.  A basic  and excellent source of the fateful error of stereotyping our enemies and overestimating ourselves is found in the book Knowing Ones Enemies by  Earnest R. May. Certainly the Americans  have been prime offenders in this regard.  Example:  Read Andrei Martyanov, LosingMilitary Supremacy. The recent pollyanna  statements  by Sec Def Lloyd Austin to a reporter is the most recent example of the heads in the sand  ( or elsewhere)of our military leadership. Endless repeating that we have the best army in the world does not make  it so. We remain unprepared for what is known as the Eastern way of War.

As Lawrence wrote the best war is one won without battles.  Using propaganda, seeding distrust among the enemy are part of this way of war.

To be clear the cultural impact on the martial capabilities of a nation or ethnic group have nothing do, with intelligence, courage, or genetics.

But to quote John Keegan, a foremost expert on this issue, ” culture is a prime determinant of the nature of warfare, as the history of its developments in Asia clearly demonstrates.”  The Arab way of war  is coincidental to the “eastern way of a way,  which is fundamental in studying the  tenets of warfare as presented by Sun Tsu, (The Art of War) and Miyamoto Musashi, The Books of Five Rings.

The Arab way of war can be summarized as greatly controlled by the political context, the employment  of evasion, indirection,  delaying tactics,, attrition, the use of standoff weapons, deception, the preference of defense over offense, and most of all  –  psychological warfare.

As seen in the recent Gaza war the non violent part of the Gaza war was the sparking of world-wide latent antisemitism,. Always present waiting for a a spark. Like so many totalitarian hate  movements it draws support from the radical right and, especially these days, the radical left.

The strengths of Arab militaries can be summarized as the low soldier maintenance required, the tolerance for austere living conditions, obedience to authority, the impact of Islam and  the spoken word to galvanize and motivate, their history of dug in dogged defense, and a history of ‘rising from the ashes.’

“War is a continuation of politics by other means,” thus wrote Carl Von Clausewitz. To the Arabs this is instinctive. They did not read that in a book. As Raphael Patai wrote, the Arabs are “conflict proneness,” the closer the neighbor the more prone the Arabs are to fight them. From the beginning of Arab history, with the absence of foreign enemies to fight,  internecine warfare was always present. As it was put by a Yemeni noble,” They (Arabs) fight first and ask later about the cause of the fight. We fight our own relatives, the brother would fight his own brother, the son his own father…” ( Raphael Patai  The Arab Mind.

the will of the nation is paramount say the Oriental strategists. It is more important than numbers or the weapons.

to a certain extent with the help of a clueless media, or one anti semitic in political orientation the picture of Israeli citizens cowering in bomb shelters created the narrative r desired by the Hamas leadership.

The Arabs, as I have written,  are far better at unconventional or irregular warfare. See  and integral to that method of warfare is evasion and indirection.  Gazan terrorists had  limited territory from which to evade  Israeli attacks but made up for it with indirect warfare, using not strategic attacks to cripple the Israeli infrastructure and defeat the military in the field, but to instill fear in the civilian population population. The lack of lateral depth was compensated for by building a military infrastructure underground – which they did very well.

Focus on the will of the people.  Target the enemy  civilian population.

While delay is applicable to the Arab conventional way of war, the irregular is not except in the sense that the Gaza officials have always worked on their internal time schedules and inevitably find reasons to step back, delay or obfuscate the process from making decisions when they are in a negative political position.  As any sensible  Middle East historian will tell you the Hamas/ Muslim Brotherhood in an existential war with the Jewish state and simply delay any attempts to bring any lasting peace to this war-stricken region.  Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the primary ideology of Hamas, wrote that, “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by Jihad.” Altruistic (or many not so ) Western  diplomats often spend inordinate amount of time  and effort trying to effect some eternal peace settlement to the Palestinian Issue. It is insolvable at present but  does provides a process  of interminable peace negotiations and Nobel Peace prize considerations.

Basically just an Islamic military cantonment area in which many people, would like to simply live their lives in some sort of peace but unlike to make their will known by a despotic government.



The factor of attrition is paramount to Gaza strategy…. the recent rocket war was then fourth Israeli Gaza war.  The Gaza Arabs in the true Eastern fashion employ the fight, peace, fight, peace strategy. Within Eastern warfare there is no place a permanent peace, only a lull. Moreover in the nature of Islamic warfare as depicted by Pakistani general S.K Malik in his famous piece, The Quranic Concept of War,  correctly states that between “infidels” and Muslims, there may be armistices but no permanent peace.So the current lull is simply a period of resupply and reconstitute.

Arabs have also always preferred the standoff method of war, using arrow, javelins,  and today missiles and rockets.  Victor David Hanson, a preeminent scholar compares the Western “Face to Face” warfare as exemplified by the Greeks, charging into the enemy with short swords to the Eastern way of war of deception, propaganda and often mass terrorist attacks  The Arab insurgency in Iraq was largely a war fought with improvised  explosive   devices and mines combined with long range sniping. The primary point is to wear down the enemy and induce war fatigue.

Deception is integral to the Arab way of war. The Gaza terror leadership  has  employed it very well. While Israeli forces claimed extensive damage to the underground infrastructure, other sources say that equally extensive system of tunnels were  created for the main purpose of drawing Israeli air attacks. Certainly the Israelis did not know the extent of the rocket weaponry and their ability to get above ground , fire the rockets, and return to their burrows. ( Quickness being a main principle of Oriental warfare.) Using apartment buildings as rocket launching sites were part of the deception program…and also of course very useful for prime propaganda, depicting Israeli “war crimes,” with the assistance of  the press,  which is an inordinate number of cases were very favorably disposed toward  Hamas.

Arab defense, usually fixed as was the Gaza defense structure, has historically been more effective than their offensive measures. Partly as a result  of the lack of individual initiative,  and  necessary dependance on higher  authority, fighting from fixed portions  is culturally more adaptable to Arab culture, as opposed  to fast moving offensive movements in which delegation of authority and individual initiative are prerequisites.

Arab Soldier Strengths

The Gaza fighters evidenced the strengths usually found in Arab warfare. Low soldier maintenance is a primacy one. No gyms,  craft beer establishments,  PX’s, cozy lodging or problems of hot meals. Particularly  in warfare waged from their homes and neighborhoods., in which they launch rockets and retire for a meal at home. They, like most Arab peasants and low income people, live close to the ground. They expect very little from their  government  and receive even less. In fact among  many Arabs the ultimate strategy is to remain  anonymous and unknown by the rulers. Unlike the Arabs rocket attacks on  Israel, where the dense urban and highly sophisticated infrastructure, is very vulnerable to relatively unsophisticated Arab terror attacks,  The Gaza urban is distinctly third  world and public utilities low grade. Also Israeli fear of world wide condemnation of their attacks  on a distinctly third world infrastructure. In short, unlike the Israelis , the Gaza people have much less to lose than the Israelis.

Soldiers for Allah

One other aspect of Arab culture works to their  benefit their in those war of attrition and that is then clan, tribal c societal structure. It would appear that the Hamas bosses are not overly concerned about the civilian casualties…… and basically  they are not….unless the casualties are members of their clan.

With a totally authoritarian, close to totalitarian government,  the upper class clans have little to fear from civilian insurrection.  The martyrs are glorified , always important feature of the Arab mentality, and become part of the propaganda effort,

The Arab conquest of the Middle East was met by many reverses but they returned even after calamitous defeats .

Finally as David Holden  of the Sunday  Times, observed  some years ago, the Arabs have an uncanny ability to rise from the ashes, just when one thinks they are vanquishes they arise again. Of course, as he also observed, when the Arabs are on the pinnacle of success, they tend to fall apart.






About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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2 Responses to Arab Way of War : Gaza Variation

  1. thacker22 says:

    Tex, excellent article! You have stated these viewpoints for many years now and hopefully people can appreciate how accurate you have been and use that to make changes in strategy of warfare in the ME

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