Why the IDF Fights As It Does

A small, conscript-driven military has very different training and doctrine than ours.

Andrew Milburn is an interesting character. He was born in Hong Kong and raised mostly in the UK. After graduating law school from the University of Westminster, he joined the US Marine Corps (his mother’s American), serving as an infantry and special operations officer for 31 years, including as commander of the fabled Raider Regiment, before retiring as a colonel in 2019. He is also a school-trained joint operational planner. Since leaving the service, he has published a best-selling memoir and, among other things, co-founded the Mozart Group, spending a little over a year on the ground helping train Ukrainian soldiers in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.

I know him mainly from a Facegroup group founded by yet another lawyer-turned-Marine special operator. He’s been pretty critical of the way Israel has conducted itself in Gaza.

The latest post on his Substack, “Why the IDF doesn’t Clear and Hold,” provides the best analysis I’ve seen about why the IDF operates as it does. It does a great job of explaining why the IDF gains territory only to have to come back weeks or months later to regain it. All emphases in the excerpts that follow are mine.

It’s all too familiar a phenomenon for anyone who has fought insurgents in cities. I was eating my Christmas meal in Fallujah, three weeks after the battle to retake the city had officially ended, when insurgents entered the building next door and killed three Marines.  In Gaza, tunnels make holding any terrain for any period of time exponentially more difficult. For almost three months, Hamas was able to shuttle fighters, weapons, and hostages between north and south Gaza beneath the wetlands of Wadi Gaza – an area in which IDF engineers were sure that the confluence of water would make digging a tunnel impossible.

‘My battalion set up a 360-degree defense for three weeks before I realized that it was useless’, a battalion commander from the 98th Division’s Commando Brigade told me. ‘It was like a chess game between me and the Hamas company commander.  I was playing him above ground – while he played below ground.’  One night two insurgents popped up through a tunnel right by his command post – killing one soldier and wounding two others before disappearing again.’ 

This is why the IDF is so obsessed with the tunnels. They radically change the equation in favor of Hamas.

In recent comments to the press, IDF leadership has – unofficially at least – blamed the government for the problems it is experiencing in Gaza now, arguing that the absence of clear strategic goals is derailing their campaign. They are partially correct – but Hamas owes its resurgence in Gaza to more than political dithering.

One reason is simply that the IDF doesn’t [have] enough infantry, even with its full complement of reservists, to secure all of Gaza. As high-tech though war has become, it still takes infantry to seize buildings – and only infantry can hold them to prevent the enemy from coming back in. And with pressure on the government increasing to release reservists back into society, the problem becomes even more acute. This is already the longest war that Israel has fought. A country with a population of less than 10 million cannot lose some 300,000 people from its workforce without significant impact on its economy. At the same time, the IDF cannot wage a war on two fronts – or even one for that matter – without them.

This is a key point that almost every analysis, including my own, tends to miss. Israel’s military has rightly earned a reputation as one of the best, pound-for-pound, in the world. But that elides how tiny it is. The United States has over two million uniformed professionals on active duty; Israel has under 170,000. The entire regular IDF is smaller than the US Marine Corps. This means even with comparable training and equipment, they simply can’t fight in the manner that we take for granted.

So they don’t.

There’s another reason why the IDF doesn’t ‘clear and hold’ – a concept that is firmly embedded in US counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine – and that is because the IDF doesn’t do counter-insurgency.  ‘Why train for COIN when you don’t plan to stay?’ a retired IDF major general and former national security advisor in the current government explained, before adding ‘It was a huge mistake’.

Maybe, but at the time the decision probably made good sense.  Counter-insurgency implies occupation – and that’s not a concept that aligns with Israel’s previous strategy of waging quick, decisive wars that stop short of totally defeating the enemy.  Occupation means casualties, economic strain, global criticism, and political risk.  It reminds Israelis of Lebanon – a 20-year occupation with its steady stream of casualties and bad news. That was the first time that Israel appeared in the eyes of the world, and to many of its own citizens, as Goliath not David. Lebanon brought down governments and ended careers.


When you are a citizen army that only has its soldiers for a few weeks a year, you must prioritize what you teach them.  And given their nation’s attitude to the concept of occupation in the aftermath of Lebanon and faced with limited resources – the most precious of which for the large reserve force was time, it made sense for the IDF to scrub COIN from its mission essential task list. 

Instead IDF doctrine focuses almost exclusively on combined arms maneuver to seize terrain, consolidate and prepare for counter-attack. But it provides little to guide a unit commander tasked with holding that terrain against a dispersed, lightly equipped enemy who waits until after the storm to pop back into play. 

While Milburn thinks IDF training and doctrine make sense given the nature of a small, conscript force and the political realities faced by the government, it means they’re forced to fight the war in a way that larger professional armies wouldn’t.

IDF doctrine doesn’t even mention ‘clear and hold’ – and there is no equivalent phrase in Hebrew.  In a recent interview with the Jerusalem Press club a senior IDF general used the term ‘conquer and purify,’ instead but didn’t explain what the term ‘purify’ meant.

It means ‘destroy as an enemy framework,’ one battalion commander from the 98th Division’s Commando Brigade explained to me when I asked him. The IDF uses the term framework to describe Hamas’s leadership, equipment, and infrastructure –the most critical of which is their network of tunnels beneath Gaza.  A ‘framework’ is a single tunnel complex – comprising one main tunnel with offshoots and all buildings above it.  It’s a useful phrase because when combined with ‘ceased to exist’ – a term used by the IDF spokesman to describe Hamas’s Northern Brigade – it means complete and permanent destruction.  

If you aim to destroy Hamas’ leadership and tunnel network—both of which are reasonable war aims and much more attainable than the generic “destroy Hamas” that’s been thrown around in public—and you lack a large, well-trained force to do that over a very long period systematically, you’re left with what we’re seeing now.

Faced with the mission of destroying Hamas, but without enough soldiers to prevent their return, the IDF has done its best to ensure that there is nothing to return to.

‘Our entire Brigade was organized to assault and demolish,’ was how another battalion commander described the operation in northern Gaza. I had heard this term used before as asked about clear and hold. It was in any case a much better description of an operation that was intended to tear up Hamas by the roots. ‘We weren’t chasing their fighters, our aim was to obliterate their organization’ – this meant destroying the tunnel network and the buildings that stood above it, framework by framework.

Each attack was preceded by a massive bombardment. Gaza provides the Israelis with a battleground made for supporting arms. The IDF can fire into the strip from three sides, air, land and sea. The high-rise buildings in the strip are densely packed and often poorly built. The techniques that the IDF uses for targeting Hamas fighters and warning the civilian population fall far short of the standards required by the US military. When the infantry goes in, it is with tanks and rules of engagement that allow reconnaissance by fire. The result is that along with massive destruction comes a high civilian casualty rate, which is seen as an acceptable price to pay for keeping IDF casualties low. But, as any counter-insurgent will tell you, civilian casualties always matter.

In fairness, US rules of engagement—a phrase I never heard during my time in a Cold War Army or during my deployment to Desert Shield and Desert Storm* but became commonplace shortly thereafter during operations in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere—have evolved over three-plus decades of limited wars. My students constantly complain about having to fight by different rules than their adversaries but, as Milburn rightly notes, that’s demanded by our war aims. If the goal is to defeat an insurgency while bolstering a host government, the civilian population, not the enemy forces, are the center of gravity. I’m quite confident that, if we get into a shooting war with China, we will have decidedly different ROE.

The IDF clearly does:

Accompanying a brigade attack is an entire battalion of combat engineers along with heavy equipment and mines for demolition.  The brigade will use D-9 bulldozers to clear obstacles, and proof its path, covered by tanks and infantry.  Objectives are terrain features – and since they are rarely defended these attacks proceed with a momentum that is easy to confuse with success.  After the infantry have seized the buildings, the engineers emplace mines in as many as they can, beginning with those above known tunnels.  It takes 20 mines to take down a typical mid-rise building in Gaza. Each battalion carries 2-300 in its daily load, and usually used them all.  ‘We demolished whole neighborhoods in a single day,’ another battalion commander told me.  It sounded like a commercial – but concealed a truth clear to the IDF now: they didn’t destroy Hamas.

There, alas, is the rub. The described tactics may well be proportional to the war aims given the capacity of the IDF and the nature of Hamas. But another facet of the law of armed conflict is probability of success. That is, there must be a reasonable prospect of victory.* Otherwise, it’s just killing without purpose.

There are other options to holding ground – but none quite as effective. IDF commanders have pointed out that a better strategy than clear and leave, would be to maintain control of the borders – to include the Philadelphi corridor with its network of tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt, picket the strip with special operations forces working covertly, and launch raids and strikes to prevent Hamas from reforming. This offers a more practical option – but is won’t be enough to stop Hamas from resuming control. For that you would need to provide an alternative.

It’s not at all clear that one exists.

*Which doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an existing term of art. It was (I found a 1983 article on the subject published in the Naval War College Review by Captain J. Ashley Roach, a US Navy lawyer) but it wasn’t widely used among the operating forces, much less in the press, because the assumption in major combat operations was that soldiers were on a live battlefield and the enemy was a fair target so long as they weren’t surrendering or otherwise hors de combat.

**This doesn’t apply to wars of self-defense, as in Ukraine. It’s arguable that October 7 makes this one as well.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mattbernius says:

    Thanks for posting this James. Really valuable perspective.

  2. MarkedMan says:

    Thanks James, I agree with Matt.

    It’s worth asking that if they know this is not effective but are still doing it, is it really accomplishing a military objective? Or is it just satisfying the desire for revenge and collective punishment against the civilians?

  3. steve says:

    It’s possible that they could destroy almost all of the tunnels. It kills a lot of civilians but I think that is the nature of this kind of warfare. However, I dont see anyway they kill all of Hamas. What I think you are left with is a nucleus of surviving Hamas and a fertile recruiting environment. Tunnels can be rebuilt. I still expect Israel will try to remove as many Gaza’s as possible either directly or by making it even more awful to live there, probably the unspoken part about why they are destroying so many buildings.


  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    For that you would need to provide an alternative.

    This is what I’ve been harping on, the lack of a tolerable solution, military, diplomatic or political. Despite Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, Americans cannot wrap their heads around the idea that some problems simply have no solution, at least no solution within even the loosest notions of civilized behavior. Some wars are WW2 or Desert Storm, many are not. I ask what happens if Israel withdraws from Gaza, and Hamas launches missiles at Tel Aviv? And I never get an answer. Because there isn’t one.

    Having no answer, Americans will engage in fantasy, because a fantasy is more tolerable to the American mind than the terrifying notion of a problem that cannot be solved. The more they fail to find a solution, the angrier they get. Like me trying to assemble an IKEA chest. Which is not a bad analogy, because my ‘solution’ to a difficult IKEA is to call the trash guy and throw it out. That’s the analog of the, ‘well then, let’s just get out of the Middle East,’ idea. I’ve lost a fucking screw and I’ve skinned my knuckles, throw it out!

    Excellent piece, James, very much in line with what @Andy has been trying to explain about the military realities. We make war the way we do because we are the sole superpower, yet even with all our incomparable resources we still have: Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. Americans, often the very ones who complain about military expenditures, are furious that a much smaller, much weaker nation cannot do what we can do, and indeed cannot do what even we cannot do.

    It’s been an interesting lesson in the flaws of the American character. We are not a patient or sophisticated people. We don’t study philosophy. We don’t study history. We don’t play chess, we play football. There’s a reason so many people around the world think we’re rich, ignorant, entitled children. It’s why we swing back and forth between intervention (we can fix it!) and isolationism (screw you guys, I’m going home!)

  5. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I ask what happens if Israel withdraws from Gaza, and Hamas launches missiles at Tel Aviv?

    Israel withdrew from Gaza, and Hamas fired missiles at Tel Aviv and many other places. You don’t need to ask what would happen, because it’s already happened. Just look up what Israel and the world did.

    IKEA has no paid option to send someone to assemble your packaged furniture? The office supply stores here all do.

    You could also make a hash of it and turn it into an art installation. It was on TV, so it must be true.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:


    Just look up what Israel and the world did.

    Yeah, but that’s my point: there’s no answer, just more can-kicking. Tit for tat for tit for tat endlessly repeating, forever.

    IKEA has no paid option to send someone to assemble your packaged furniture? The office supply stores here all do.

    The worst of my war with IKEA was when we were living in Italy, and we were quite rustic, living on the Nipozzano* estate at the end of a gravel road, and IKEA was way on the other side of Florence. Wasn’t easy to arrange anything. Italians are not an organized bunch.

    *Chianti Ruffina. Not a great wine.

  7. steve says:

    This has been addressed at some of the more military oriented sites but a nice summation. On the military side of operations they are accepting a lot of civilian deaths, while trying to warn civilians, in order to destroy tunnels. They could destroy the tunnels, however, they just arent going to find and kill all of Hamas while also creating a fertile recruitment environment.

    Maybe there isn’t a good ending that we can see but I think it’s pretty clear that Israel is working towards eliminating Palestinians. In the West Bank they are settling the prime properties chasing out Palestinians. In Gaza they will leave the place in rubble hoping/encouraging people to leave. Besides the tunnels that is the other reason to want to go into Rafah. No idea who will fund rebuilding and at what level since they arent that popular.


  8. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I ask what happens if Israel withdraws from Gaza, and Hamas launches missiles at Tel Aviv? And I never get an answer. Because there isn’t one.

    Why is the scenario where Hamas launches sporadic missiles at Tel Aviv worse than the scenario in which the Israeli military levels Gaza, kills 30,000+ Palestinians, leaves the rest on the edge of starvation, plays hide and seek with Hamas leadership, damages their relationship with the US, hurts their own economy by calling up all the reservists for extended periods, and must continue doing that forever because as soon as they let up Hamas will launch missiles at Tel Aviv?

    It trades small numbers of Israeli dead for large numbers of Palestinian dead, incur massive suffering on the Palestinian side, huge costs on the Israeli side, and does nothing to make Israel safer long term. And that’s if it goes well, and Hamas doesn’t ambush a bunch of Israeli soldiers and raise the death toll there.

    Hamas wanted this war. Hamas wanted this war because it’s a war that Israel cannot win. Israel can fight the war, and while they are fighting they will win almost every battle, but there’s no end state where Israel gets to say “we won” and bring their troops back and not have Hamas or whatever replaces it return to start launching missiles every once in a while.

    Israel had to do something after the October attack, but they didn’t need to do this. And, if the big problem they are trying to solve is Hamas launching missiles every once in a while, all this does is kick the can down the road.

    Look, I get it, it’s hard keeping 1/3rd of your population as non-citizens.

  9. Raoul says:

    To summarize: what we are doing doesn’t work (and probably creates more enemy soldiers) but it kills tons of civilians. So let’s keep doing it.

  10. Moosebreath says:


    “To summarize: what we are doing doesn’t work (and probably creates more enemy soldiers) but it kills tons of civilians.”

    You forgot the “and destroys the infrastructure to make the place unlivable for the survivors afterwards” part.

  11. JKB says:

    Ireland, Norway and Spain reward Palestinians for the massacre on October 7, 2023.

    Meanwhile, Old Joe’s has built his pier to deliver humanitarian aid, but the more than 500 tons of aid remains on the beach since the can’t figure out a safe route to deliver it

    The US is working with Israel and the United Nations to establish “alternative routes” for the safe delivery of the 569 tons of aid transported to Gaza since last week, Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Tuesday.

    Asked whether any of the aid has been delivered to the people of Gaza, Ryder said, “As of today, I do not believe so.” He added that aid had been held in an assembly area on shore, but as of Tuesday had begun getting moved to warehouses for distribution throughout Gaza as alternative routes have been established. –CNN

  12. Gustopher says:


    Ireland, Norway and Spain reward Palestinians for the massacre on October 7, 2023.

    I’m just going to go on the record as saying it is inappropriate for Ireland and Spain to present medals to Hamas leadership for Oct. 7th.

    Norway gets a pass, as it is a nice counterpoint to the Nobel Peace Prize.*

    I have no idea what JKB is talking about, but that’s about how it usually is.

    *: I have no idea why that award is given out in Norway rather than Sweden like the others. The Nobel Peace Prize website claims that no one knows either, but it may have been because Norway is a more peace-loving nation, while the science and literature prizes are handled by the more competent Swedes.


    I expect the people running the website are trying to stir up trouble between the dumb Norwegians and bloodthirsty Swedes.

  13. Michael J Reynolds says:



    Jesus Christ, Gus, are you not capable of thinking about an issue in other than simplistic moral terms? Worse? WTF does worse have to do with it? This is not about right and wrong, it’s about power. It does not fucking matter if you’re right and I’m wrong if you’ve got a feather duster and I’ve got a machine gun.

    It’d be better if Israelis agreed to die rather than kill Palestinians? That’s your peace plan? Amazing. I can’t believe no one’s thought of this.

    Israel had to do something after the October attack, but they didn’t need to do this.

    And your advice on exactly how the IDF should have handled it, based on your extensive study of military affairs? Dude, you’re clueless.

    And, if the big problem they are trying to solve is Hamas launching missiles every once in a while, all this does is kick the can down the road.

    All anything does is kick the can down the road as I have been trying to get you to understand for months now.

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Michael J Reynolds: I favor kicking the can down the road with less than 30,000 dead, destroying the infrastructure, and undermining long term Israeli security.

    Maybe don’t walk right into a Hamas designed quagmire, while they’re at it.

    I mean, if there is no solution, why pursue the most violent and destructive course of action that will inevitably and predictably make things worse, both for Palestinians and Israel? It’s not just power, it’s results.

    How hard is that to understand?

  15. DK says:


    Maybe don’t walk right into a Hamas designed quagmire

    Shipped sailed when far right extremists got control of Israel. Boosting Hamas to destroy any chance of a negotiated peace was public policy under Netanyahu. Israel’s minister of security is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a convicted terrorist. The terrorists on either side were working in concert to get to a place of holy war.

    It was stupid and ill-advised and backfired, just as America’s post 9/11 overreach was stupid. Israel allies objected, saying a better course was to continue to push for a two-state solution. But fundamentalist religious extremists cannot be reasoned with. And of course, the right can never be held accountable for its own screw-ups, whether in the United States or Israel or anywhere else. It’s always waaaaaa we’re innocent victims, it’s somebody else’s fault.

  16. Eusebio says:

    This is a really informative post. Even if this isn’t how every commander or the government would say it, it explains a lots… “‘our aim was to obliterate their organization’ – this meant destroying the tunnel network and the buildings that stood above it…” It follows that the al Shifa hospital campus was reduced to rubble in late March, after having been secured intact by the IDF in November but not held, and then reoccupied by thousands of civilians and of course Hamas.


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