Sadr City's Lesson for Gaza

Israel faces a Faustian bargain in Gaza: destroy Hamas utterly -- which appears impossible for all practical purposes -- or reach a cease fire that inevitably allows Hamas to re-arm and fight another day.  Either way, Israel seems to be fighting a lost cause.  There may, however, be another approach that succeeded under similarly unfavorable circumstances:  the "Gold Wall" of Sadr City, Iraq.

As Nathan Hodge observed in a recent article for Danger Room, there are striking similarities between the current dilemma facing Israel and the one confronting  the United States in Baghdad in March, 2008.

For months, Moqtada al Sadr's Shiite militia, the Jaish al Mahdi ("JAM"), had increased the tempo and accuracy of rocket and mortar attacks against the Green Zone from bases in Sadr City.  With a population of over two million, mostly poor Shiites, the prospects for stopping the attacks were bleak.  At the time, the unchallenged assumption was that JAM enjoyed widespread support throughout Sadr City.  Defeating JAM would likely entail heavy casualties.  Nonetheless, the attacks could no longer be ignored by the U.S. or Prime Minister Maliki.

Surprisingly, U.S. forces eschewed a Fallujah-style, urban assault and, instead, embarked upon a bold strategy of bisecting the southern portion of Sadr City in order to push JAM rocket and mortar teams out of range of the Green Zone.   Amidst fierce fighting with JAM, U.S. forces erected what came to be known as, "the Gold Wall," a two mile, concrete barrier which allowed Coalition forces to carve out a tightly-controlled enclave in Sadr City and end the attacks.

Construction of the Gold Wall, however, did not only result in an end to attacks against the Green Zone.  Just as importantly, the Gold Wall effected a dramatic political change.  Once the citizens behind the Gold Wall were confident of continuing protection from JAM reprisals, businesses re-opened, security improved dramatically and actionable intelligence from the population soared.  The assumption that the Sadr City population unquestionably supported JAM proved false.

Perhaps this should have been more obvious in hindsight.  It was immediately apparent to al Sadr's militia that the construction of the wall directly threatened their control over the local population.  As a result, JAM threw everything they had against the wall in order to stop its construction.  This played straight into U.S. technological strengths: UAV real-time surveillance coupled with smart munitions delivered crippling blows to JAM.  The losses proved fatal to JAM, resulting in a May 2008 cease-fire which effectively disbanded the militia and turned control of Sadr City, JAM's former bastion, over to the Iraqi Army.  Incredibly enough, all this was accomplished at a cost of only six dead compared to an estimated 700 JAM members.

Could a so-called "Gold Wall Strategy" work in Gaza?

In Gaza, Israel faces a ruthless militia in Hamas in a treacherous urban environment.  Like JAM, Hamas is willing to use the civilian population as shields and propaganda tools.  Hamas and JAM are both Iranian-trained and equipped.  An all-out assault into well-prepared defensive positions would be long and costly.

Compared to Sadr City, Gaza has a significantly lower population.  According to a January 6, 2009 BBC News profile on Gaza Strip, there are approximately 1.5 million inhabitants in Gaza generally, of which approximately 400,000 reside in Gaza City.  In terms of effective control, Gaza is far more isolated than Sadr City which had extensive connections to the rest of Iraq and access to re-supply from Iran.  Gaza is contained on three sides by Israel and the fourth side, to the south, is controlled by Egypt, no friend of Hamas.  Unlike the U.S. in Sadr City, Israel has no supply line problems and does not need to transport reinforcements from thousands of miles away.   The U.S. constructed the Gold Wall with 2,000 combat troops.  Israel has at least 5,000 soldiers in Gaza with thousands more available at short notice.

From an engineering standpoint, the distances involved pose no great obstacle.  The Gaza Strip is approximately 10 miles at its widest, but in order to bisect Gaza, either north of or south of Gaza City, Israel would only need to construct a barrier of approximately 3 to 4 miles.  And Israel, unlike the U.S., has had significant, prior experience in constructing effective, defensive barriers.

Hamas can, of course, be expected to attack any construction with no less ferocity than JAM, but therein lies the beauty: by constructing the wall, Israel completely reverses the momentum and direction of the struggle in Gaza and adopts a clear, finite and defensible goal for its operations.  Hamas will be forced to come out of hiding and expose itself, including its remaining leadership, to the full force and fury of Israeli technology, just as JAM did in Sadr City.  Israeli capabilities in this regard are no less robust than the U.S.  Suddenly it is Hamas that must choose its poison: allow the IDF to reclaim a portion of Gaza which will be a continual humiliation, or take desperate measures to breach the wall or otherwise attack Gazans.  Either way it is a propaganda nightmare for Hamas.

The exact location of the wall in Gaza is subject to many considerations and beyond the scope of this article, but it would obviously be in Israel's interest to select a point, initially, which would push the Hamas rocket teams out of the range of Israel's vital facilities such as the Dimona nuclear facility or Ben Gurion International Airport.

A Gold Wall for Gaza, then, is certainly feasible, but simply constructing the wall is only the beginning.  What then?  Following the Sadr City model, the IDF would need to thoroughly and methodically clear the enclave of any Hamas or Fatah militants.  As the clearing operations progressed, Israel could gradually open up the enclave to greater humanitarian and economic assistance, relieving some of the international pressure brought on by hardships to the civilian population.

The great unknown, indeed the true risk to this approach, is the reaction of the Gazans within the protected enclave.  How would they respond to the presence of the IDF in the absence of Hamas militants?  It is entirely possible that the Gazans could refuse to accept IDF protection and insist, however irrational it may seem, that the thugs from Hamas resume their reign of terror.  Perhaps not.

In January 2007, Hamas took complete control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in a brutal compaign of murder and intimidation.  Hamas has held Gazans as virtual hostages ever since by use of torture and mayhem.  There are signs that Gazans have had enough, if the recent conversion of the son of Hamas co-founder Sheik Hassan Yousef is any indication.   Reports of ongoing atrocities against Gazans by Hamas is more evidence that Hamas can maintain its hold only by fear, even in the face of attack by Israel. 

If the Gold Wall of Sadr City can tell us anything, it may be that loyalty of a captive population evaporates as soon as the threat is removed.  In light of Israel's alternatives, giving the Gazans the same opportunity as the people of Sadr City may be a Golden opportunity too good to pass up.