The Platform

Israeli soldiers in Gaza. (IDF)

Hamas, much like other terror outfits like LTTE in Sri Lanka, is utilizing asymmetric tactics in its fight with Israel.

On the fateful day of October 7th, a violent act orchestrated by Hamas claimed the lives of over 1,400 Israelis. This grim toll laid bare the profound security lapses within Israel’s ranks, challenging the nation’s perceived military infallibility. Despite Israel’s military capabilities—bolstered by the Iron Dome, a pinnacle of air defense technology—the country confronted one of its most significant security failures since its establishment in 1948.

To fully comprehend the success of Hamas against Israeli defenses, one must delve into the complexities of asymmetric warfare. This form of conflict, where the less powerful combatant employs unconventional strategies to counteract a superior force, has been effectively mastered by both Hamas and the LTTE, a Tamil terror group that was based in northeastern Sri Lanka. These tactics, first dissected in the academic realm by Andrew Moravcsik in the journal World Politics in 1975, have since manifested on battlefields from the Middle East to South Asia.

The LTTE set the precedent for asymmetric engagement, using such approaches to secure early strategic triumphs against the Sri Lankan military. This guileful exploitation of military imbalances parallels the tactics Hamas employed on October 7th, underscoring a shared ethos of hostility toward those they consider interlopers on their land.

Israeli soldiers in Gaza
Israeli soldiers in Gaza. (IDF)

Throughout the 1980s, the LTTE exhibited remarkable cunning and adaptability in military affairs. Initially buoyed by support from Indian intelligence, the group subsequently carved out a vast arms network, extending from Africa to Thailand. The Sea Tigers, the LTTE’s naval unit, epitomized the group’s asymmetric tactics by effectively utilizing swarm attacks to neutralize the technologically superior Sri Lankan navy.

The LTTE’s tactical innovation extended to the construction of extensive bunker systems, which provided refuge from aerial bombardments, and the tactical timing of their offensives to align with cultural festivals, thus disorienting the Sri Lankan military. This shrewd use of timing and terrain was mirrored by Hamas, which chose the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur to stage its incursion, exploiting the sanctity of the day for strategic gain.

Distinguished for its utilization of airpower, the LTTE deployed a fleet of light aircraft for nighttime operations, circumventing the Sri Lankan Air Force’s dominance. This facet of their strategy finds a contemporary echo in Hamas’s deployment of paragliders, a tactic designed to evade the sophisticated radars of the Israeli defense systems.

Furthermore, both organizations have intertwined their military campaigns with the fabric of civilian life, a concept referred to as the “Gray Area” by anti-terror specialist Xavier Rafuer. Through this strategy, they have mobilized noncombatant infrastructure for combatant purposes, with the LTTE’s school networks sowing the seeds of militarism among Tamil youth, and Hamas fostering a similar ethos within educational institutions in Gaza.

In the immediate wake of the October tragedy, Israel, gripped by a mix of outrage and urgency, embarked on a resolute campaign against Hamas. However, this quest, as articulated by the Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, is fraught with the moral and legal imperatives of safeguarding innocent lives—a predicament eloquently captured by David Pan as ‘moral asymmetry.’

As Israel confronts this quandary, it may well consider the counter-asymmetric strategies that ultimately proved decisive for the Sri Lankan forces. After enduring relentless surprise attacks by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan military adopted the very tactics that had once confounded them. By embracing the small boat maneuvers and the nimble eight-man teams similar to their adversaries, they eventually succeeded in quelling the LTTE insurgency.

Punsara Amarasinghe holds a PhD in International Law from Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy. He also holds a Master of Laws from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed his undergraduate studies in law at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, Punsara worked as a research assistant at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2018 for a project on Russian legal realism. He also held two visiting research fellowships at the University of Wisconsin Madison and at Paris's esteemed Sciences PO. For a brief period, he worked at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.