strategic depth

Written by Sarmad Ishfaq 9:54 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

Israel’s Strategic Depth: History & The 2023 Gaza War

Sarmad Ishfaq examines the concept of strategic depth, primarily in the context of Israel. He outlines the historical evolution of Israel’s strategic depth, discussing both the political and maritime dimensions of the phenomenon. Considering both traditional and political strategic depth, the article explains how these two aspects have manifested themselves in the 2023 Israel-Hamas conflict.
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About the Author(s)
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Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, The Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.

Strategic Depth Explained

Strategic depth is a military doctrine that refers to the distances between the front lines and the belligerents’ capital cities, industrial zones, centers of population, etcetera. In simple terms, the greater the distance between an enemy threat and what needs to be protected, the greater the strategic depth.

Israel’s Need for Strategic Depth

Israel is a small country and is ranked 46th in the world in terms of land area. Since Israel’s creation in 1948 at the tragic expense of the Palestinians, the state has been worried about its lack of strategic depth as well as its antagonistic Arab neighbors. Its internationally recognized borders leave it just 137 km across its widest and 14 km at its narrowest points. Moreover, Israel’s population is small, and it relies on reservists as their on-ground combatants, juxtaposed to Arab countries and their historically large standing armies.

To make things worse, Israel’s “population, industry, and military infrastructure are heavily concentrated and within easy reach from the borders.” Due to such confines, the country fashioned an offensive/pre-emptive approach to warfare in contrast to adopting a more defensive “attack when attacked” posture.  It was the country’s first prime minister, Ben-Gurion, who supported this security policy of “shifting combat onto enemy soil…given Israel’s lack of strategic depth.”

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Israel also participated in what can be called “artificial strategic depth,” where its settlements, among other things, were fortified. It also aims to win wars as soon as possible due to such strategic limitations. Therefore, the country uses nuclear deterrence and advanced firepower to discourage attacks from neighboring Arab states and attack “pre-emptively should deterrence seem to be eroding.” Former PM Yitzhak Rabin stated this policy as:

“The basic philosophy of Israel was not to initiate war unless an active war was carried out against us. We then lived within the lines prior to the Six-day War, lines that gave no depth to Israel—and therefore, Israel was in a need, whenever there would be a war, to go immediately on the offensive—to carry the war to the enemy’s land.”

Things took a histrionic turn after the Six-day War in 1967. The war between Israel and a primary coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia was a decisive victory for the state. Israel anticipated a planned Egyptian invasion and preemptively struck and destroyed nearly all of Egypt’s military aerial assets as well as Syria’s, thus allowing the state to enjoy air superiority and finish the war in a mere six days, much to the chagrin of the Arabs. In the aftermath, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights. Out of these territories, only the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt later, while the others remain occupied today.

These areas afforded the state a degree of strategic depth. The reasoning is that the occupied territories (OT) can be used as a buffer zone to absorb an attack, similar to how the British used the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in British India to shield itself from Afghan or Russian ingress. Israeli security analysts were now of the opinion that, due to the OT, Israel could pursue a more defensive approach as it could now survive a first strike due to its augmented strategic depth.

This thinking was found moderately correct in the October 1973 war when Syria and Egypt entered their territories (occupied by Israel) of Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, respectively. Israel absorbed the initial attack and inroads made by Syria and Egypt; it was then able to successfully mount a counteroffensive, which led to another Israeli victory. However, not everyone agreed with this new defensive posture, including Ariel Sharon. When Sharon took charge as minister of defense, he advocated that Israel revert to its pre-1967 offensive position.

He pushed for this as he saw the strategic depth/insulation of the OT being neutralized by the Arab armies’ increased mechanization, augmented mobility, and acquisition of long-range weapons. After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon for which Sharon was significantly responsible, the offensive stance waned in popularity. However, this offensive stance regained traction by 1988 with Iraq’s use of surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) and Saudi Arabia’s purchase of long-range SSMs from China.

While Israel today might be in a relatively safer environment since its independence, with some Arab states teetering and others placated, the threats to its existence are still palpable, as evidenced by the current war (detailed ahead). Non-state actors such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah are enemies of the state and are the de facto fighting force of the oppressed Palestinians. While Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not have any kind of tanks, aircraft, or large standing armies to invade Israel effectively, their ability to launch countless rockets into Israel means that strategic depth is limited for the state.

Due to this, Israel has invaded Gaza multiple times and has pursued ignominious military operations to squash Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Besides pre-emption and swift action, Israel uses the “deliberate use of disproportionate violence against civilians” as a “core part” of its military doctrine. Statistical evidence indicates that since the Israeli war in Gaza (2008–09) up until the May 2021 conflict, 18,992 Palestinians (civilians plus combatants) have died compared to 1,563 Israeli civilians and combatants; this means that a staggering 92.39% of casualties have been Palestinian.

Maritime Strategic Depth

Israel is acutely cognizant that there are two kinds of strategic depths: internal and external. The external kind lies beyond a country’s borders—in this case, the sea. “The strategic depth that the Mediterranean offers will play an increasingly important role in Israel’s defense.” Therefore, the state has been intensifying its maritime strategic depth. An example of maritime strategic depth is the Revolutionary War when the British were constrained due to it having to cross the Atlantic to attack the US.

In the last few years, significant offshore hydrocarbon reserves have been discovered in Israel’s territorial waters. Its gas reserves have grown by over 40% in the past decade. The Tamar, Leviathan, and Katlan fields are some examples. Due to this, there has been a need to produce a more cogent naval force. These sea-based economic assets are contingent on Israel’s naval prowess, as are the diplomatic avenues that such assets open – i.e. these assets can mollify Israel’s neighbors through commercial activity.

Israel has been working closely with Greece and Cyprus as well as the US naval fleet in conducting joint naval exercises. Most importantly, Israel’s new Dolphin-IIs (the INS Dragon) are said to be capable of carrying nuclear missiles bolstering its second-strike capabilities if attacked by an enemy’s nuclear weapons. This has been on the Israeli agenda for a while, and achieving this has allowed the country to further its strategic depth.

Political Strategic Depth

While strategic depth is primarily a military idea, it has political and economic practicalities as well. The aftermath of the 1973 war is a good example of this. It paved the way for the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, in which the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt. While this might sound counterproductive, it was a judicious ploy, as it allowed Israel to befriend an anathematic and robust military power in Egypt. This assurance of peace has allowed Israel more strategic depth than the Sinai since it set a precedent for others that rapprochement with Israel can be considered.

This is exactly what happened as Jordan (in 1994) entered into a peace treaty with Israel and other nations began re-examining their antagonism as well. This eventually led to even more rapprochement under the Abraham Accords as Arab and Muslim states such as the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain, and Morocco started diplomatic relations with Israel during the Trump presidency. The economic partnerships, trade, military cooperation, sharing of intel, tourism, etcetera that transpire after peace is established make going to war much more costly and onerous. For example, Egypt and Israel have been cordial for the most part since their treaty.

Pan-Arabism has also died down, and economic interests have unfortunately taken priority away from the Palestinian issue. Many GCC countries, such as the UAE, are examples of this, as they continually diversify their economies and see Israel as a key partner. Conversely, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are a shell of their former selves. Lebanon too has economically collapsed, and this will take a toll on Hezbollah, Israel’s archnemesis. Only Iran is considered a major threat—and often Pakistan.

The biggest illustration of Israel’s political strategic depth is the United States, as it “provides the kind of alternative strategic depth that Israel has always sought in order to compensate for its relative lack of territorial and other resources needed to blunt threats to its security.” The US has been romancing Israel at Palestine’s expense and has swayed the world to ignore, for the most part, the plight of the Palestinians. Albeit now waning, it has done this due to the US’ monolithic influence, which it commands amongst countries with the mainstream media as well as supranational entities such as the UN.

Israel has benefited meteorically from US largesse, as it is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid, receiving around $158 billion in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding. The US has also provided state-of-the-art military tech as well as key intel to the Israelis, allowing the latter to become a modern military and intelligence juggernaut.

The US’s military bases around the world, particularly in the Middle East, its political sway, as well as its reserve currency status, etc., all act as Israel’s strategic depth due to the one-of-a-kind relationship the two nations share. In the current war as well, the US is Israel’s main ally. Moreover, it is important to highlight that the Abraham Accords, the Camp David Accords, and other treaties would not have been possible if not for the aegis of the US.

The 2023 Israel-Hamas War

Besides Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the diminishing US influence on the global stage as well as in the Middle East coupled with Chinese ascendancy (see BRI and Iran-Saudi Arabia détente) might be problematic for Israel’s strategic depth. This has been proven by the recent war between Hamas and Israel. Hamas carried out a well-executed yet barbaric attack on 7th October by crossing into southern Israel and killing Israeli civilians as well as security forces (around 1200).

This again was primarily due to the proximity between Gaza and Israel. Israel has responded with vehemence but as a historic practice, it has yet again attacked Palestinians indiscriminately destroying hospitals, media buildings, and residential areas. This has led to the deaths of around 11,000 people including around 4500 children, 3100 women, 670 elderly, and 100 UN staff.

Political Strategic Depth in the Current War

Israel’s political strategic depth has been displayed in all its might in this war. The state has killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and the West and many other countries are either aiding Israel or at the very least, employing acquiescence. It shows that Israel is one of the few countries, akin to the US, that can get away with literal murder. Netanyahu has not been deemed a war criminal by the international powers while Putin was quite quickly after he invaded Ukraine.

That being said, when it comes to the common man, Israel’s political and diplomatic strategic depth has suffered drastically. Many men and women around the world have changed their opinions about the state. Record-setting pro-Palestinian rallies have been taking place in the US, the UK, Australia, and of course, across the Muslim world as well. Social media has become a great equalizer for the Palestinian people. Across the world, people are boycotting Israeli products/companies or companies that support Israel. Furthermore, there is immense pressure on pro-Israeli governments across the world as their populaces are exhorting them to initiate a ceasefire or even end support to Israel.

Traditional Strategic Depth in the Current War

When it comes to Israel’s lack of traditional strategic depth, it always endeavors to transfer the war to enemy lands as explained earlier – in this case, Gaza and the brutalities occurring there. The immediacy between Gaza and Israel has allowed the latter, as in the past, to easily invade the former – conversely, Hamas has been able to easily launch rockets from Gaza into Israel. In fact, Israel’s Iron Dome was overwhelmed due to the barrage of Hamas rockets. Due to this, there are murmurings that Israel should occupy Gaza with troops on the ground (which was true until 2005) in addition to the current blockade of Gaza.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, has called for a “buffer zone” to the west of the Gaza-Israel border. However, just how effective this strategic depth strategy will be is debatable as Hamas was still able to launch rocket attacks when Israel had occupied 20% of Gaza until 2005. There is also a fear that Hezbollah, from neighboring Lebanon, will open a new front in the war. This would prove quite disastrous for Israel as its army would be stretched. Invading Lebanon would be difficult while fighting an active war in Gaza.

Therefore both Israel’s traditional and political strategic depth stand strained which puts the state in an extremely precarious situation.


Ironically, it is Israel’s own barbaric transgressions against the Palestinians that are the raison d’être for it being constantly threatened. Its historic draconian treatment of the Palestinian people, which continues unabated under the current far-right government is fanning the flames of hatred and threats against the state. While Israel’s aggressive policy of pre-emptive strikes, nuclear deterrence, assassinations, and indiscriminate violence stems from its existential insecurities, the state tragically remains unaware that the ultimate strategic depth is in resolving the Palestinian issue humanely.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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