Issue 22 Insecurity Summer 2006

Between the Striated and the Smooth

Shimon Naveh

The theater of our present wars is increasingly, if not exclusively, cities. This has driven militaries around the world 
to reflect on an emergent relationship between armed conflicts and the built environment. The urban environment is increasingly understood by military thinkers neither simply as the backdrop for conflict, nor as its mere consequence, but as a dynamic field locked in a feedback-based relationship with the diverse forces operating within it—the urban inhabitants, soldiers, guerrillas, journalists, and humanitarian agents. Because contemporary urban warfare plays itself out increasingly through the destruction, construction, reorganization, and subversion of space, architecture and planning become among the most important reference disciplines for military men.


According to geographer Stephen Graham, a vast, international “intellectual field” that he calls a “shadow world of military urban research institutes and training centers” has been established in the last decade in order to rethink military operations in urban terrain.1 Its expanding network includes schools, urban research institutes, and training centers, as well as mechanisms for the exchange of knowledge between different militaries such as conferences, workshops, and joint training exercises. In their attempt to comprehend urban life, soldiers, who are the urban practitioners of today, take crash courses to master topics such as urban infrastructure, complex system analysis, structural stability, and building techniques; they appeal as well to a variety of theories and methodologies produced within contemporary civilian academia.2 Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Deleuze, Guattari, Bataille, and Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, and postcolonial and poststructuralist theory.3 If writers claiming that the space for criticality has to some extent withered away in late twentieth-century capitalist culture are right, it surely seems to have found a place to flourish in the military. Furthermore, according to urban theorist Simon Marvin, the military-architectural “shadow world” is currently generating more intense and well-funded urban research programs than all university programs put together.4 In no uncertain terms, education in the humanities—often believed to be the most powerful weapon against imperialism—is being appropriated as a powerful weapon of imperialism.


The practical and theoretical basis of urban warfare emerged from nineteenth-century colonialism, with French North Africa, in particular, seen as a laboratory for innovations in the field of governance and control. The French general Thomas Bugeaud wrote the first urban warfare manual—“La Guerre des Rues et des Maisons”—in 1849 (a chapter from this book is available at www.cabinetmagazine.org/22/bugeaud.php [link defunct—Eds.]), a year after returning from Algiers, where he commanded the French expeditionary force, and in response to the upheavals in Paris in 1848. In Algiers, Bugeaud brutally practiced “counter-insurgency” through the reshaping of the colonial cities and countryside by acts of destruction (razing villages and widening city roads) and construction (building markets, military bases, civilian settlements) to suit his needs of control. In his book, Bugeaud devised similar methods of repression through design—whether to be conducted through battle or in anticipation of it—in response to the class-based struggles of Industrial Revolution-era Paris. 


The central “laboratory” for the development of contemporary urban operations roday is no doubt the occupied Palestinian territories. During the second Intifada (2000–), the attacks of the Israeli army on the Palestinian cities and refugee camps were studied in great detail by foreign militaries—especially the American and the British, as they prepared themselves for the occupation of Iraq—but also, significantly, by civilian planners as they sought to devise ways of protecting city centers from terror attacks.5

Shimon Naveh is a retired brigadier general, Israel’s foremost philosopher-soldier-cum-urban-theorist, and director of what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) calls the Operational Theory Research Institute. In the following text, he describes the meeting that preceded the 3 April 2002 attack on the refugee camps of Balata and the Old City of Nablus—an attack that killed more than eighty Palestinian civilians and combatants, and destroyed and damaged many of the city buildings. This attack, commanded by Aviv Kochavi, has become the most influential case study for military study of operations in urban terrain. The following text is based on transcripts of a command meeting that took place several days before the attack. It has been written by Naveh as an educational tool in the form of a short-story drama in order to be more accessible for soldiers who will read it in the Staff and Command School where he teaches.


It is important to note that, although based on and conducted through reshaping the battle-space, the intention in this attack was not to gain territory or control it, but to be able to locate the members of the Palestinian resistance, kill them, and leave. The horrific reality of these objectives is part of a general Israeli policy that seeks to disrupt Palestinian resistance through the assassinations of military and political activists. Such necrotactics would thus come to imply the reversal of the traditional aims of warfare. The military does not kill enemy soldiers as a means to obtain the strategic ground they occupy, but temporarily enters strategic ground in order to kill its enemies. Killing is not a by-product of military maneuver, but the very essence of the current Israeli campaign against Palestinian guerrilla and terror, and thus has become, in the absence of any legal process to support it, and since the definition of “immanent danger” is extended to all members of the resistance and their supporters, a systematic campaign of murder. It is mainly, but not exclusively, this logic of the attack on Nablus that would explain current calls for Kochavi, the “hero” of the following saga, to face a war-crime tribunal.6
Eyal Weizman


  1. I have witnessed some of these conferences. In January 2003, Stephen Graham 
gave me half of his £1,000 ticket to attend the second day of the Annual “Urban Warfare 
Conference” organized by a Security Institute in London called SMI. This was a surreal event where military personnel, arms dealers, and academics from NATO, the UK, the US, and Israel as well as representative of the RAND corporation, exchanged practical views on urban military operations and essential equipment within the conference hall and over dinner. On another such military conference organized in 2002 by the Faculty of Geography at Haifa University see Stephen Graham, “Remember Fallujah: Demonizing Place, Constructing Atrocity,” Society and Space, 2005, vol. 23, pp. 1–10.

  2. A publication prepared under the direction of the former Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General John P. Abizaid, and published in September 2002 under the title “Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations,”
  3. One of the reading lists of the Operational Theory Research Institute contained the following titles (amongst many other): Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Beatriz Colomina (guest editor), Architecture Production, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus and What is Philosophy?, Clifford Geertz, After the Fact–Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, Catherine Ingraham, Architecture and the Burdens of Linearity, Jean-François Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, W. J. T. Mitchell, The Logic of Architecture, Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity, John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections, Bernard Tschumi, Questions on Space, and Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension.

  4. Simon Marvin, “Military Urban Research Programs: Normalising the Remote Control of Cities,” paper delivered to the conference, “Cities as Strategic Sites: Militarisation Anti-Globalization & Warfare,” Centre for Sustainable Urban and Regional Futures, Manchester, November 2002.

  5. Hundreds of US Marine Corps officers have trained in Israel over the last years in urban warfare and targeted assassinations, and in what the military crudely calls “population management”—a term inclusive enough to incorporate everything from an extended policy of curfews and blockades to the management of the civil affairs of the occupied by an occupying army. See “U.S. Marines Use Israeli Tactics in Falluja and Baghdad,” Middle East Newsline, 10 November 2004, vol. 6, no. 418; Justin Huggler, “Israelis trained US troops in Jenin-style Urban Warfare,” The Independent, 29 March 2003; Yagil Henkin, “The Best Way Into Baghdad,”The New York Times, 3 April 2003. See minutes from a meeting titled “US - Israeli Seminar on Military Innovation and Experimentation” where US military staff is said to be impressed with the quality of the Israeli delegation that included, on this occasion, Shimon Naveh. The US officer taking notes concluded the minutes of the discussion thus: “I cannot do justice to his ideas, I simply did not get all he had to say. They seemed a lot like brainstorming, evaluating universals for relevance (discarding those considered not relevant, or out of date), then reexamining the problem from a new frame of reference. I AM SURE THEY WOULD HAVE A TITLE FOR MY NARROW INABILITY TO UNDERSTAND. [emphasis in original] But another outcome is Dr. Gold (with Andy Marshall’s blessing) is seeking an opportunity for them to return to the JAWP and give us the Readers Digest version of their IDF course. You should plan to attend, when it comes.” www.belisarius.com/modern_business_strategy/moore/mie_1_us-israeli_seminar.doc [link defunct—Eds.], 18 May 2006.

  6. Kochavi captured the attention of the media in February 2006 when the chief legal advisor to the IDF recommended that he not make a planned trip to a UK-based military academy for fear that he could be prosecuted for war crimes in Britain. Also see Neve Gordon, “Aviv Kochavi, How Did You Become a War Criminal?” www.counterpunch.org/nevegordon1.html, 8 April 2002.

The large grey-metallic aerial photo lay on the huge oval wooden table like a deceased dinosaur thrown out of its habitat by some primary force. Marked by a white label carrying the name Raphidiya, the upper left portion of the Kodak paper was splashed with a turbid stain of sour military coffee. The air in the frosty fluorescent-lit room was heavy with the odors of human sweat, boot polish, rifle oil, and cigarette smoke. Fifteen pairs of somber eyes concentrated on a dark tight square on the lower right marked by the label “Balata,” meaning “plate.”


Aviv (meaning “spring” in Hebrew, a rather strange name for a professional soldier), commander of 35 Para Brigade, cut the heavy silence with his quiet voice: “There is reliable information indicating that a group of armed insurgents has moved recently from Nablus with the intention of establishing an operational base in Balata refugee camp. … Central Command wants us to go in and uproot them!”


“Oooh,” mumbled Amir, the tall, fair-haired commander of Battalion X. “You mean go in and seize a built-up area? We have not done that since 1982, and, as I recollect, we were not particularly successful on that occasion…”


“Well,” responded Aviv thoughtfully, “first, there is always a first time in war, as you all know. Second, this operation is not about seizing space, it is about preempting a problem, a ticking bomb! Third, our real problem is not attempting something that we have not done before, but rather freeing ourselves from a myth that has been debilitating the performance of state militaries for the last two centuries. Moreover, what worries me even further is the fact that at the moment no existing military doctrine can provide us with a relevant conceptual reference. Thus, we have to invent a new pattern of action, while relying exclusively on our own experience.”


“What do you have in your bag for us, Shai, you magician?” said Aviv addressing the Brigade S-2 [intelligence staff officer]. “Well” said Shai, “Mainly bad news; intelligence in this operation is beyond your worst dreams.”


“Stop frightening us! There is a serious fight ahead of us, and we are short of morale anyway,” grinned Aviv.


Shai: “We know that between 80 to 200 armed insurgents from various organizations left Nablus in recent weeks and established themselves in the Balata refugee camp. We don’t know their exact whereabouts, we don’t know their command organization, and we don’t know their operational deployment. All we know is that they have established an urban guerrilla base within the camp enclosure.”


“High command must be joking,” sarcastically mumbled Roni, the decent, thoughtful commander of Battalion Y. “This contradicts everything we have been trained to do.”


“Wait!” said Shai, “We have not gotten to the worst yet. Remember how we rationalized the insurgents’ attraction to the urban environment? It provides them with a natural base for operations against conventional forces; it affords them a human shield, which they cunningly manipulate; it is a natural hideout; an unlimited logistical base; a stage for spectacular brutality; a medium for disappearance. Built-up areas are reflectors of the regulars’ [regular army forces’] form, and deflectors of the irregulars’ [guerrilla forces’]. Observing the addiction of state armies to conventional geometry and mechanistic order, on the one hand, and their phobia of casualties, on the other, subversive entities developed the doctrine that no conventional military will commit itself to a serious fight in the urban jungle. And, if the worst comes, the regulars will either succumb to the town’s striation, or be defeated by the counterproductive effect of their mass firepower. In fact, we ourselves have become victims of this mythological argument.” Becoming suddenly embarrassed by his over-enthusiasm, Shai took a deep breath trying to cool down.


Exploiting the lull in Shai’s flow of speech, David, Z Battalion commander, fired a nervous question into the room: “So why should a group of insurgents bother to leave the haven of a big town and lock themselves in a remote, wretched ghetto like Balata?”


“Well,” said Shai, “I think they either want to test our nerves, or pull us into a bitter fight. Whatever option materializes, they think they will humiliate the IDF in the same manner Hezbollah did two years ago. If we refrain from a fight, Abu Amar’s [Arafat] warriors and a community of untouchables gain a psychological victory. If we accept their invitation, they believe they will embarrass us by bleeding us white. Since they expect us to come in the old style—mechanized formations in cohesive lines and massed columns conforming to the geometrical order of the street network pattern—Balata, almost deterministically, becomes a Palestinian Stalingrad.”


“Without being drawn into over-detailed speculation,” continued Shai, “by attempting to establish a laager, I think they have been fortifying all entries to the camp, mining and booby-trapping streets and alleys, both against soldiers and vehicles, and gathering whatever fighting materials and resources they can. In other words, by transforming Balata into a castle, they have set the stage for a fighting spectacle in which they expect us, when attacking the enclave, to obey the spatial logic that is most convenient for them.” 
A heavy silence overcame the audience.


“There is nothing I like more than a hopeless situation,” uttered Roni ironically, the rest bursting into laughter.


“Actually, things are not that bad,” said Aviv. “In fact, together with Tamir, commander of the 1st Infantry Brigade, I have worked out an idea that you may find relevant to the setting of the problem we have been hovering around. Our impression is that some unique cognitive aspects that have not been observed by the insurgents can be manipulated in a manner that distorts both their thinking processes and their modes of behavior. In other words, if we apply critical thinking, we may have a chance of formalizing the subversive.”


Aviv rose up from his seat and approached the drawing board. “Look,” he proceeded, “the insurgents tend to misperceive their tactical (individual or team level of action) inconspicuousness (disappearance) as operational (system or organizational level of functioning) imperceptibility (absence). Their transition to Balata is about fighting, and fighting is about physical as well as conceptual cohesion. Moreover, this transition from a state of divergence (disappearance through non-contiguous deployment within a big town or city) to a state of convergence implies both a reframing of the relations between mass and space, and a reexamination of the tension between disappearance and fighting. Once they attach themselves to an enclave, tactically we may not see them until we engage them in a mechanical sense. Yet, operationally, unconsciously, they converge with the overall form (layout) of the enclave. So, we may not know the exact whereabouts of every fighting element, yet we have rationalized their institutional logic and conceptualized their systemic or operational form. That is not bad for a start, do you agree with me?”


“Thus,” continued Aviv, “since the boundaries of the enclave reflect their operational form, we can design a complex fractal pattern of maneuver that will disguise our form from them, impose chaotic conditions on their cognitive process, and deconstruct or de-structure their operational form. In other words, striate what they discern as smooth.”


“What worries me now are the following issues: First, how do we free ourselves tactically from the tyranny imposed on us by their tactical striation, which is to say, how do we avoid the traditional dictate of channeling our fighting units into linear streets and alleys? Second, since we cannot afford to utilize our most advantageous resource—firepower—and thus warfighting will be on even terms with our subversive rivals, how do we manage to disguise our tactical form from them while forcing them to disclose theirs?”


“Well, Aviv,” interrupted Amir, “while you’ve been developing your operational ideas, we’ve been deliberating on the pragmatics of warfighting. If you are ready to compromise on some principled sensitivities and overcome some tactical mind-sets, I think we have a revolutionary solution to the tactical problems you indicated. Two of my boys, a platoon commander and his sergeant, both from kibutz Giva’at Haiim, think that once we penetrate an urban enclave, we should conduct our tactical movements through the houses or buildings and not around them. Our experiments with this new mode have taught us two things. First, we need to organize ourselves for breaking through walls and moving through the houses of individual families. Second, navigation and orientation must be thought through institutionally.”


For the second time, silence settled in the room. Aviv, in his usual manner of discursive command, asked each of the participants for his individual opinion on Amir’s concept. 


Following the remarks of Nimrod, the commander of the reconnaissance company and the last of the participants to speak, Aviv turned to Shmulik, the brigade S-3 [operations officer], and summed up his thoughts.


“Since we have been given only three days to complete our preparations for the operation, the following principles will guide our planning, training, and organization. The difference between what emerges in front of our eyes, inviting our rationalization, and our institutional paradigm touches on many issues, including organization, doctrine, moral values, forms of function, and so on. Realizing we are amid a transitional phase, I would like to highlight some critical issues that can promote our learning as a military institution, and feed our reflections during the operation and in the future. Unlike our idealistic tradition that perceived war in binary terms, this campaign is going to be a very long one, and end, in the far future, in a kind of new equilibrium rather than in decisive results. If we do not change our current discourse on intelligence, we are bound to fail. Our rivals, or enemies as they are being referred to, are not just ontological objects for action. Operationally speaking, they are a logical medium for systemic deliberation, and unless we construct them as conceptual artifacts, we deprive ourselves of the basic conditions for designing our own logic. Moreover, no intelligence apparatus is capable of providing us, prior to operations against a subversive rival, with precise and relevant information. Therefore, we need to explore the implicit rather than explicit variables, and complement the production of intelligence, or our learning about the rival, in the course of the operation through the application of maneuvers. Finally, we must attune our institutional learning to comply with the dialectics of unique contexts, of singular patterns, in the same manner that we have done here today.” 


“We will apply a fractal maneuver swarming simultaneously from every direction and through various dimensions on the enclave of Balata. We will completely isolate the camp, in daylight, creating the impression of a forthcoming systematic siege operation. Our policy rejects the use of tanks and artillery; machine gun fire is only allowed in conditions providing a clear field of fire, precise fire, and targets that are detached from buildings. Remember, due to the poor quality of construction, the buildings cannot sustain even low-caliber single shots. I assign the western sector to Yoni who will command Nimrod (reconnaissance), Udi (parachute anti-tank company), and Guy (parachute sappers); the northern sector goes to David; the eastern sector I assign to Roni; and the southern sector to Amir. Remember, we are not in a hurry. This operation is not about ideal modes of decision (winning). We have to avoid casualties among civilians at all cost and kill or capture the combatants, while avoiding casualties in our own units. Once we have crossed the littoral, each unit (company-sized combat team) reflects in its mode of action both the logic and form of the general maneuver—this is what fractals are all about. According to the logic implied by this new form of maneuver, each unit will combine three components in its operation—observation teams, sniper teams, and teams that are supposed to attract the attention of the insurgent fighters. Our movement through the buildings will push them into the streets and alleys, where we will hunt them down. By doing that, we will smooth the intrinsic striation of the enclave.”


David, Aviv’s alter ego and the most senior of the unit commanders, exploited a respite in Aviv’s brief and popped in: “What is crystallizing here is exciting, yet extremely challenging in terms of execution. I would like to illuminate some practical aspects concerning the relations between cognition and maneuver in the context of the current operation. The prevailing maneuver paradigm is about geometrical order, physical cohesion, and massed firepower. Its conceptual coherence is embodied in its formal simplicity. Moreover, since similar patterns of space are being utilized by the competing symmetric contenders, the rationale of emerging operations is deterministic and the problem of self-orientation, both geographically and cognitively, by individual tactical commanders is a minor challenge. Once we shift from modes of action based on presence to modes of action based on disappearance, and from a maneuver framework reflecting Euclidean geometry to a maneuver framework reflecting the geometry of complexity, we magnify the space for exploiting our potential, yet at the same time we push the cognitive challenges for warfighters to new extremes. Since every unit commander is an autarkic fractal component within an emerging fractal system, the cognitive problem of self-orientation becomes three-fold. First, at every moment of the evolving operation the unit commander has to refer his relative position to the geography. Second, at every moment of the evolving operation he has to refer his relative position to sister units functioning within the relevant operational space. And, third, at every moment of the evolving operation he has to draw the systemic implications from his positioning in relation to the logic of the emerging maneuver as a whole. The first is about navigation, the second is about orientation, and the third is about systemic awareness. I mean awareness not in the sense of recent American clichés but rather in the sense of a cognitive quality implying synthesis. Therefore, we need to prepare navigation aids, to invest in developing common spaces of understanding in the fighting units, and to design a command architecture enabling dynamic learning in action.”


A wide smile spread across Aviv’s pleasant face. “One last issue before we depart. We know where exactly lies the allegiance of the Palestinian refugees living in what has become an enclave. Yet, remember they are victims not only of our wrath but also of the sympathy of the insurgents who exploit them. In other words, a most deadly game in which they are the ultimate victims in every sense has been imposed on them. Be careful! Show respect! And, pay attention to their pragmatic needs!”


“Any questions or remarks at this point?” asked Aviv. “Well, there is a lot of work ahead of us…” 


With these final remarks, the war council dispersed.

Shimon Naveh is a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and director of its Operational Theory Research Institute.

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