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Why Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza to crush Hamas is a litmus test for IDF First Post 01 Nov 2023
Since the 07 Oct attack on its soil, Israel has been announcing its intent of permanently eliminating the threat of Hamas by launching a ground offensive in Gaza. This is not the first time Israel has made such an attempt. Since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel has fought the Hamas on three occasions, 2008, 2014 and 2021. In each operation, Israel forces have mounted a limited incursion, generally lasting a fortnight. After each offensive Hamas has bounced back. This time once again the announcement is to degrade Hamas’s capability to wage war as also eliminate its leadership. What remains of concern is the presence of over 200 Israeli hostages held in Gaza by Hamas.
Israel is amassing its largest force level for operations since the Lebanon war of 1982. Its armour formations comprising of over 1000 tanks and a large part of its army are preparing for the invasion alongside 370,000 reservists who have been called up. In the meanwhile, the Israeli air force is softening Gaza by destroying what Israel terms as Hamas linked targets. It is ignoring collateral damage while enhancing pressure on Gazans to cooperate and share inputs on location of hostages.
The Israeli government has stated that operations could take upto three months. There is no doubt that a ground offensive would enhance civilian casualties, despite warnings being given to Gazans to vacate Northern Gaza. There is bound to be adverse reaction from Arab states once civilian casualties rise. Erdogan, the President of Turkey has already stated that Hamas is not a terrorist outfit but a liberation group.
The US is working to manage the environment however this would largely depend on casualties, duration of operations and movement of relief material to Gazans. Most terrorist groups would join the war against Israel in case operations get bogged down. Last week the leader of Hezbollah met his counterparts from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to coordinate their retaliation.
A ground offensive would favour Hamas, despite Israel possessing overwhelming firepower. Gaza consists of built-up areas, large parts of which have been destroyed by Israeli air power. Such terrain provides the defender the ability to engage and vanish, stalling the attacker. Street to street battles to gain control of the area is slow and prone to casualties. The defender is aware of the terrain, while the attacker would be compelled to rely on technologies including drones and robots to warn troops of impending danger.
In built-up areas, a smaller trained and motivated force can delay larger numbers for a prolonged duration. Russian operations in Kharkiv and US operations in Mosul and Baghdad are examples. It is known that troops defending built-up areas would lay booby traps and mines causing disproportionate casualties, stalling the attacker. Hamas also possess suicide bombers which would impose additional caution to attacking forces.
Hamas has constructed over 500 kms of tunnels in Gaza enabling its fighters to hit assaulting troops and vanish. These tunnels also protect them from superior Israeli firepower. This being their territory they will exploit it to their advantage. One of the reasons for stopping the flow of fuel to Gaza is that the tunnels depend on oil for ventilation and lighting. Lack of ventilation could bring the fighters to the surface exposing them to Israeli military power.
Further, Hamas still possesses a collection of rockets which it can employ, adding to delay. The presence of hostages in the hands of Hamas places caution on Israeli forces. Assaulting troops will have to curtail firepower as also control airpower usage to ensure safety of hostages.
Israel has been launching probing operations for the past few days, moving deeper each time, meeting little resistance. This is possibly part of Hamas’s strategy to lure the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) deep into Gaza. Once the offensive commences there is no going back.
If it stalls or drags on or Israel suffers heavy casualties, Hamas would gain in global standing, while the reputation of the IDF would suffer. No matter how heavy the casualties and delays, Israel would have to continue pressing on. It could also imply drawing in reservists, currently deployed to handle other threats, to ensure success. This is possibly what Hamas desires as it would be fighting on home ground and in advantageous terrain. For Hamas, civilian casualties are immaterial, while they matter for the rest of the world.
Operations of this nature need careful planning and a horde of intelligence. They have to be deliberate and only launched once plans are firmed in and troops trained. Thus, the IDF is seeking time to be ready while the polity appears to be in a rush, aware that support to Israel would begin diminishing as aid to Gaza reduces.
The longer the ground offensive continues, the greater the casualties to Israeli forces as also increased collateral damage, apart from not achieving its aim of destruction of Hamas. Anger within the Arab community would enhance pressure in the UN. Allies of Israel today would be neutral tomorrow. Other terrorist groups including Hezbollah would join in. Houthi rebels from Yemen would increase missile launches while those from Syria may join the battle.
Israel’s major ally, the US, has a number of bases in the region including in Syria and Iraq. These have already come under attack from terrorist groups since the US began supporting Israel, injuring over 25 US troops. These attacks will increase for which the US needs to be prepared. It is inducting additional anti-missile systems into the region.
Finally, has Israel determined its end state, which is essential prior to launch of operations. Will its operations be confined to just north Gaza or complete Gaza? Will it intend to administer the region it occupies or vacate? If it vacates, who would take responsibility for administration, the Palestinian Authority, UN or an organization created by Israel? Will the Hamas leadership be destroyed by an offensive or will it re-emerge in a few years even stronger as has been happening? Unless these are considered, rushing into an offensive is not the answer.
The next issue is whether Israel has the ability to handle multiple fronts in case the offensive bogs down. Hezbollah will definitely activate the northern border. While nations may not join the war, terrorist groups from different parts of the region would wade in. Can Israel contain them? The entry of the US into the war would drag in other nations, hence it may not participate but provide support. Will that be sufficient. These are issues which would be under consideration at different levels in Israel.
Israel is aware that it cannot fail or be bogged down. Excessive casualties are equally unacceptable. Its intelligence has to be spot on, troops prepared and contingencies rehearsed. Announcing a ground offensive and deploying troops for it, as a threat in being, is the easier part, launching it is more difficult. It is this dilemma which is causing a delay. Israel is hoping that talks for permitting aid in return for hostages would succeed. If that happens, it could launch operations with greater firepower to contain Hamas in a limited area of north Gaza and subsequently claim success.