Armored vehicles of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are seen during their ground operations in a location referred to as Gaza, as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas continues, in this handout image released on Nov. 1, 2023 .
Defense of Israel | Reuters
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned his country that a “long and difficult war” lies ahead.
The Israeli Defense Forces, after launching the largest military mobilization of troops in its history, have now entered the “second phase” of their war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The IDF is supplementing its heavy aerial bombardment of the besieged area with what is being described as a ground invasion, the details of which are being closely guarded.
The airstrikes were launched in response to an October 7 attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas – designated a terrorist group by the US and the EU – in southern Israel that killed more than 1,300 people and saw more than 240 hostages. And the IDF’s long-standing strategy of retaliation is in full force, with more than 8,500 people killed in Gaza in just over three weeks, according to Hamas health ministry officials there.
In the first six days of the war alone, the Israeli military said it dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza – a blockaded enclave roughly the size of the city of Philadelphia. Now, ground troops are moving into the area.
Civilians try to reach survivors, bodies amid devastation caused by Israeli strikes in the Bureij refugee camp located in the central Gaza Strip on November 2, 2023.
Ashraf Amra | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
“Our soldiers have been operating in Gaza City for the past few days, encircling it from many directions, deepening the operation,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Thursday. “Our forces are in very important areas of Gaza City.”
A ground offensive is necessary to achieve Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, the IDF says. But a protracted invasion — if it comes to that — will be bloody and costly not only for those living in Gaza but also for the Israeli military, military veterans and analysts say.
Urban counterinsurgency, as the U.S. military learned in Iraq, poses deadly challenges to troops that don’t apply in an air campaign.
“In fighting in cities, you have greater losses. This is just a historical fact,” Jim Webb, a former US Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told CNBC.
“Iraq showed how much advantage the defender, especially the asymmetric one, has in the urban struggle. There, lightly armed insurgents were able to use the urban landscape to first slow and then engage the largest maneuver force in world history for years.”
In the case of Gaza, that defender is Hamas — and it will have almost every advantage in ground fighting, Webb said.
“Cities naturally channel the attacker into predictable avenues of approach. It also means that these battles occur at close range, which makes the use of supporting weapons such as tanks, artillery or air power extremely difficult, even if there are no civilians in the area,” Webb said.
“Gaza is full of civilians and Hamas will be able to integrate,” he added. “I do not envy the work that the IDF may be called upon to undertake.”
Palestinian members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, take part in a rally on January 31, 2016, in Gaza City to pay tribute to fellow fighters who died after a tunnel collapsed in the Gaza Strip .
Mahmoud Hams | Afp | Getty Images
Israeli soldiers will face unfamiliar streets and alleys, mountains of demolished buildings and Hamas’s extensive network of tunnels, which the IDF euphemistically calls the “Gaza subway.” Hundreds of feet underground, the tunnels house weapons caches, electrical generators, command and control centers undetected from above – and likely many of the hostages Hamas kidnapped from Israel on October 7.
“We know they’re waiting for us,” an Israeli soldier, who declined to be named because of his role in Israel’s security service, told CNBC. “And as bad as Gaza is above ground, underground is much worse.”
No one knows how long the fighters will last, says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Gulf Arab Institute in Washington. But he suspects that a protracted ground invasion is actually what Hamas is aiming for.
“I believe their plan is to inflict as much cost as possible on Israel during its ground invasion and ensure pockets of the organization survive so that, assuming Israel has a long-term ground presence in the urban centers of Gaza, an insurgency can erupt,” Ibish said.
This insurgency will likely start slowly because the organization is so decimated, he said, but the risk remains high that it will gain steam over time. “Hamas hopes that they can eventually start picking off Israeli soldiers individually and in small groups,” he said, “killing them and capturing them and bleeding Israel terribly.”
The IDF did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
“In terms of Israel’s stated strategic games, I think it’s going to be really difficult,” said Dave Des Roches, a professor at the Center for Near East South Asia Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
“It’s not going to be the ’67 war,” he said, referring to Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War during which it quickly became defeated three neighboring Arab armies and gained territory four times its original size. “No,” said Des Roches, “it will be long and bloody.”
An IDF captain, who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on speaking to the press, said Israeli troops were fully aware of the risks and were prepared to take them.
“We are prepared to inflict serious damage if we enter despite possible military casualties. Absolutely,” he said. “We are trained for this exact situation.”
Des Roches believes that destroying Hamas’ military capability will require the IDF to control the terrain, essentially occupy it piecemeal, and then systematically map out and destroy what the militants themselves have described as more than 300 miles of tunnels built in the last 30 years.
But eliminating Hamas as a military force may be only the beginning of Israel’s challenges, conflict analysts warn. What happens to the roughly 2.3 million Palestinians who remain, still trapped in a devastated Gaza in what the UN has described as a devastating humanitarian crisis?
“Once you destroy Gaza, once you destroy Hamas – assuming you can do that – you have more than two million destitute people,” Des Roches said. “And if you don’t give them a better lifestyle, you’re just going to have this problem again in five or 10 years.”
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