As the invading Israeli Defense Forces are consolidating their control of the border areas of Gaza, there are several important questions worth addressing.
What are Israel’s military tactics? What is Israeli strategy? What are Hamas’s and do the two sides have an exit strategy in case events get of control?
The IDF troops consist of armored battalions, mechanized infantry, artillery, engineering corps, Special Forces, navy, air force intelligence. They have encircled the Gaza Strip from all its three sides and from the sea. Gaza is a small Palestinian enclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean about 30 miles long and 7 miles wide sandwiched between Israel and Egyptian Sinai. At about 10 pm Thursday a massive Israeli force entered Gaza from three directions: north, east and south. As it is common in military operations, a heavy artillery and sea bombardment preceded the invasion.
Half an hour later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that he and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had ordered the operation after Hamas rejected the Egyptian initiative – which Israel had already accepted on Tuesday.
By 9 in the morning on Friday it was already reported that 27 Palestinians had been killed (in addition to the 224 who died in the previous days of “Protective Edge,” the Israeli air strike operation that preceded the Israeli ground incursion. One IDF soldier (in addition to one civilian) had died from a “friendly fire” incident, mistakenly killed by his IDF comrades. According to a senior Israeli officer, the IDF is currently operating on the ground in several areas throughout the Gaza Strip, from north to south, Due to censorship restrictions, the exact number of troops is classified, but it is estimated to be at around 40,000 and is much bigger than in the previous Israeli operations in Gaza in 2009.
Most Israelis — even many on the radical left — share the view that Israel had no choice. It all began when Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the 17 or so renegade pro Islamist groups in Gaza started 4 weeks ago to launch rockets and mortar shells at Israel. This was their response to the fact that IDF and Shin Bet security service arrested 500 Hamas activists in the West Bank as a result of the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli yeshiva students by what were assumed to be Hamas activists.
Before the invasion, Israel, led by Netanyahu and Ya’alon, showed great restraint despite right wing pressures. Fourteen hundred rockets were fired, hitting many Israeli cities including Beersheba, Dimona, Jerusalem,Tel Aviv and even Haifa in the north. Four million Israelis experienced a daily routine of running to shelters. And yet Israel responded only by air strikes and agreed to an Egyptian initiative to establish a cease-fire, which was rejected by Hamas.
It seemed that Hamas interpreted the Israeli reluctance to use ground forces as weakness.
The Netanyahu statement emphasized that the aim of the incursion was to remove the terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel. The tactical military goals are indeed to expose and demolish the tunnels — which Hamas has dug in recent years to hide rockets, launchers and other weapons, as well as to provide safe havens for top commanders and to enable infiltration into Israel for the purpose of terror attacks and kidnappings. Israel aims to destroy as much as possible of the rocket arsenal and to kill the organization’s military commanders. Israel intends to establish and control a buffer zone of 1 to 2 miles from the border — this is mainly farmland with relatively small population — and locate and demolish the tunnels.
At this stage, Israel does not intend to enter Gaza City, one of the most densely populated places on earth. It would be too dangerous in terms of Israeli casualties and collateral Palestinian damage. The political strategic goal is to press Hamas to accept a cease-fire. But Hamas plays a different ball game. It is already diplomatically isolated and financially bankrupt. Since the civil war in Syria, it has lost its traditional supporters and sponsors — Iran and Syria. Egypt, led by President General Fathi al Sisi, declared Hamas a “terrorist organization” and perceives it as a Palestinian branch of the hated Muslim Brotherhood. Feeling besieged and with its back to the wall Hamas’s political and the more radical military leaders think that they have nothing to lose.
They know very well that Israel has no intention of fully occupying Gaza and toppling their regime. Thus they wish Israeli troops will keep advancing, providing them with opportunities to use delay and hit and run guerilla tactics by using the labyrinth of tunnels built exactly for this purpose. In the meantime they continue to fire the four thousand rockets still in their possession.
And here is the problem. If they don’t succumb to the Israeli military pressure and refuse to accept a cease fire Israel may find itself stuck in Gaza with no exit strategy to end the crisis.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and the co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon” (Levant Books, 2014).