‘From the inside’: How an Israel ground offensive in Gaza could unfold
Since Israel vowed to “demolish Hamas” a ground assault has been a possibility. Now a general is urging troops to “be ready”. What would an incursion involve for both sides?
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Troops scurry from one bombed-out apartment block to the next, alert for snipers and booby traps, underground tunnels and “mouse holes” carved out of walls. Their adversaries dig in, quiet and still, waiting until the last second to open fire; or they melt away to fight another day, some hiding in plain sight, blending into the civilian crowd. This is urban warfare in the 21st century: an environment, says one US service member who fought in Iraq, that is “much more difficult for the average foot soldier to survive”.
Since Israel vowed to “demolish Hamas”, the prospect of an assault into the highly built-up Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely populated places, while not inevitable, appears increasingly likely.
As Israel pounds the strip with air strikes, and its special forces are believed to have already penetrated Gaza City on hazardous missions, Israel Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has urged tens of thousands of troops massing on Gaza’s border to “get organised, be ready” for an order to move in.
“Whoever sees Gaza from afar now, will see it from the inside … I promise you,” Gallant said. “It might take a week, a month, two months until we destroy them,” he added, referring to Hamas.
At an urban warfare training facility in the Negev Desert, an Israeli soldier takes part in a drill in January.Credit: AP
Palestinians, meanwhile, have been ordered to evacuate northern Gaza; nearly half of the more than 2 million people in the Gaza Strip are children and teenagers. And somewhere in Gaza there are believed to be at least 200 hostages, including children, snatched in Hamas’ recent attacks on Israeli settlements, military installations and an outdoor music festival.
As tensions heighten, what would an Israeli ground assault involve? Why is urban warfare so notoriously difficult? And what would be the end game?
Why is urban warfare typically so fraught?
Urban warfare – fighting house to house, block to block – is a gruelling, technical form of combat that even the best-equipped armies have historically shied away from, if they can. “Complex and difficult,” is how David Betz and Hugo Stanford-Tuck describe it in a 2019 paper on urban warfare in the 21st century.
The list is long of urban centres in the modern era where the quest for close-quarters conquest has come at a high price: among them, Mariupol in Ukraine in 2022, the Iraqi cities of Mosul (2017) and Fallujah (2004), Grozny (Chechnya, 1995 and 1994), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina, from 1992) and Berlin at the end of World War II. Examples abound, too, of aggressors’ over-confidence and defenders’ resilience throughout history. Attempting to quell civilian unrest in Buenos Aires in 1807, as Betz and Stanford-Tuck recount, British troops were pelted with stones, hot water and primitive hand grenades from rooftops.
Fighters in Chechnya in the mid-’90s.Credit: Getty Images
In Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, in 1993 the United States found its state-of-the-art hardware counted for little in the tightly packed streets and marketplaces. Somali fighters with shoulder-launched, rocket-propelled grenades downed two US helicopters, an episode later fictionalised in the film Black Hawk Down.
Battles in open country, deserts, jungles and mountains have their own challenges. But the level of tactical difficulty ramps up severely in an urban environment, say Betz and Stanford-Tuck. “The profusion of places to hide in this multi-dimensional environment means engagement typically occurs at very short distances and fire fights are swift and brutal.”
Communications are disrupted by buildings. Intensity and extreme stress accelerate fatigue. But above all, they note, “The key constraint is the potential intermingling of civilians and civilian infrastructure with combat operations.”
These days when “clearing” an area of a threat or obstacles, troops will send in drones or robots to locate improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. They will jam radio signals to disable booby traps that could be activated remotely. Four soldiers might clear a room, 18 might be required to clear a house.
“If you have a whole neighbourhood of several city blocks with several large apartment buildings, that’s a brigade-level operation; meaning 3000 to 5000 soldiers, by doctrine,” says one US service member who fought in Ramadi during the Iraq War in 2006, and who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Fighting in the streets of Sarajevo, 1992. Credit: Getty Images
Risk is never eliminated, he says. “The only way you can get rid of snipers is, any place where it would be logical to put a sniper you take out before you go into an area, with artillery or rockets.” In his experience, urban warfare is “a real mean science” that “evens out everything”, despite the technological advantages one side might have.
Bottom line, says Charles Knight, an urban warfare specialist at Charles Sturt University: “There’s absolutely no doubt that going into an urban environment against a prepared defender is one of the most challenging operations you can conduct. The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] are better prepared than any other military on the planet, but they have been extremely reluctant to enter Gaza or similar urban complexes because they know they will lose a lot of blood.”
How is Israel likely to have prepared for a ground offensive?
Israel has been reluctant to send a major force into the enclave in the years since it ended its 38-year occupation in 2005. (It has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007.) A UN report into the last ground incursion, in 2014, found at least 150 Palestinian civilians died and thousands of homes were destroyed.
In the broader conflict, including air strikes, more than 2200 Palestinians died as well six Israeli civilians and 67 IDF soldiers, seven of whom were killed by an explosive device that destroyed their armoured vehicle in a narrow street.
A Palestinian woman hangs clothes in an apartment block that was partially destroyed in Beit Lahiya in the Gaza Strip in 2014.Credit: AP
Looking back further, a declassified US military memo from 1982 that examined Israel’s costly battles for Jerusalem (June 1967) and Suez City (October 1973) noted in both cities “narrow streets impassable to tanks and armoured personnel carriers impeded or arrested the IDF advance”. In Suez City, “where the tank kill zones were engineered in advance, the narrow streets became alleys of death” and Egyptian defenders without centralised communications relied on runners and telephones – “the urban guerilla mould”.
Israel has since constructed a vast training camp in the southern Negev Desert with hundreds of ersatz buildings that IDF forces can practise storming. “It’s very large and it’s quite sophisticated in the way it’s wired up for special effects. People get very immersed, it feels real,” says David Betz, from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, who visited the facility in 2015. “There’s every reason to expect that the Israelis have been training for urban operations and have thought a good deal about it.”
If IDF forces do enter Gaza on the ground, we can expect “a very slow advance to secure areas, to take out Hamas forces and hopefully release some of those hostages,” says Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The nature of the environment, the nature of the enemy they face, means that it is going to be a high-casualty exercise,” he says.
A Hamas fighter at an emplacement in the Shujaya neighborhood of Gaza City in 2014.Credit: Anadolu
How would Hamas likely prepare for an Israeli attack?
Hamas has a network of underground tunnels that total some 500 kilometres, according to estimates. Some of them, according to news outlet Al Jazeera, are “tall and wide enough to allow not only standing height and enough width for fighters to move through at a fast pace, but also enough room to act as well-protected storage for arms and ammunition, including rockets.”
Some tunnels were originally built by Bedouin clans to smuggle goods under the Egypt-Gaza border after 1981 but the network has been massively enlarged in the years since Israel withdrew from Gaza. Says Betz: “Even if the surface looks like a field of blasted rubble in which you could barely survive as a rat or a cockroach, let alone a human being, these tunnels may be still quite safe.”
This underground web is one of the key reasons a ground mission is required if Israel is to hunt down Hamas fighters but is also, as the experts we spoke to cited, the most complex twist. “You have to do the ground operation to get to the cache of weapons, the subterranean infrastructure underneath the Gaza Strip to get to the hostages,” says Miri Eisin, at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Israel.
Once breached, the tunnels are likely to be booby-trapped. Fighting in them would be exhausting, with darkness, the potential for ambush and poor communications compounding the usual hazards of close-quarters combat. Then there could be ethical issues, says Rain Liivoja, a professor at the University of Queensland Law School. “The tunnels themselves would be a legitimate military objective for Israel to pursue, but they might be under schools or hospitals or other civilian buildings. So the question then is how are they able to neutralise those tunnels while at the same time safeguarding the protected civilian buildings?”
“Mouse holes”, too, will likely play a role: gaps punched through walls to allow the movement of fighters and equipment without exposing them to enemy fire. Techniques such as this made for a “constantly shifting battlefield” in both Suez and Jerusalem, says the declassified US memo. “Defenders surrendered buildings to the attacking Israelis, only to re-occupy them once the buildings were cleared.” In Suez, fighters swung back into “cleared” buildings via balconies and rooftops.
Possibly of less use to Hamas, says Betz, will be their off-the-shelf drones, which are likely to fall victim to IDF electronic pulses, scrambling their direction-finding capabilities; IDF drones, on the other hand, will have military-grade electronic defences that are harder or impossible to manipulate.
The Hamas trump card, says Betz, may be a calculated attitude to the lives of civilians. “Many modern defenders of cities essentially operate a human shields strategy,” he says. “This is very well established in the case of Hamas.” It locates its weapons and command centres in areas where it would damage Israel’s international credibility to attack, he says.
He is less convinced about the received wisdom that defenders have an easier time of it than attackers, arguing that urban confrontations benefit and hinder defenders and attackers alike.
There are instances where a dug-in defensive force has held out against superior offensive opponents. In 2017, Islamic insurgents held a tiny area of the city of Marawi, in the Philippines, against government forces that had air support. Says Charles Knight: “The last area of 1000 metres by 800 metres had about 50 defenders and it took them a month to clear it.” More recently, a group of Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol barricaded themselves inside the labyrinthine Azovstal Iron and Steel works under siege by Russian forces. Moving between bunkers and bomb shelters built to withstand nuclear war, they survived for some 80 days before finally surrendering, having largely run out of food, water and medical supplies.
Soldiers injured during fighting with Russia inside the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in May 2022. Credit: Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office
In the midst of such conflicts, international law is designed to protect civilians. Liivoja, who researches the legalities of urban warfare, outlines three key obligations that apply to both sides. First, the need to distinguish between civilians and fighters. “That can be tricky, of course, in circumstances where you are fighting against a non-state entity that is not using military uniforms.”
Second: proportionality. “That means when Israel launches attacks against legitimate military targets, it must ensure that no disproportionate harm is caused incidentally to civilians.” In practice, he says, “That’s a difficult rule to apply at the best of times. It’s particularly difficult to apply in the context of urban hostilities, where you have the fighters and the military objects in close proximity to civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
And third: the need to take precautionary measures. “There’s an obligation, if feasible, to provide advanced warning to a civilian population that might be affected by an attack,” says Liivoja. “There’s an obligation to take reasonable measures to verify the nature of targets that attacks are launched at.“
So far, in the current conflict there have been “daily indications of violations of the laws of war and international human rights law”, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner has said.
Palestinian emergency services and citizens carry a victim of an Israeli air strike in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on October 18.Credit: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images
And what might be the end game?
If Israel does go into Gaza and Hamas’ grip on the Strip is dismantled – a stated aim of Israel – future control of the enclave is a complex question. “Gaza itself is not just a hotbed of Hamas activity,” says Ian Parmeter, a research scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU. “It also has other radical groups.”
Israel’s history in the Gaza Strip would be a reminder of it being “a very difficult place to occupy,” Parmeter says. Israel has received international warnings not to occupy it again. “I think it would be a big mistake,” US President Joe Biden said this week. “Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people.”
If Hamas can be dismantled, the Palestinian Authority, the governing body in the West Bank, could be one possible interim administration. The authority is dominated by the Fatah group, which Hamas ousted from Gaza in the early 2000s. But the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, is now in his 18th year of a four-year term that expired in 2009. “[It] has very little credibility within the West Bank at the moment,” Parmeter says. “I really think it would be very difficult for the Palestinian Authority to reassert control over Gaza.”
The history of foreign powers installing interim governments after conflicts in the Middle East is fraught, says Parmeter. “That was tried in Iraq and it didn’t work out very well.” Meanwhile, he says destroying some of Hamas’ senior leadership might be all the Israeli military operation can achieve. Destroying the group, however, is unlikely. “It will be very difficult simply because Hamas is as much an ideology as it is a movement.”
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