Ground Game in Gaza – Intel, Firepower, Engineers and Boots
The Hamas leadership understands that it cannot defeat the IDF in battle. But it’s convinced that Israel can be beaten in the media.
EXCLUSIVE TO ARMCHAIR GENERAL –
During the War with Mexico, American soldiers fighting in the streets of Monterrey faced streets swept by cannon and snipers in masonry buildings. Instead of charging down the boulevards or rushing into ambushes, the U.S. regulars and volunteers used pick-axes, hammers, bayonets and black powder to open holes through interior walls, creating attack corridors inside blocks of buildings.
That’s what Israeli troops are doing in Gaza today. Their equipment’s more sophisticated, but the concept and the challenges of urban warfare haven’t really changed very much—this is still the toughest fighting going, three-dimensional warfare in a thickly populated battlespace, slow, grinding and nerve-wracking.
After a superb initial air effort exploiting a carefully developed target bank, Israeli ground forces moved into the Gaza Strip on multiple axes, initially concentrating on the northern sector to isolate Gaza City, the Jubalya Refugee Camp (actually a permanent settlement) and various satellite towns. Israeli forces moved through the less-developed spaces, avoiding the densest population centers but cutting the terrorist lines of communication and seizing known rocket-launching sites. A subsequent supporting effort targeted Khan Younis is southern Gaza.
Israel employed the classic technique of “slicing up the pie,” creating isolated sub-areas of operation that could be addressed successively, while limiting the ability of Hamas terrorists to offer each other mutual support. Locally, cordon-and-search tactics continued the effort to split Hamas into isolated pockets of resistance.
Despite sound planning and professional execution, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) ground assault has gone slowly, for multiple reasons. First, Israel is wary of casualties, both among its own troops and among Palestinian civilians. Second, terrorists work together and teach each other. Hezbollah and its Iranian backers taught Hamas the value of deep bunkers positioned under hospitals and schools, the utility of mosques and civilian homes as weapons caches, and, above all, the value of booby traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—the latter lessons taken from Iraq and Afghanistan. Israeli targeteers must carefully weigh the value of each target against the inevitable propaganda outcry, should it be struck.
The IDF has carefully set the stage for a full-scale assault into Gaza’s “heart of darkness,” should Israel’s government leaders order one, but, as of this writing, the final phase of the operation remains on hold. If the IDF delivers the coup de grace against Hamas, casualties in all categories will be grim. For now, the IDF continues to gnaw into the terrorists’ urban citadels as it further develops intelligence from multiple sources and refines its plans and operations orders.
Overall, good intelligence—vastly improved since the Lebanon fighting in 2006—has been a crucial element in the IDF’s success. Working with agents on the ground, as well as technical means, the Israelis pinpointed hundreds of targets, from terrorist training sites to smuggling bunkers. Now, though, the hardest targets remain, such as a Hamas command bunker reportedly located under the Gaza Strip’s primary hospital. The only “acceptable” way to deal with that target would be to go in with engineer commandos and special operators—backed by armored firepower.
Thus far, Israel’s brilliant tactical operations have crippled the ability of Hamas to punish the IDF in return. As of January 12th, three weeks into the conflict, only ten Israeli soldiers have fallen, while between six and eight hundred Hamas terrorists have been killed—exact figures are unavailable, due both to battlefield challenges and the propaganda effort by Hamas to claim that virtually every casualty is a civilian (Hamas has ordered even its uniformed security forces to shift to civilian clothing).
On the IDF’s side, a new level of combined arms operations has been in evidence, with superb coordination between the infantry, armor, engineers and special operators—all working with close air support and naval gunfire, in addition to standard tube artillery. But will the IDF close with the enemy in the worst urban slums to rip out the heart of Hamas? The decision lies in the hands of Israel’s government—with an election looming at home and grave doubts as to whether the incoming U.S. administration will continue to support Israel’s right to self-defense.
For its part, Hamas can claim only two successes. The first is dramatic, but counter-productive: Hamas has been able to continue to fire terror rockets, if in diminishing numbers, into Israel, striking homes and public buildings and killing some Israelis. Yet, the suffering these ongoing rocket attacks cause among Palestinians as the conflict drags on is far graver than any tangible penalty imposed on Israel. All Hamas needs to do to stop the fighting is to cease firing the rockets and agree to let Israel live in peace. But Hamas won’t—since Israel’s destruction is its sole cause and reason for being.
Khaled Meshal, the supreme leader of Hamas, has ordered his street-level fighters and commanders in Gaza to fight to the bitter end. Of course, Meshal himself is safe in Damascus, Syria. Hamas clearly has no concern with the suffering of the Palestinian people—only with power and its ultimate dream of butchering all Israelis.
Meanwhile, dead Palestinian women and children, however inflated the numbers may be by Hamas spokespersons, leftwing NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the global media, are currently Hamas’s most effective weapon. Hamas places such importance on propaganda that it constantly attempts–sometimes successfully–to lure the IDF to fire upon buildings where civilians have gathered for safety. Which brings us to Hamas’s second success: Internationally, it’s winning the propaganda war. The Hamas leadership understands that it cannot defeat the IDF in battle. But it’s convinced that Israel can be beaten in the media, that global outrage will save the terrorist organization before the IDF can complete its mission. To that end, Hamas is willing to sacrifice as many Palestinian civilians as it takes. No rocket, booby trap or ambush is as valuable to Hamas as a child’s body (of course, the children of Hamas’s top leaders are not put at risk).
The lesson comes in two parts: First, cynicism works. The greatest strength of Hamas is its utter ruthlessness. Second, the media are now fully a party to warfare—to the extent that slanted coverage can change a conflict’s outcome by exciting international or domestic outrage. While the media failed to defeat the U.S. in Iraq, it was a near-run thing. In 2006, the hostile international media essentially helped Israel defeat itself. Now pro-Hamas, pro-terror and frankly anti-Jewish, anti-Israel journalists and camera-gunners are determined to rescue Hamas from the IDF.
The media are the terrorists’ last, best hope. Welcome to 21st-century warfare!
Ralph Peters reported from the Lebanese border during the 2006 war and has made many trips to the Middle East. His forthcoming novel, The War After Armageddon (September 2009) tells the tale of a future war in the wake of Israel’s nuclear destruction.