Ground war heats up in Gaza

Map of Gaza. Click map to view. Created by Bill Raymond for The Long War Journal.

Israeli ground forces pushed into the Gaza Strip early Sunday morning after eight days of airstrikes on Hamas’ military and political infrastructure. The incursion is aimed at routing Hamas’ military and halting the rocket attacks that have targeted Israeli cities in the south.

The ground offensive began after thousands of Israeli troops massed on the Gaza border. At least three infantry brigades – Paratrooper, Golani, and Givati – backed by armor, engineers, artillery, and special forces then moved into southern, central and northern Gaza. The thrusts divided Hamas’ strongholds, severed communications, and disrupted the flow of weapons throughout the strip.

The initial push into Gaza met relatively light resistance. One Israeli soldier was killed and 30 were wounded, two seriously, in the first 24 hours of fighting. More than 100 Hamas fighters are said to have been killed during the ground offensive and dozens were captured. Hamas is estimated to have 20,000 fighters under its command.

The Israeli Defense Force was able to negate Hamas’ prepared anti-tank defenses by moving infantry ahead of its armored units to clear the tank traps. Hamas is said to have prepared anti-tank bunkers and mine fields to blunt an armored spearhead as it moved through the densely populated urban areas of the Gaza strip.

The deployment of infantry ahead of the Israeli armor also prevented Hamas forces from laying ambushes. On the first day, Hamas was relegated to lobbing mortars at Israeli forces during the initial ground assault.

Israeli troops have trained for urban combat in Gaza for over the past year, The Jerusalem Post reported. All of the units in the Gaza operation have cycled through the IDF’s Ground Forces Command Urban Training Center. “There, the IDF has built a mock-Palestinian city where the forces train on operating in populated areas,” the Israeli paper reported.

The urban warfare training will be needed. Fighting has intensified over the past 24 hours, according to reports from Gaza. Heavy, close-quarters street fighting has been reported in Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. To the west, Gaza City is partially surrounded.

Israeli troops are also moving along the Philadelphi Corridor along the Egyptian border, where Hamas has built an extensive network of tunnels to smuggle weapons and other items into Gaza. Last weekend Israeli strike aircraft pounded more than 30 known tunnels.

The Israeli government has indicated that operations in Gaza are designed to destroy Hamas’ ability to strike inside Israel.

“The aim is simple,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “No terror activity from Gaza – either against civilians or against our soldiers, a dramatic change in weapons smuggling and quiet in the South.”

IDF spokesman Captain Benjamin Rutland said the operation is designed to deal “a heavy blow to Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and rocket-launching capability.”

Israeli forces are moving to hold known rocket launch pads that are used to strike at Israeli towns and cities in southern Israel. Hamas missiles have reached as far north as the city of Ashdod. Despite the ground operation, Hamas was able to fire off more than 30 rockets on Monday.

The Israeli government and military are keen to avoid the mistakes of the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, US officials told The Long War Journal. Unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Israeli military launched its ground assault as soon as the targeting of Hamas infrastructure and leaders by air began to dry up.

Israel also faces fewer challenges geographically in Gaza than it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has the capacity to control Gaza’s three land borders, including the southern border with Egypt, and has blockaded the Palestinian territory by sea. Israel was never able to control the long border between Lebanon and Syria, a primary backer of Hezbollah along with Iran.

The question remains whether the Israeli government has the political will to see the operation through. In order to ensure Hamas can no long fire rockets in Israel, the IDF will need to maintain a presence in Gaza. The reoccupation of Gaza has no political support within Israel. And destroying Hamas’ military capacity will take months or longer. International pressure is already mounting on Israel to halt operations and accept a ceasefire.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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16 Comments

  • KW64 says:

    I would assume Israel wants to break the Hamas leadership enough to let Fatah resume control in Gaza rather than occupy it with Israeli forces. Having an Iranian puppet like Hamas in Gaza once Iran developes nuclear weapons would be an existential threat to Israel since Iran was aparently able to get rocket materials into Gaza.

  • Rhyno327/lrsd says:

    The Israeli’s cannot leave until Hamas’ military capability has been degraded, enough that there will not be any missle attacks. Kill and capture thier leaders and hope for Fatah to take control. As far as intl. pressure goes, Israel should ignore it. Hamas does not have a leg to stand on. No sympathy for them at all.

  • Alex says:

    A recent article in the Jerusalem Post suggests that Hamas CiC has been disrupted.
    //www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1231167266919&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
    I consider Khaled Abu Toameh to be one of the best-sourced journalists in the Middle East. This is very interesting.

  • Jake says:

    Mikestretchland,
    Israel is trying to protect themselves against the Hamas missile’s being fired into Israel. Are you not concerned for the safety of the people of Israel? Probably not, since you seem to be a supporter of the Palestinian’s attacks. If you lived in my neighborhood and attacked me on a daily basis, I would eventually become tired of your attacks and would use whatever force necessary to quell your violent behavior.

  • Neo says:

    Beyond the obvious problem of rocket attacks, the situation in Gaza presents other problems for the Israel. If there was another war with Hezbollah and Syria in the north, than Hamas in Gaza would probably cause a general uprising. This would have the potential of tying down a full division of Israeli troops that would otherwise be needed in the north. The Israeli’s could use less troops and only defend itself in the south but that would risk an extended conflict, that would have a greater chance of spiraling out of control.

  • Joakim Ekström says:

    It will be most interesting to see how the two sides play their cards. I think Israel has a strong hand. I also think that Hamas had counted on stronger support from everyone, basically – from Egypt to Jordan to Hezbollah. For Hamas’ part, I don’t see really what cards they have to play except for trying to remain standing and afterwards proclaiming victory. In the end, I think there will be a realpolitik-solution; a new calm with international monitors on the Egypt-Gaza border or something. Over the long term, I think it will be very difficult for Hamas to stay in power in Gaza. They have too many enemies and too few friends. Perhaps Hamas’ leaders are all too well aware of that.
    Israel could topple Hamas, but I think Fatah is afraid of losing street cred. It would have to be made in some ingenious way.
    In the meantime, let’s not forget all innocent civilians that are cought up in the middle of the fighting.

  • Philip says:

    Israel should finish Hamas at what ever cost so that neither the Palestinian civilians nor the Israelis are held hostage by Hamas and Iran. Then they can talk to who ever is left in charge and address the civilian needs. Otherwise they have to fight the same fight over and over.

  • Rosario says:

    Observing the difficulties the IA/IAF is having stopping rocket fire and neutralizing Hamas in an dense urban battlefield me really appreciate the difficulty of the task and the accomplishments of military leaders American forces in Iraq against an enemy no less committed. Thanks guys.

  • Ron says:

    Does Isreal and FATAH (or who ever is “in charge” of the rest of Palestine) get along well enough for Isreal to go in and crush Hamas, and then FATAH can use the the Iraq model of an “awakening” to backfill and take over? If Isreal supported something like this you could see real progress and then maybe make Hamas the enemy of all by winning the hearts and minds. I know that it will take a commitment of at lest 6mo. to a year from Isreal, but could this work?

  • NS says:

    Joakim Ekstorm,
    It is good to hear your concern for the civilians caught in the middle of this horrible conflict perpetuated by Hamas.
    I am pro-Israel and strongly believe in their right to self defense. Some collateral damage is unavoidable and is even more so against cowards who use schools and hospitals and mosques to conduct operations having no care for the well being of their people.
    Let’s hope these thugs lose their power and Fatah takes over soon.

  • Alex says:

    Ron,
    Not likely at the moment, but possible. Remember that in 2007, the Palestinian territories had a mini-civil war between Hamas and Fatah, with Hamas winning in Gaza and Fatah solidifying their control over the West Bank (which is in the East; I always get those confused).
    If Hamas CiC is disrupted as they appear to be and a significant portion of their core militia is killed/captured, then perhaps Fatah can start to assert some control over Gaza. There were reports though that Hamas militants were executing suspected Fatah loyalists in Gaza.
    Hamas is in a different situation than Hezbollah. Hamas is trapped between Israel, Egypt (not perfect but leaps and bounds more productive than Lebanon’s puppet government), and internally likely has Fatah loyalists. Hezbollah on the other hand can merrily stroll across into Syria to stock up on weapons coming in from Iran.

  • Ron says:

    Alex,
    I remember the war between Hamas and Fatah, but just don’t know how well Isreal gets along with Fatah. They would not be a natural ally but I think with some behind the scene support from Isreal Fatah could look like a hero, get rid of the Isreali occupation (if they can go through with it) and create some stability
    “There were reports though that Hamas militants were executing suspected Fatah loyalists in Gaza.”
    I thought that this may have been happening and that is why an “awaking” might be possible. Has Hamas finally over stepped what the general population will stand?
    Also, does Hezbollah have much influence in Gaza?

  • Ron says:

    I was reading the story about Hezbollah not opening a second front against Isreal
    //www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1231167283315&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull
    and was wondeing: I know that it is considered that Isreal failed miserably in the war with Hezbollah a couple years ago but, maybe they inflicted some real damage and Hezbollah does not have the capability to put up much of a fight. It takes a few years to train new leadership and to build up an adequate arsenal. Any thoughts?

  • Neo says:

    The two front war scenario has always assumed that Gaza would be a secondary front used to tie down Israeli troops, and the northern front with Syria and Lebanon would be the primary front. It obviously doesn’t work the other way around. While Hamas has the ability to cause a great deal of trouble, it has no real offensive capability. It would be foolish for Hezbollah to start some sort of supportive action across the Lebanese boarder. It wouldn’t relieve the fight going on in Gaza, and would give Israel reason to pound Hezbollah through the air once again.
    Iran is not in a good position to help if things went bad for Hezbollah and Syria in any conflict. The Americans army sits in Iraq, between Iran and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Iranians could only resupply Syria by air and even that connection could be easily severed. With Iraq largely pacified the Americans are in a position to respond to any serious Iranian aggression.
    This is a window of opportunity for Israel to take on Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah can’t stand up to another withering air campaign. Syria would risk seriously damage to itself with no real hope of Iranian help. Iran is blocked out by the Americans. Washington isn’t as tied down as it was two years ago should Iran try to stir up trouble.
    This fight may go on for five to seven weeks. The world doesn’t like this dirty business, but won’t really do anything to stop Israel from cleaning out Gaza either. There will be a lot of talk, denunciation, and calls for peace. Israel does need to get this done as quickly as possible, because there is a looming humanitarian crisis, the longer this takes. I would hope Israel has prepared itself for supplying large numbers of civilians with food, water, and medical care.

  • DWMF says:

    I have read that Hamas’ rockets have been increasing in range recently. This means that it is possible for them to reach Israel’s nuclear plant in Dimona. See //www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article5430133.ece
    I reckon that these new missiles are (at least in part) built at the instruction or behest of the Iranians. There is a plain threat here of “we can reach your nuclear station before you reach ours”.
    Yes, it would be blind chance for one of these rockets to hit Dimona. as they are unguided, but (rightly) the Israelis are not going to let that happen.

  • Alex says:

    DWMF,
    I saw that article too. Maybe I am reading into it too much, but here’s how I saw things. This report, and other reports about Dimona, referred to it as a “top-secret nuclear facility”.
    Yeah, it’s SO top-secret, that it made international headlines.
    So, I think the real meaning behind the report is a veiled warning by Israel to Iran that Israel has some nuclear technology of their own.

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