On Saturday night, one week after the start of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the ground operation began. The Israel Defense Forces started deploying combat units to surround Hamas' main power base. The goal is not to chase after and destroy every last rocket launcher, but rather to break the Hamas' resistance and force it to agree to a long-term cease-fire whose terms are more reasonable from Israel's perspective.
Rocket fire into Israel continued apace with the Gaza offensive, but IDF officials believe this time progress can be made at the front before the extent of the casualties in the south begins to resemble that of the Second Lebanon War. At the same time, there is a growing risk that Hezbollah or its satellites will try to open a second front along the Lebanese border.
The final decision on the ground operation came Friday afternoon in a meeting of the security cabinet with military leaders, in the IDF's underground situation room in Tel Aviv. Senior IDF officials reported that the Air Force was nearing the end of its "target bank" and that a ground operation must be launched immediately if the overall operational goals were to be met.
The army believes the incursion into Gaza will do significant damage to Hamas' standing army and at the same time give Hamas leaders a palpable sense that their rule is in danger. The ground invasion will also accelerate the diplomatic stopwatch. A delegation from the European Union "troika" (Germany, France, Great Britain) will reach Gaza on Sunday, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected on Monday. Translated into military terminology that means the IDF has less than a week to make genuine progress in Gaza.
In the past two days the army chief of staff and the head of Southern Command visited troops massing along the Gaza border and approved the final plans. The message from the IDF commanders is: "We will meet our goals. There will be casualties as a result of the thrust into Gaza but they will not stop any part of the operation." This attitude is different from that evinced during the Second Lebanon War, when the army withdrew on more than one occasion in response to casualties. One battalion commander told his company commander on Saturday that it's possible that not everyone will return to meet again in a few days' time.
This knowledge has not affected the army's motivation and readiness, however. Hamas is not Hezbollah and the IDF circa January 2009 is not the IDF of 2006. It is sharper, more determined and better trained. The intelligence is infinitely better this time. The offensive was prepared over a long period of time. It is very aggressive, with massive air and artillery fire preceding the ground and artillery forces.
The army is worried mainly about the explosive charges buried by Hamas underneath roads, about attempts to boobytrap homes and to abduct soldiers. In comparison to Lebanon, the threat of antitank fire is less troubling. IDF headquarters believes the diplomatic developments will bring a rapid end to the military operation, but field commanders are also prepared for a stay of several weeks, including methodical arrest campaigns and searches for weapons caches.
On Saturday night a large number of reserve units were called up, using emergency orders. Starting Sunday they will undergo training to prepare for possible mobilization, in keeping with the security cabinet's directives to the IDF to prepare for the next stages of the conflict. Senior officers hope these preparations will prove to be unnecessary.
How will Hamas respond? It has built a band of fortifications about three kilometers from the border, but later on it will probably want to put its people into populated areas on the assumption that the IDF will seek to avoid warfare in built-up areas. Hamas is likely to use suicide attackers, booby-trapped tunnels and sniper fire against IDF troops. More than 100 militants who trained in camps in Iran for 45 days will lead the fighting against the IDF. Hamas may also use children as "human shields" for weapons caches inside mosques.
The recent drop in the number of rockets being fired at Israel points to a decline in the number of rocket launchers, possible due to IAF strikes on the smuggling tunnels in Rafah. It is also possible that Hamas is focusing more on defensive actions than offensive ones.
Hamas' biggest problem now is that for it the ground operation is a battle for the survival of its governmental control in the Strip. The organization's leaders have raised Gazans' expectations regarding the IDF invasion. In the past several days they have promised that "Gaza's children will collect body parts of the Zionist soldiers." Khaled Meshal spoke of "a few more Gilad Shalits," if the IDF dares to launch a ground operation. It can be assumed that the fighting spirit of the Hamas militants will be greater than the zero motivation displayed by their counterparts from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority security forces during Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002. Still, the balance of forces is clear. If Hamas does not cause serious casualties among the Israeli forces, the operation will be considered a failure for the organization in the Arab world.
The true picture in Gaza should become clearer Sunday, once some of the fog imposed by the IDF censor clears.
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