The fighting in Gaza eased up slightly on Tuesday, and Israeli casualties were significantly lower than on Monday. As of Tuesday night, the Israel Defense Forces had uncovered 28 Hamas “attack tunnels,” almost half of which extended under the border fence into Israel. IDF officers say it will take another few days to render the tunnels unusable and around two weeks to destroy them completely. The army is preparing for both options, depending on what happens in the cease-fire talks.
Two different cease-fire plans have been proposed. The UN plan calls for a humanitarian cease-fire of unlimited duration during which talks on a longer-lasting truce will be held. The American plan calls for an immediate cease-fire accompanied by a written pledge, presumably by Egypt, to begin negotiations promptly on Hamas’ economic demands: opening the border crossings and paying salaries to government employees in Gaza. Israel rejected a different United Nations proposal, of a humanitarian cease-fire lasting a few hours, saying Hamas would just use the time to regroup its forces.
Both plans have some advantages for Israel, but Jerusalem is letting Hamas respond first. For Israel, the biggest problem with accepting an immediate cease-fire appears to be political, that is, the concern that the public won’t think enough has been achieved to justify the number of Israeli soldiers who have died, the 15 days of continuous rocket fire and the suspension of flights by foreign airlines, for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War. Public support for continuing the operation remains strong despite the losses.
Hamas, too, appears torn between a desire to stop the bloodshed and fear that it hasn’t achieved enough to justify the price Gaza has paid.
Absent a cease-fire, Israel will have to decide whether to keep doing more of the same or to expand its military operation. For now, it seems the General Staff still prefers a limited operation.
The army is starting to adjust to the new challenges posed by Hamas, mainly the fact that the organization is doing its fighting almost entirely underground. Nevertheless, anyone calling for the reoccupation of the entire Gaza Strip isn’t taking Hamas’ improved capabilities seriously enough. Gaza today isn’t what it was in 1967, or even what the West Bank was during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002; it’s a much tougher challenge. And while the IDF could certainly overcome this challenge, doing so would entail heavy casualties.
Though it’s hard to probe too deeply into the army’s performance while the fighting is still going on, one salient fact is difficult to ignore: Hamas’ attack tunnels came as a real surprise to Israel. The organization has substantially improved its capabilities in the five and a half years since Israel’s last ground operation in Gaza.
The man behind this is Mohammed Def, who took over as head of Hamas’ military wing after Israel assassinated his predecessor, Ahmed Jabari, in November 2012. Palestinian sources say that in the months before his death, Jabari wasn’t acting much like the head of a terrorist organization, preferring long visits to Egypt. Def, however, put all his energies into in the tunnel project, and it’s not clear Israel identified the strategic significance of this in time.
On Monday morning, more than 10 terrorists emerged from one such tunnel near Kibbutz Nir Am. The army now thinks this force had been hiding in the tunnel for some time, and upon realizing that IDF troops had found one opening, in the northern Gaza Strip, it decided to attack from the other opening, inside Israel. It seems likely Hamas will deploy similarly in other tunnels.
Israel also can’t rule out the possibility that Hezbollah will try to build similar attack tunnels under the Lebanese border, although the ground there is harder to tunnel through.
The troops in Gaza seem to be displaying excellent fighting spirit. Nevertheless, there have been problems caused by lack of experience (the IDF hasn’t engaged in real urban warfare since 2009), lack of planning and lack of training, especially in dealing with Hamas’ subterranean warfare. The Egoz unit, for instance, which suffered two fatalities and more than 10 wounded, entered the combat zone without bulletproof vests because they thought they would move faster without the added weight.
The most troubling incident was the one in which an antitank missile hit an M-113 armored personnel carrier. Six Golani soldiers were killed and one remains missing. It turns out the General Command hadn’t even known that M-113s, which are ancient, poorly protected vehicles, were being used in Gaza. Only after that incident did the Southern Command issue an order forbidding M-113s to enter Gaza.
The army promptly cited this incident in support of its demand for a budget increase, but the mishap wasn’t due to lack of funds. The fact is that immediately after that attack, a convoy of modern Namer and Achzarit APCs, which have better protection, began making its way from the Lebanese border to Gaza. In short, there was no budgetary problem here, but one of planning and resource allocation.
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