As Casualties Mount, the Gaza Operation Threatens to Become a War

In view of the stiff resistance put up by Hamas, the level of destruction, if fighting continues, may reach that of Beirut in 2006.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A convoy of armored personnel carriers in Gaza.
A convoy of armored personnel carriers in Gaza.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Operation Protective Edge began as a military operation in the Gaza Strip, defined by the IDF as a limited one. By Sunday, Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz was already talking of a ‘campaign.’ With the current intensity of the fighting and the high number of casualties, the media may soon define this, with some exaggeration, as a war.

The Israeli public, followed by politicians, considers an event as a war only according to one criterion: the number of casualties. This number climbed to 18 yesterday. The question to be addressed in the coming days is whether it is still possible to stop now and halt the slide into a full-blown war.

During yesterday’s fighting in Shujaiyeh, the eastern neighborhood of Gaza, thirteen soldiers from the Golani Brigade were killed, as well as sixty Palestinians, apparently half of whom were civilians. This battle is almost on the scale of the Lebanon War. Hamas is currently busy trying to portray this battle as an epic event of legendary proportions. It is trying to depict it as the perfect combination that serves its purposes: its courageous fighters stopped the most powerful army in the Middle East, sustaining casualties. On the other hand the Israeli army massacred innocent people. Thus, according to directives issued by Hamas’s Interior Ministry, every effort is being made to disseminate horrific pictures of women and children who were inadvertently killed by the IDF.

During the first two days of the ground operation, the army focused on locating tunnels and their exit shafts, operating within a narrow, sparsely populated strip on the Palestinian side of the border. On Saturday night a decision was taken to expand the scope of operations. A large force from the Golani Brigade was added to the Nahal, Paratrooper and Givati brigades that were already operating in the area, alongside armored battalions. This force was sent to the most densely populated area the IDF had reached in the current operation, the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza. The eastern outskirts of this area are a mere two kilometers from the border, but its western parts reach the center of Gaza city. According to army intelligence, Hamas had built a tunnel from this neighborhood towards Israeli territory.

Apparently the maneuver had another objective. Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, has constructed its defenses in arcs facing Israel. In Shujaiyeh it posted one of its strongest battalions, in one of the innermost arcs. IDF planners assumed that in the course of locating this tunnel, contact between Hamas fighters and Golani would ensue, resulting in numerous Hamas casualties. Hamas, which fled a similar confrontation in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, held its ground this time and fought back. Dozens of its fighters opened fire at advancing Golani units, firing anti-tank missiles and detonating explosive charges. Golani took casualties in several incidents – seven fighters were killed by an anti-tank missile that hit a personnel carrier; three officers were killed in a house by rocket fire and three others were killed in other firefights. Brigade commander Rassan Aliyan was also injured.

Characteristically, as in all its battles, Golani soldiers fought bravely and with determination. Under difficult circumstances they struggled to extricate their fallen and wounded comrades. The Hamas talks of a massacre but, as in Jenin in 2002, this does not appear to be the case. According to preliminary information from the battlefield the intensity of fire increased only after the force had sustained many casualties. It is possible that the decision to use limited artillery and aerial strikes in the days preceding the attack enabled Hamas to hold on to its positions.

Furthermore, part of the operation was postponed for twenty four hours, since too many residents had ignored the IDF’s requests to evacuate. Very few armies operate this way when fighting an armed guerilla group in dense urban areas. It is doubtful whether the IDF will continue to do so as the fighting continues. Fighting in the neighborhood subsided in the afternoon, but the operation continues. It may be expanded, using more aggressive tactics. Commanders in the field commented that in view of the stiff resistance put up by Hamas, the level of destruction, if fighting continues, may reach that seen in the Dahiyeh neighborhood in Beirut in 2006.

This won’t be the only comparison with the second Lebanon War of 2006. There are concerns in Gaza, as there were in Lebanon, that the operation will slide, unplanned and with no method, into a much larger operation than that conceived by its planners. Preliminary investigations in Gaza also reveal some hair-raising operational flaws. The first one relates to the means placed at the disposal of army units. The seven soldiers killed by a rocket-propelled grenade were travelling in an M-13 armored personnel carrier, used by the Americans in Vietnam and by the IDF since the 1970s.

In 2004, after two explosions in such vehicles took 11 lives in the Gaza Strip, it was decided not to use them anymore there. Veteran commanders, who describe the vehicle as a ‘flammable sardine can’ vulnerable even to small arms fire, were alarmed to learn that it had been despatched there again. Questions also arise with regard to the crowding of dozens of soldiers from Golani’s reconnaissance battalion in the house that was hit by rockets. This is one more example of flawed decisions, following the mishap on Saturday, in which an Armored Corps officer and soldier were killed by Hamas fighters emerging from a tunnel.

These are issues which the army will have to seriously address when the fighting ceases. With due caution given the circumstances, it should be noted that in recent years the IDF has had no experience in ground battles in general and in Gaza in particular. Some of the combat experience was lost with a generation of commanders that retired. Training was also eroded over the last year due to budgetary considerations. Every large-scale operation runs into difficulties, deriving from the attendant uncertainty of war. One hopes that things will improve down the road.

Nevertheless, one is encouraged by the fighting spirit of the units involved and by the efficient operations on many fronts, as well as by the fact that for every commander who was injured in Gaza there were three officers who volunteered to replace him. The main objective given to the forces, locating tunnels to be used for Hamas attacks, produced many successes, with the destruction of five large tunnels leading to Israel. This cloud hanging over communities along the border will now be removed. There has been a significant drop in the number of rockets fired at Israel since the start of the ground offensive. One should note that Hamas is aware of the capabilities of Iron Dome to intercept its rockets and it may prefer to inflict casualties in ground fighting in Gaza, conserving its remaining stock of rockets.

Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz visited the forces in Gaza on Sunday, later standing in front of cameras to answer questions. This is more than one of his predecessors did. Shaul Mofaz left this onerous task to the head of Central Command on the day that thirteen reservists were killed in an ambush in the Jenin refugee camp. Gantz spoke of the need to persevere in carrying out missions and of the moral duty to defend the citizens of Israel without inflicting unnecessary harm on enemy civilians. The pressure on him and the government is mounting. There is enormous sensitivity in Israel to losing soldiers in combat. Paradoxically, it is greater than the sensitivity to the loss of civilian lives. One should not envy Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet who must now decide whether to expand the ground operation or whether to stick to the original plan of locating attack tunnels and destroying Hamas infrastructure, with the aim of quickly reaching a ceasefire.

The scenes of death in Shujaiyeh will now accelerate international pressure to reach a ceasefire. In principle, the scene is set for this to happen. As Secretary of State John Kerry was overheard saying, in his characteristic and clumsy way, “we have to fly there”, meaning Israel, in order to stop the war. The missing puzzle piece is, as it nearly always is, in the hands of Hamas. Despite the optimism of decision-makers in Jerusalem, it seems that Hamas has not yet been informed that it has lost the war. Hamas is surrounding itself with tales of bravery it tells itself and the residents of Gaza. So far, its military wing seems set on allowing the Strip to go to ruin before acceding to the Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire.

The Israeli public, most of which adapted with admirable serenity to rocket fire on the home front, will now have to also bear the burden of combat deaths. The wild rampage on social networks is not exactly assisting in dissipating passions. An exaggerated wave of rumors spread yesterday. At its low point, not only were the names of victims posted on ‘whatsapp’ before families had been notified, but pictures of coffins prepared at a central base for casualties in Shujaiyeh were shown as well. This was long before the media were allowed to report the casualties. If reserve soldiers were responsible for this it is scandalous.

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