Israel prepares for long Gaza battle, but diplomatic clock ticks

Israel prepares for long Gaza battle, but diplomatic clock ticks

FOR Israel's ground offensive in Gaza, the army has opted for a slow-moving operation, advancing prudently in densely populated areas.

Israel Defense Forces officers are finding that troops are advancing faster than predicted, but they remain aware that eliminating Hamas will take weeks, if not months — time that the Israeli leadership does not necessarily have.

Rather than a massive, rapid run over wide-open spaces to beat back the combined attack by the Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian armies as in the October 1973 war, in the October 2023 war against Hamas, the Israeli army is advancing in short distances through urban environments, where attackers lie in wait. 

To pave the way for ground forces and to minimize troop casualties in Gaza, the Israeli Air Force bombs and strafes areas in advance, helping the armored and engineering units locate and dismantle infrastructure inch by inch, exposing the extent to which Hamas uses homes, schools and mosques as cover for weapons caches and rocket attacks.

Following the war’s grim onset — after the IDF’s colossal failure to detect the Oct. 7 Hamas onslaught and defend the border communities against the marauding Gazans — the military appears to have bounced back. Its achievements in Gaza are described as impressive militarily, and its pace is reportedly running ahead of schedule. Israel's top brass is particularly satisfied with the unprecedented coordination among the ground, air and naval forces. 

Nonetheless, the commanders concede that Hamas, while suffering heavy casualties and destruction of infrastructure in northern Gaza, does not appear to be anywhere near a breaking point. 

"They maintain most of their strength," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They are hiding underground. They are mobile and can presumably travel from the south to the north through the underground metro,” he added, referring to the vast tunnel network Hamas has dug under Gaza.

Hamas' command and control structure has borne the brunt of the damage thus far, with most of its estimated 20,000 fighters still unharmed, the officer said.

Col. Benny Aharon, commander of the 401st Tank Brigade, reflects the spirit of the advancing troops and their determination to make up, to the extent possible, for the IDF’s failure on Oct. 7. His brigade led the entry into Gaza on Oct. 27, and its initial ground maneuver will be studied by military planners for years to come, primarily because of the low profile with which three divisions penetrated the enclave, almost unnoticed. 

Aharon is an amateur DJ and a regular at Tomorrowland, the annual techno music festival in Belgium. These days he plays techno for his troops at night when they stop to rest. When asked if he will make it to the festival in July 2024, he initially hesitated before responding. 

"We need time," he said in an interview with the journalist Ilana Dayan on Channel 12's "Uvda." "I want to convey this message to the decision-makers, we must not return before we destroy Hamas. I’m willing to stay here for weeks, months, even years." 

That sentiment, to stay as long as it takes, has been echoed by other officers — like the one who told Dayan that he is willing to lay down his life to crush Hamas — and enjoys rare support across broad swathes of the Israeli public.

Another IDF officer, describing Gaza City, told Al-Monitor, "It's a very crowded city, it has an underground city of hundreds of kilometers of tunnels, built so that they can shelter large forces and supplies, oxygen, command and control devices, and endless shafts from which they can pop up in the heart of IDF forces, hit them and immediately return to the depths of the earth. To overcome all this, you need time."

The soldiers' wishes notwithstanding, Israel is unlikely to have months or even weeks to carry out its mission. The Biden administration is waging a rearguard action against strong pro-Palestinian sentiment and domestic political pressure in the United States, increasing pressure on the Israeli war cabinet. 

Although Israel continues to vehemently oppose a humanitarian cease-fire without the release of the estimated 240 hostages held in Gaza, it has given in to a White House demand for "humanitarian pauses" of several hours a day to allow Gaza residents to stock up on supplies and seek medical care. Israel fears these lulls in fighting will also allow Hamas to regroup.

Regardless of how the current stage of the campaign against Hamas ends, Israel remains determined to maintain free rein to send IDF forces into Gaza for targeted operations against whatever is left of Hamas. The strategy would be similar to its almost nightly raids in the West Bank that allowed it to dismantle Hamas' infrastructure — thereby thwarting the group’s efforts to entrench itself there — and at the same time to prop up the Palestinian Authority.

Israel also plans to carve out a buffer zone at least 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) wide along its border with Gaza to restore a sense of security among the deeply traumatized residents of the border communities who might consider going back to their homes. 

Based on recent statements by Biden administration officials, it appears that Israel does not have an answer to the question on which its allies insist: Who will run the Gaza Strip and govern its estimated 2.3 million residents after the war?

The United States and its Western allies are inclined to hand the territory over to the Palestinian Authority, which Hamas defeated in the 2006 legislative elections and subsequently kicked out of Gaza. It would be backed by an international coalition, possibly comprised of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during a transitional period. 

Judging from past experience, these plans are unlikely to pan out. At some point, the IDF will draw down its forces in Gaza, demobilizing the hundreds of thousands of reserves called up for the war. Once out of Gaza, it will mount periodic raids into the enclave, but those will dwindle with time. Reality will triumph over declarations and plans. Gaza will once again pose an intractable problem. 

This is why the Egyptians are clearly uninterested in reportedly tempting offers from the United States and others to clear much of its foreign debt if it takes responsibility for a number of displaced Gazans. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is unwilling to entertain the idea. He knows what a mess he would be getting himself into. He may even prefer bankruptcy.

Ben Caspit - Al Monitor