OPINION - Why has the expected Israeli ground operation in Gaza not begun yet?

Israeli troops patrol at an undisclosed location along the border with the Gaza Strip  (AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli troops patrol at an undisclosed location along the border with the Gaza Strip (AFP via Getty Images)

In a few telling phrases 85 year old hostage Yocheved Lifshitz suggested why the Israelis are having such difficulty in mounting a ground operation against Hamas in Gaza, let alone devising a strategy for what happens after.

She explained how she and her fellow hostages from the 7th October attacks on the villages and kibbutzim had been kept in well organised barracks and rooms after “walking for kilometers’ through underground corridors and walkways.

In the underground network she was given a room with a fellow settler from her kibbutz. They received medical attention from staff “each of whom who seemed to know their job.” Controversially, she bade farewell to one of her captors with a hand clasp and greeting of “shalom”, a peace greeting.

Was this just a symptom of an elderly person succumbing to Stockholm syndrome, the well understood phenomenon of siege victims empathising with their captors? This is certainly the official Israeli line of criticism.

What Mrs Lifshitz, a well-known peace campaigner, was suggesting goes deeper. Hamas has constructed an alternative city deep under Gaza with hundreds of miles of networked corridors, bunkers, drill halls and barracks. The informed estimate of David Kilcullen, foremost adviser on urban warfare to the US,UK and Australia, is that Hamas has built 300 miles of underground infrastructure. Mrs Lifshitz describes it as “a spider’s web.”

Armies tend to train to win the battles and wars of the past, subconsciously hoping they provide the blueprint and guiderails for the battleground of the present; as in Ukraine, so in Gaza. The airwaves and column inches of the armchair generals and the commentariat are full of references and comparisons to Mariupol, Grozny, Raqqa, Fallujah, and for all that, the Alamo, Vicksburg, Magdeburg and even the siege of Troy. I would throw all this light learning away for an answer to the simple question – what is different this time ?

First, there is the elaborate series of bunkers and fortifications. Second, according to Mr Lishitz, the civilian population living there, well organised, commanded and dispersed.

Fighting through such a complex physical as well as human landscape is particularly difficult for a force like the IDF. Part of Israel’s army is highly trained and experienced by world standards – and well versed in contemporary urban guerrilla warfare. But the bulk is made up of citizen soldiers, who have had a year or so of national service and then forming the reserve. They will make up the sustaining force that will be needed if the initial break-in operation last more than a week or so.

“Urban combat is slow, grinding, destructive, environmentally devastating, and horrendously costly in human life – especially for civilians,” writes David Kilcullen this week in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs.

In the new urban combat four features are dominant: built up terrain, dense populations, complex infrastructure, and the globally connected information environment. The fighting, however, is fought at the human level. Machines, sensors, surveillance and stand-off weapons, missiles, bombs, tank and artillery fire can and will be employed copiously. But the final engagements will be close and very personal. “Such combat is particularly dangerous for junior combat leaders,” write Kilcullen, “who must constantly expose themselves in order to see, communicate with, and command their soldiers.”

The Israeli cabinet and military command appear to have come up with a rough and ready plan for operations in Gaza. That is all it is, a rough plan of intent, and certainly not a long-term strategy for the relations with the Palestinians. As declared by defence minister Yoav Gallant last week, the plan is to move in to isolate the command cells and units of Hamas fighters, to hold and clear the Gaza strip to below Gaza City, and then to seal what remains of the Strip for good – for the Palestinians and their allies to do with what they may. The latter part is based on the assumption that Hamas will be ‘eradicated’ as a fighting force.

This will be difficult to achieve as so much wealth, power and leadership of Hamas lies outside Gaza, in Beirut and Qatar in particular.

It will be a long and difficult mission, which means complications and wider threats will grow. Leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and military and political figures from Iran, have just met this week in Beirut to devise a wider strategy against Israel.

Violence has been growing on the West Bank, from both Israeli Settler vigilantes and neo-jihadi Palestinian groups. This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s Achilles heel, according to growing numbers of critics inside Israel and out. They believe he now relies on his ultra-Orthodox wing in the coalition led by Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, and, like them, he rejects the notion of a separate state for the Palestinians – the so-called two state solution. Moreover, the Settlers are pushing for the annexation of the West Bank. Settler Ultras explained this week to Jeremy Bowen on the BBC how they believed force was necessary to subjugate, and even remove, the Palestinian Arabs in their area.

Israel is already faced with the proposition of a major security operation, a guerrilla war in fact, on three fronts – Gaza, the West Bank and on the Lebanon border with Hezbollah. Worse, say some secular critics in the Israeli as well as international press, Netanyahu threatens the whole Zionist project for a secular Jewish state, by allowing Orthodox sects to push the agenda for a Jewish theocracy.