The IDF is preparing for the long haul in Gaza after the anticipated hostage release

So far, Israeli forces have reached 'decisive victory' over ten Hamas battalions

November 23, 2023 12:27

The anticipated hostage release and accompanying temporary ceasefire is an appropriate moment to assess the military campaign so far.

The IDF have now been operating on the ground, inside the northern Gaza Strip for four weeks, with some significant tactical successes.

The first three week of this war, which was forced upon Israel, was limited to the air force remotely striking thousands of initial Hamas targets.

The military planners spent those initial three weeks carefully developing and updating battle plans in preparation for the inevitable ground incursion.

Inevitable, because for all military observers the only way to reach the war objectives was to penetrate deep into the heavily built-up urban areas and engage Hamas on their home turf.

Unlike previous ground operations (2014) where the IDF went three kilometres deep, getting bogged down in infamous battles in Shaga’iha, this time the IDF entered from the north and the centre, bisecting the strip.

Over the last month, the IDF encircled Gaza City and attacked numerous Hamas strongholds.

So far they have reached “decisive victory” over ten Hamas battalions with the remaining four in the northern strip significantly degraded by the time the temporary ceasefire came into effect.

Of Hamas’s 24 prewar battalions, ten are still functioning in the southern half. Decisive victory does not mean complete destruction, but rather that Hamas command-and-control function has been critically disrupted, with many field commanders killed.

Whereas in the initial incursion troops were met by 20-30 combatants, this last week they met significantly smaller numbers (single digit) of fighters; but still they fight.

As part of the ground incursion, more than 65 IDF soldiers have been killed, though the IDF's assessment is that Hamas casualties are over 50 times higher.

A high-ranking official told me that unlike in the past, the IDF is operating inside Gaza “without restrictions”, allowing them to purge Hamas terrorists, while maintaining the important distinction of never targeting non-combatants and encouraging the civilian population to leave the combat zones for the safe area in the south.

Among the other tactical successes has been the unprecedented coordination between intelligence, ground forces and air support.

In one instance, the IDF signals intelligence intercepted a phone call between two Hamas commanders and were able to alert ground forces situated in the vicinity of an imminent attack, who in turn were able to call in the air force to carry out an airstrike within 200 metres of their position.

All this, from the phone intercept to the strike, in 12 minutes. There are countless example of air force, infantry and armoured corps exhibiting interoperability to a new level of sophistication.

Despite impressive achievements to date, including exposing and sealing hundreds of tunnel shafts, the labyrinth of the underground tunnels network remains a serious challenge.

The next stage will include entering some of these tunnels, to map, extract intelligence and eventually decommission them.

When it comes to the network under Shifa Hospital, the intelligence suggests that the commanders and any hostages are no longer there.

High-tech robots and troops will be advancing slowly and cautiously, presuming it has been booby-trapped.

It remains an active question whether to risk soldiers’ lives for the sake of a public relations expose, although some would argue international legitimacy has its own innate value in extending the mission’s validity.

Despite these tactical successes, the lofty strategic goals (removing Hamas from power and the return of all the hostages) remain open-ended.

In seven weeks these achievements have been notable, yet in every encounter I have with IDF officers, they are keen to stress that this operation could take several months.

It remains an open question how the IDF will be able to pick up where they left off after this temporary ceasefire expires.

Meanwhile, the IDF will have to pivot to the southern half of the Strip at some point soon.

This will be even more complicated due to the density of the civilian population, compounded by those displaced from the north sharing the limited space with their southern neighbours.

As a sign of things to come, the IDF have begun to warn residents of western Khan Younis to leave and head for the Moasi safe zone along the southern coast.

If the IDF are operating without restrictions in the south, the north is a very different dynamic.

Since 8 October the IDF has been responding to Hezbollah aggression, for the most part attacking specific cells at the source of fire. If Hezbollah was planning a similar attack, it has lost the element of surprise.

The civilian population closest to the Lebanese border has been evacuated, and in its place stands a significant proportion of the reservists, ready for an escalation.

At this point it appears Hezbollah and their patron Iran are not interested in entering a wider confrontation and remain focused on attacking along the breadth of the border from the sea to the Hermon.

They have occupied the IDF, but have as yet not penetrated deep into Israel.

Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah announce every fatality on their side, surpassing 75 at the time of writing.

So far seven Israelis (six soldiers and one civilian) have been killed in the north. Here too, the IDF has scored significant tactical accomplishments, notably in their deployment of armed drones that have successfully targeted Hezbollah cells, on some occasions even before they launched their attack.

However, on the strategic level, how are residents of the border communities ever expected to return home and feel secure if Hezbollah’s presence remains just over the fence?

One of the silver linings of the dark cloud that has engulfed all of Israel since October 7 has been the fortitude and unity shown by Israeli civil society.

To complement this, the government made an important decision this week by extending the Governor of the Bank of Israel Amir Yaron’s tenure for another term.

In the months leading up to October, and in the context of the proposed judicial reform, Yaron was an outspoken critic, with many predicting he would soon be replaced. However, common sense seems to have prevailed and Yaron will remain in place.

Yaron is the latest in the line of governors with a worldwide reputation as a heavyweight economist, having successfully navigated the economy during the Covid pandemic.

Most recently, his intervention in the foreign currency market helped stabilise the stock exchange.

It is hoped this announcement will add certainty and reassure foreign investors as well as further enhance the bank’s international reputation.

Richard Pater is chief executive of Israel and Middle East think tank BICOM

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November 23, 2023 12:27

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