Israel’s Coming Attack on Gaza: Boundary Conditions and Delay

Since there are a raft of unknowns with Israel’s next steps in and what sort of fallout that might trigger, it makes sense to step back and see if we can infer anything, even at a very general level, from known or presumed boundary conditions.

Israel is committed to a ground invasion of Gaza. It has also doubled down on its stated aim of destroying Hamas in rejecting UN calls for a ceasefire.

The invasion of Gaza and the intent to destroy Hamas appear to be political aims, since the former will be extremely costly, particularly in soldiers’ lives to a casualty-averse IDF, and the elimination of Hamas is not attainable. The point Alex Christoforu made in his show today, that the US with its much greater resources, has not been able to eliminate Al Qaeda, is confirmed in a Financial Times comment, Israel must know that destroying Hamas is beyond its reach.

Many military experts, including former Lt. Colonel Daniel Davis, Douglas Macgregor, and Scott Ritter, have warned that it will be very difficult for the IDF to engage in this kind of urban clearing operation, particularly given its scale versus the IDF’s limited experience and the largely reservist status of the majority of its forces. Foreign Affairs, the premier US foreign policy publication, just released a grim prognosis in How Will the IDF Handle Urban Combat?Fighting Hamas in Gaza Will Be Difficult and Costly. Key sections:

A potential ground assault into Gaza…would entail horrendously difficult tactical conditions, including room-to-room combat and tunnel warfare that would lead to massive casualties. It would require fighting on the ground, in the air, and at sea—fighting that must be done in a carefully synchronized fashion. Combat will be slow and grinding, and the resulting devastation will almost certainly test international support for Israel’s invasion…

Urban combat is slow, grinding, destructive, environmentally devastating, and horrendously costly in human life—especially for civilians. It involves house-by-house, block-by-block fighting that soaks up troops and firepower in enormous quantities, as every room, street corner, rooftop, sewer, and basement must be secured before the next can be taken. Such combat is particularly dangerous for junior combat leaders, who must constantly expose themselves in order to see, communicate with, and command their soldiers…

…for soldiers and civilians in the midst of urban fighting, the danger, the fatigue, the sense of perpetual threat from every direction, and the horror of close-range hand-to-hand combat all take an immense physical and psychological toll. Battles tend to be confused, fleeting (measured in seconds), and short range, with targets often closer than 50 yards. Troops may be focused on the house or room they are fighting in, but at the same time they may also be targeted from a distance by mortar crews, snipers, and drone operators.

There is a lot more along these lines.

Several points seem noteworthy. First, as is evident even from this short extract, Foreign Affairs acts as if a ground operation is not a given, when there are reports of large numbers of Israeli tanks and troops newly positioned nearby and more expected. Second is that it bangs on about the findings of “NATO researchers” and of creating a “combined-arms effect.” As we saw in Ukraine, forces trained to supposed NATO standards were found by the Ukraine military to perform less well than ones that used what NATO derided as more primitive approaches better suited to battle conditions.

Third, and perhaps most important, this article does not give much consideration about how the extensive Gaza tunnel system vastly complicates this operation. Readers are welcome to correct me, but my strong impression is that not only has there never been a clearing operation in this large a setting, there has also never been one that has had to contend with such an extensive tunnel system.

The IDF may be correct in its belief, or one might say hope, that bunker busters can destroy most if not all of it and also detonate stored munitions. There was alleged evidence of that happening, with Jacob Dreizen posting a video of a presumed bunker buster then producing successive explosions from below ground a meaningful distance from the strike site.

It may be that most of the tunnels can be destroyed by arial bomb and it’s simply a matter of systematically wrecking them. But Iran has massive and deeply buried command centers and operations. Hamas would presumably have sought and received advice on how to build and fortify its tunnels to resist bunker bombs.1 Whether Hamas got very far with any such effort will be revealed in due course.

Another tunnel matter is how much Hamas has stockpiled and whether, even after round of bunker-busting, there are enough tunnels to Egypt that survive and are well-enough connected to other surviving tunnels under most of Gaza to allow Hamas members and their supplies to move about readily enough to allow them to continue indefinitely, or at least for an unseemly long time. A sometimes stated assumption on the Israel side is that they can starve Hamas out and force them to leave the tunnels, as happened with the Azov Battalion forces that retreated to the extensive basement system underneath the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol.

What does the delay in launching the ground operation portend? Some theories, which are not mutually exclusive:

The politicians and the military are arguing with each other, and senior members of the military are also debating how to proceed. Perhaps Hamas will be revealed to be a paper tiger. But if not, victory, even if defined as clearing Gaza (as opposed to destroying Hamas) looks set to be Pyrrhic.

The IDF is waiting to get US men and materiel in place. With Iran having promised to Do Something in the event of an assault on Gaza, the bigger the threat display, the better. The IDF and the US appear to be erring on the side of assuming that Hezbollah and Iran are loath to escalate. That may not be as true as they believe.2

The US is trying to curb Israel. Mind you, that sort of message is not coming from where it really counts, Biden or Blinken, but enough US military men may be worried enough to do what they can to throw sand in the gears. Consider this new story from the Financial Times, Fears grow that Israel has ‘no plan’ agreed for postwar Gaza:

But about two weeks after Hamas’s devastating attacks, there remain many unresolved questions over Israel’s exit strategy and postwar goals. The US has directly raised its concerns with Israel, according to sources close to the process. The lack of an exit plan is one factor in the delays to the Gaza ground operation that has long been threatened by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“There is no plan for the ‘day after’. The [Israeli] system hasn’t decided yet,” said one person familiar with Israeli thinking. “The Americans went crazy when they realised there was no plan.”

In what were described as probing conversations with Israeli officials, US officials have encouraged their counterparts to think about how to achieve their military aims should the original plans fail, and to imagine the day after….

Several people close to the Israeli planning process described a frantic effort to establish clear war aims, develop realistic post-conflict scenarios, and agree them across the military and civilian leadership….

One recurring theme in the proposals is avoiding an open-ended Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, a narrow coastal strip that is home to 2.3mn people. Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005.

Another is the need to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which may be called upon to reassert control in Gaza even though it is considered to be a weak institution that lacks credibility among Palestinians…

A third element in planning is the potential for Arab states including Egypt and Saudi Arabia to play a direct role, including possible financial and peacekeeping support in Gaza.

The delay is deliberate, to starve out Gaza. Israel’s sabotaging of humanitarian convoys (bombing the roads at Rarah, allowing only a pathetic 20 trucks in, now refusing to allow fuel in and assuring the shutdown of hospitals) is a facet of Israel’s announced policy of collective punishment. Perhaps some in the government rationalize this conduct by hoping that enough suffering in Gaza will force Egypt to relent and admit a large number of refugees. But the international community is instead increasing its calls for a ceasefire and serious humanitarian relief.

It looks instead as if too many are shying away form the logic of Israel’s actions. They want to empty Gaza. That is why they have no post war plans. There’s no need to worry about post-Gaza governance if all the Palestinians have been removed.3

So tarrying with the ground operations as the Gaza citizenry dies of dehydration4 has a certain logic. The IDF is not wrong in being concerned that nominal civilians can easily serve to advance a guerrilla war, such as kids planting mines. It reduces the need to waste shells to destroy buildings. Experts like Scott Ritter have argued that more rubble is more favorable to defenders, since it offers more places to hide, makes it harder to deploy armored vehicles, and could blunt the impact of bunker busters. Conversely, keeping as much of Gaza’s roads open will help the invading force.

Delaying a Gaza invasion while refusing to let supplies in also theoretically puts of triggering a Hezbollah and potentially Iran action, although Iran has cleared its throat and said too much mistreatment of Gazans would also be a red line.

So yours truly has to wonder if the sudden intense messaging about how hard an invasion will be, and how the Israels and the US are in a dither over how to proceed, is a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” Even if these accounts are substantially true, broadcasting them would seem to be to the detriment of Israel’s operations. Perhaps it is intended to depict the Israel and its allies as in disarray so as to misdirect Hamas and its potential backers and mask a blow that is coming in days. Or perhaps it instead is to mask the monstrousness of Israel’s true plans, which are not hard to infer given its persistent obstruction of humanitarian relief.


1 Some have asserted that Gaza is on sandy soil that would facilitate the use of these super duper munitions. Based on a quick look, Lambert found the “sandy soil” story to be wrong:

We’re not talking granite, but it’s not sand and dirt either

Gaza Strip region has a substratum of Tertiary limestones, calcareous sandstone marls, clay and marine diluvium. Partially fossilised dune sand deposits cover wide stretches of land. These dune sands are often cemented by calcareous sediments and cemented infiltration, and form therefore compact masses of hard rocks.

Found map (“geology.png”).

It’s hard to read (I’m assuming yellow has faded) but it looks like Gaza City area is on “Pliocene Marine”

2 In addition, by virtue of proximity, Hezbollah almost certainly has escalation options short of invasion. How might it turn up the heat?

3 If worse comes to worse, when Israel finally secures the surface, it can flood, gas [who would be the wiser?] or use thermobaric bombs on the tunnels.

4 Starving to death can take a while. For instance, in the case of Bobby Sands, it took 66 days.

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