The Israeli incursion into Gaza has begun though we do not know yet how full or advanced it will become. But it is reminding us already that war, especially urban combat, is indeed hell.
So what will this ground invasion actually look like on a tactical level?
Gaza proper is roughly 25 miles long and on average 5.5 miles wide. This is a tiny amount of space in which to conduct a large-scale military operation. Most modern artillery can almost shoot the length of Gaza. Most modern anti-tank missiles can shoot half its width. Israeli F-16s can fly the length of the strip in under three minutes and will find it necessary to be in a constant turn to maintain position over Gaza City.
To make the range issue worse is the urban nature of the battlefield. While it might only be around five miles wide, it's highly unlikely that you have line of sight that far due to man-made obstacles — better known as buildings. What this means is no one has superior range. If you can see it, it’s in range. If it’s in range, so are you.
The majority of this space in fact is covered in buildings — shops, offices, schools, hospitals, and residences. Each one provides cover and concealment for fighters. The structures also create natural channels funneling attacking forces into pre-designated fire zones for ambushes or over top of improvised explosive devices.
Israeli armor can’t conduct maneuver warfare on this battlefield. Armor will be sitting ducks without infantry support. Infantry are vulnerable to everything. The Israelis will take losses, and already have, according to the New York Times on Wednesday.
Urban areas pose difficult tactical problems. Fortified urban areas are worse. Over the past decade Hamas has developed a labyrinth of tunnels that are fortified and connected literally across the entirety of the strip, and especially heavy in Gaza City. They use these underground structures for command and control, movement, logistics, shelter, and as a way to “out flank” and ambush an enemy.
Fortified urban areas with significant population density pose the biggest challenges. The majority of combat will take place in Gaza city proper which has a greater population density than New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia or San Francisco. There are over two million people living in an area roughly twice the size of Washington D.C. This means civilians, or non-combatants, are everywhere. Even if half the population has moved south it will still cause the Israelis immense targeting problems.
In addition, the densely populated area compounds the Israeli problem of target identification. Hamas intentionally blends in with the civilian population.
The bottom line for the battlefield is that it helps Hamas and hinders the Israelis. In urban warfare, the defender, in this case Hamas, has the advantage. An advantage that can be mitigated if the attacker has overwhelming firepower, and the will to use it.
How Hamas will fight
Hamas will use the urban terrain to cause excessive Israeli casualties while forcing them to injure civilians to limit those casualties. They will make every block a fortress and every street corner an ambush site. By using the “subterranean flank” they will pop out of tunnels and hiding places in buildings to shoot at Israeli vehicles with missiles, launch grenades, or even throw Molotov cocktails.
While they may not be using Javelin anti-tank weapons (although the threat of Hamas having those weapons shouldn't be dismissed, given what may have been captured or “lost” in Ukraine), their weapons will be more than sufficient to at least disable a tank and cause casualties. The short ranges decrease Israeli reaction time and increase lethality.
Hamas fighters are commingled with the civilian population most likely both intentionally and unintentionally, and will take full advantage of that. They know the world watches what the Israelis do and are counting on pressure to make them stop. Again, they see this war as existential, so they will use any and all means to win.
How the Israelis will fight
First, Israelis must find the Hamas fighters, then engage them in their fortified positions.They must do this without taking unreasonable casualties, all the while trying not to kill civilians.
To find Hamas fighters the Israelis will use a variety of sources. They will have already scanned the electromagnetic spectrum for everything from cell phones, computers, to radios looking for an electronic signature to identify a potential target. They will pour over social media for anything identifiable.They will use drones, manned aircraft, and human reconnaissance teams to confirm and verify what they think they know.
They will do all this and more to listen, collect, and build a targeting picture of command centers, logistics sites, artillery positions, and order of battle — who is who, who has what, and where it is.
This process is called intelligence preparation of the battlefield. This is what the Israelis have been doing — in truth some of their targets were most likely derived long before Hamas attacked just as most certainly Hamas had/has a robust target list of Israeli targets — since the start of hostilities.
The ground incursion of course changes this process. With Israeli tanks and infantry “closing” with the enemy, finding and subsequently engaging Hamas fighters will most likely devolve into merely returning fire — often with zero time to figure out how to limit civilian casualties.
It’s one thing to take a breath and disengage in sparse open terrain, it’s another thing to figure out who is shooting at you.
Once located, the Israelis have a host of options to engage the Hamas fighters. But it’s not a simple task of deciding what weapon is best to use. They have to measure what they do by three metrics: 1) does it achieve the desired effect on the enemy? 2) Can they accomplish the task without losing too many Israeli soldiers? 3) Can they limit civilian casualties, which in excess can be a war loser for Israel?
If civilian casualties weren’t a concern, the Israelis would use their massive firepower to destroy any and all Hamas targets or potential targets. They have the potential to literally level Gaza City using 2,000-pound satellite guided bombs with delayed fuses to smash the known tunnel complexes or at least seal them for eternity. This would meet the goal of destroying Hamas and limiting Israeli losses.
But in reality this approach would cause unacceptable civilian casualties. The inverse would be to advance for a close quarter battle that seeks a more “surgical” path. In a close quarter battle, you do nothing to mitigate the defender’s advantage in urban warfare and you take losses — lots and lots of losses.
Storming a building can be like storming a trench. We have seen what that is like in Ukraine.
So how will the Israelis fight? Their best option for destroying Hamas (which is the first priority), managing their own losses (second priority), and limiting civilian casualties (last priority), will be to strike hard when they have known, verified targets, advance to make contact with the enemy, then choose the weapon to engage. Moving slowly, deliberately, a block at a time.
This is why the prime minister said it would be a long war. This grinds Hamas down through attrition and loss of supply. The longer it takes, the more food, water, and fuel Hamas uses with no hope of real re-supply. The Israelis proclaim this war is existential. They will keep that consideration as they manage the tension of their losses and civilian casualties.
Some suggest this will look like the battle for Fallujah between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. Perhaps. But I suggest it will be more like Stalingrad or Berlin. Like in those battles, both sides see the war as existential and will conduct themselves accordingly.
One thing is for certain, for the populations on both sides, this war is truly hell.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?