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.
US Central Command announced that it sent a Ohio-class guided missile submarine to the Middle East Sunday and accompanied this social media post with pictures already showing the sub in the Suez Canal.
This sends "a message of deterrence clearly directed at regional adversaries as the Biden administration tries to avoid a broader conflict amid the Israel-Hamas war," according to CNN's reporting.
According to CNN, this is one of the Ohio-class subs that were built for ballistic missiles but had been converted to carry a payload of up to 154 Tomahawk conventional cruise missiles instead, each with the capacity to carry a 1,000-pound warhead.
If this indeed is the mission, the submarine joins a host of U.S. military assets in the region, including, according to Cato's John Hoffman in RS today: "two aircraft carrier strike groups, with roughly 7,500 personnel on each, two guided-missile destroyers, and nine air squadrons to the Eastern Mediterranean and Red Sea region. Washington also deployed an additional 4,000 troops to the region, with another 2,000 on standby, adding to the roughly 30,000 troops already in the region.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced on Oct. 26 that nearly 1,000 of those standby troops have already been activated and sent to the Middle East. “Approximately 900 troops have … deployed or are in the process of deploying,” said Air Force Brig. Gen Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman to reporters. “These include forces that have been on prepare-to-deploy orders and which are deploying from the continental United States.”
In the meantime, the Pentagon has acknowledged there are U.S. special forces commandos in Israel helping to find American and Israeli hostages held by Hamas. According to the New York Times, defense officials have confirmed there are "several dozen" commandos in the country but would not say exactly where they are, and they had joined a small team that was already there.
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ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA - August 18, 2023: Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates and Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, attend the inauguration of the Water and Energy Exhibition, at the Ethiopian Science Museum. Abdulla Al Neyadi/UAE Presidential Court/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Hamas’s attack into Israel and massacre of Israelis, followed by Israel’s war of obliteration on Gaza backed by the United States, is a political earthquake in the Middle East. Its tremors are shaking up the politics of the Horn of Africa, bringing down an already tottering peace and security architecture.
It’s too early to discern the shape of the rubble, but we can already see the direction in which some of the pillars will fall.
The most obvious impact is that the Israel-Palestine war has legitimized and invigorated protest across the wider region. Hamas showed that Israel was not invincible, and Palestine would no longer be invisible. Many in the Arab street — and Muslims more widely — are ready to overlook Hamas’s atrocious record as a public authority and its embrace of terror, because it dared stand up to Israel, America, and Europe.
Hamas’s boldness has given a shot in the arm to Islamists, such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab. As the African Union peacekeeping operation in Somalia draws down, al-Shabaab remains a threat— and will likely be emboldened to intensify its operations both in Somalia and neighboring Kenya.
Kenyan President William Ruto gave strong backing to Israel while also calling for a ceasefire. For the U.S. and Europe, Kenya is now the anchor state for security in the Horn — but it desperately needs financial aid if it is to shoulder that burden.
The war is consuming Egyptian attention and terrifies President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is treading a fine line between sponsoring pro-Palestinian protests and suppressing them.
Red Sea Security
The Red Sea is strategic for Israel. One quarter of Israel’s maritime trade is handled in its port of Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, an inlet of the Red Sea. Eilat is Israel’s back door, vital in case the Mediterranean coast is under threat. Israel has long seen the littoral countries of the Red Sea — Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia — as pieces in the jigsaw of its extended security frontier.
Historically, Egypt has shared the same concern. Last year, revenues from the Suez Canal were $9.4 billion— its third largest foreign currency earner after remittances from Egyptians working in the Gulf States and tourism. Neither Israel nor Egypt can afford a disruption to maritime security from Suez and Eilat to the Gulf of Aden.
The Red Sea is also the buckle on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with China’s first overseas military base — strictly speaking a “facility” — in the port of Djibouti near the Bab al-Mandab, the narrow straits between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. More than 10 percent of world maritime trade is carried on 25,000 ships through these straits every year.
Having long neglected its Red Sea coastline, Saudi Arabia has reawakened to its significance in the last decade. In the 1980s, amid fears that Iran might block tanker traffic through the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia built an east-west pipeline from the Aqaig oil fields to the Red Sea port of Yanbu al Bahr. Its strategic significance is back in focus.
In parallel, the United Arab Emirates is well on track to securing a monopoly over the ports of the Gulf of Aden, which forms the eastern approaches to the Red Sea. It has de factoannexed the Yemeni island of Socotra for a naval base. The UAE is looking for a foothold in the Red Sea proper, and a string of satellite states on the African shore.
All these factors intensify the scramble for securing naval bases in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is already host to the U.S.’s Camp Lemonnier along with French, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese facilities. Turkey and Russia are actively seeking bases too, focusing on Port Sudan and Eritrea’s long coastline.
Empowered Gulf States
Well before the recent crisis, the Horn of Africa was becoming dominated by Middle Eastern powers. This process is now intensified. Decades of competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran for alignment of Sudan and Eritrea has swung different ways. Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, formerly political partner of Benjamin Netanyahu and signatory to the Abraham Accord, cut an ill-timed deal with Iran in early October, to obtain weapons, which has embarrassed his outreach to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. More recently, Turkey and Qatar’s regional ambitions have clashed with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, especially over the Muslim Brothers — supported by the former, opposed by the latter. The latest emerging rivalry is between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as the regional anchor. While running for president, Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” But it is now indispensable to the U.S.
Among the Arab states. the UAE has been the most restrained in condemning Israel for its actions in Gaza. It has also said that it doesn’t mix trade and politics— meaning that it will continue to implement the economic cooperation agreements it signed with Israel following on from the Abraham Accords. The UAE is also positioned at the center of the U.S.-sponsored India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC), unveiled at the September G20 summit in India as a response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The UAE also has a free hand in the Horn of Africa, and in the last five years it has moved more rapidly and decisively than Saudi Arabia.
Sudan’s Fate between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi
After the eruption of war in Sudan in April, the joint Saudi-American mediation was in large part a gift from Washington to try to mend fences with the Kingdom. Talks in Jeddah resumed in late October, with the modest agenda of a ceasefire and humanitarian access, and a pro forma “civilian track” delegated to the African Union, which has shown neither commitment nor competence.
Meanwhile, the Emiratis are backing General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemedti,” who is currently driving the Sudan Armed Forces out of their remaining redoubts in Khartoum. This followed more than six months of fighting in which Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces gained a reputation for military prowess and utter disregard for the dignity and rights of civilians. Despite widespread revulsion against the RSF, especially among middle class Sudanese, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, known as MBZ, stuck with his man.
In charge of the ruins of Sudan’s capital city, Hemedti will soon be in a position to declare a government, perhaps inviting civilians for the sake of a veneer of legitimacy. What’s holding him back is the ceasefire talks in Jeddah. His rival, Gen. al-Burhan is meanwhile floating a plan to form a government based in Port Sudan — raising the prospect of two rival governments, as in Libya. The real negotiations there are between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. If the two capitals agree on a formula, the U.S. and the African Union will applaud, and the Sudanese will be presented with a fait accompli.
Ethiopia Goes Rogue
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s rule is underwritten by Emirati treasure. MBZ has reportedly paid for Abiy’s vast new palace, a vanity project whose $ 10 billion price tag is paid for entirely off-budget. Abiy told lawmakers that this bill was none of their business as it was funded by private donations, directly to him. Other megaprojects in and around the capital Addis Ababa, such as glitzy museums and theme parks, have similarly opaque finances.
Ethiopia’s wars have depended on largesse from the UAE. Ethiopian federal forces prevailed against Tigray, forcing the latter into an abject surrender a year ago, on account of an arsenal — especially drones — supplied by the UAE. Abiy is currently rattling his saber against his erstwhile ally, Eritrea, demanding that landlocked Ethiopia be given a port, or it will take one by force. The likely target is Assab in Eritrea, though other neighbors such as Djibouti and Somalia have been rattled too.
Eritrea unexpectedly finds itself as a status quo power and is relishing this role, tersely expressing its refusal to join in the confusing discourse from Addis Ababa. It suddenly has allies in Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia and even Kenya — all of them threatened by Abiy’s bellicosity.
If Abiy does invade Eritrea, he will violate the basic international norm — the inviolability of state boundaries — and risk plunging his already failing economy deeper into disaster. This will pose a sharp dilemma for the UAE. It is ready to override multilateral principles, but whether it would bail out its errant client in Addis Ababa, and jeopardize its winning position in Sudan, is a different matter. It would also present Saudi Arabia with the dilemma of whether to back Eritrea’s notorious dictator, President Isaias Afewerki.
America and the Pax Africana
Peace and security in the Horn of Africa isn’t a priority for the Biden administration. Despite a rhetorical commitment to a rule-based international order, Washington has neither protected Africa’s painstakingly-constructed peace and security architecture nor brought the Ethiopian and Sudanese crises to the U.N. Security Council.
While the American security umbrella was in place over the Arabian Peninsula, the countries of the Horn of Africa had the chance to develop their own peace and security system, based on a layered multilateral structure involving the regional organization, the InterGovernmental Authority on Development, the African Union, and United Nations, with peacekeepers and peace missions funded by the Europeans. This emergent Pax Africana was already imperiled as the U.S. drew down and the Middle Eastern middle powers became more assertive. President Donald Trump authorized his favored intermediaries — Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — to pursue their interests across the Horn of Africa. The Biden administration has not pulled that back.
It's possible that the administration cares about peace, security and human rights in Africa. But for as long as the U.S.’s Horn of Africa policy is handled by the Africa Bureau at the State Department — whose diplomats scarcely get the time of day from their counterparts in the Gulf Kingdoms — Washington’s views will remain all-but-irrelevant. The Horn of Africa doesn’t make the cut when staffers prepare talking points for President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken or national security adviser Jake Sullivan to speak to their Arab counterparts. It’s a prioritization that leaves the region in a deepening crisis, at the mercy of ruthless transactional politics.
America’s well-established practice of treating Israel as an exception to international law is rubbing off on Israel’s allies and apologists across the Middle East, who are actively dismantling the already-tottering pillars of Africa’s norm-based peace and security system. Those African countries most in need of principled multilateralism are paying the price.
While the United States remains the dominant extra-regional superpower as the war between Hamas and Israel threatens to spread more broadly, China’s growing presence across the Middle East raises important questions about how it conceives its response to the crisis.
Enjoying close ties to Israel and decent relations with major Palestinian and Lebanese players, including Hamas and Hezbollah, Beijing’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era has been quite balanced between Israel and Arab actors. But Israel’s conduct of the war is pushing Beijing to take a stance that is increasingly pro-Palestinian, which risks harming its relations with Tel Aviv.
China’s main interests
Ultimately, what China wants in the Middle East more than anything else is stability. The region is extremely important to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, which will face serious problems if wars continue to plague the region.
To help stabilize the Gulf, in particular, China played a catalyzing role in the renormalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran almost eight months ago. Now, he escalating conflict in Israel/Palestine and along the Israeli border with Lebanon has raised growing concern in Beijing about the possibility of a wider war. Beijing has called for a ceasefire, followed by a lasting political settlement to the conflict based on the implementation of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as the best course.
China and Israel’s multifaceted and complicated bilateral relationship has evolved over the decades. Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule (1949-76), China supported left-wing and “radical” Arab regimes — namely Algeria, Egypt, South Yemen, and Syria — as well as national liberation movements in the Middle East, including the Palestinian struggle. By contrast, Mao saw Israel as a base of Western imperialism in the Arab world.
But since Beijing and Tel Aviv established diplomatic relations in 1992, economic relations between China and Israel have flourished across countless sectors, including technology, infrastructure, tourism, health, education, logistics, ports, and cosmetics. There is also a history of a military-tech exchange between the two countries going back to the 1980s. Sino-Israeli relations have deepened to the point where U.S. officials have pressured Tel Aviv to cool its ties with the Asian giant.
Despite these deep economic relations, however, China has opposed Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory outside its United Nations-recognized borders and criticized its past bombing campaigns against Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. Unlike Israel, the United States and some other Western states, China has refused to designate Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, instead viewing them as legitimate representatives of segments of the population in Palestine and Lebanon.
Beijing reacts to Hamas’ surprise attack
In response to Hamas’ unprecedented incursion into southern Israel on October 7 and the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza that followed, Beijing has stressed three main messages. First, it condemned all attacks on civilians. Second, it called for the reactivation of dialogue between the warring sides. Finally, it has called for the effective establishment of a Palestinian state based alongside Israel’s 1949-67 borders.
“China has tried to maintain [neutrality], criticize attacks on civilians, and call for de-escalation and ceasefire,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, in an interview with RS. “Hamas’s attacks on civilians are inexcusable. But for China, Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory is also the origin of the attacks.”
China’s response to October 7 was similar to the way Beijing positioned itself after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, according to some experts. “If in Ukraine there was talk of a ‘pro-Russian neutrality,’ in this case it is a ‘pro-Palestinian neutrality,’” according to Enrico Fardella, Director of the Italy-based ChinaMED Project.
“Neutrality is functional to maximize [China’s] diplomatic flexibility by presenting itself as the only major power capable of dialogue with both sides,” he told RS. “This serves to win consensus at the center (among all those actors critical of the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government but at the same time disgusted by Hamas’ brutalities), showing the superiority of its own diplomatic action in the face of the American one that is decidedly pro-Israel. The pro-Palestinian component, on the other hand, serves to gather support on the left, i.e., in the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel (and therefore anti-American) area inside and outside the Middle East.”
Can China help de-escalate?
Earlier this year, the Chinese offered to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians. Now more than ever, the region could benefit from an outside actor playing an effective peacemaking role. But given Beijing’s apparent inability to muster the leverage necessary to bring the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful settlement, it is doubtful that China can succeed.
“We know that Beijing wants to prevent the escalation of the crisis, but I do not think that it has enough instruments to defuse the crisis,” said Nurettin Akçay, of the Center for Global Studies at Shanghai University. He explained that China’s limited leverage over Israel is a major obstacle to Beijing successfully de-escalating this conflict through diplomatic means. “It is my belief that China's position in the Middle East is somewhat overstated. Its actual power to shape events in the region is quite limited, despite its economic clout. The ongoing crisis has highlighted the fact that China lacks the necessary hard power to pursue its objectives,” he told RS.
“I think all countries that call for de-escalation will help,” noted Sun. “Beijing has relatively good relationships with both Israel and Palestine, as well as other regional players. But such good relationships do not necessarily translate into influence on such a major issue,” she added. “To assume that Beijing can effectively help de-escalate is to assume that parties to the conflict are willing to change their course, which I do not see as probable at this point.”
Implications for U.S.-Israel ties
How much the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine and Lebanon will impact China’s relationship with Israel is unclear. In recent years, China has become more vocal about the Palestinian cause, which serves to boost Beijing’s standing among governments and societies across the Islamic world and much of the Global South. This has served to differentiate China from the U.S. and helps Beijing to depict Washington as the isolated player on this issue while countering Western efforts to use the Xinjiang human rights file to distance Muslim-majority countries from China.
While the Chinese and Israelis have generally managed to separate their political disagreements from their economic ties in recent years, China’s increasingly pro-Palestinian position has the potential to create considerable irritation in the bilateral relationship. And while Netanyahu was flirting earlier this year with the idea of traveling to China and meeting with President Xi Jinping in the face of Biden administration’s criticism of the Israeli leader’s far-right domestic agenda, such a show of defiance and independence seems highly unlikely given both Washington’s strong backing for Israel in the current conflict and Beijing’s more pro-Palestinian position.