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.
The United States has conducted two retaliatoryairstrikes against Iraqi militias this week after ballistic missile attacks against America’s Al Asad Air Base, the latest in a troubling tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Iran-backed militias in the region that was triggered by the Israel-Hamas conflict.
CENTCOM appears to believe that the status quo of attack and reprisal with Iraqi militias is sustainable. There’s an assumption that Washington, Iran, and Iraq’s militias understand each other’s red lines. However, this assumption comes with a lot of risks.
The potential for one-upmanship between various Shi’a militias, each trying to prove they’re more hostile toward Americans than the others, is a concerning possibility. A deadly attack on U.S. troops could prompt the Biden administration to respond more forcefully, especially in an election year. What is the administration’s plan to manage escalation and prevent a larger regional war (with heavy U.S. involvement) if this were to occur?
It is true that the presence of U.S. military advisors in Iraq helps maintain cohesion and a working relationship between competing factions of Iraq’s military. U.S. troops also offer critical capabilities in the fight to contain ISIS. But it is time for Washington to consider whether these benefits are outweighed by the risk of malign actors using U.S. troops to provoke a wider conflict – either intentionally or inadvertently.
While the risks of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq are apparent, the overall utility of their presence is unclear (particularly in deterring attacks on themselves). With each new day comes a fresh opportunity for crisis. It’s past time Washington grappled with the true costs and benefits of our military presence.
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A soldier prepares 155m shells for firing during IDF military training in the Golan Heights with self propelled cannons in 2020. (Shutterstock/Gal_Rotem)
The notion that a restrained reaction to outrageous provocation is often the wiser course has wide relevance. For example, it certainly applies to the U.S. reaction to 9/11, which cost trillions and led to well over a hundred times more deaths than the impelling event.
And a case can be made for the proposition that it would have been better for Israel if its understandably vehement response to the murderous Hamas incursion of October 7 had been much more limited. The response could have focused on pushing the offensive back, a few strikes against isolated targets in Gaza, shoring up border defenses, mounting covert operations to undermine Hamas, and launching a coordinated international effort to get the hostages released.
That approach would have sought to capitalize on the fact that the appeal of Hamas and its message was in decline before its attack. This process seems to have been motivated by at least two central considerations.
First, Arab Barometer reports conclude that the organization had become deeply unpopular in Gaza. While it seems to have been successful at squandering funds and at digging tunnels to protect itself, its governance has been incompetent and corrupt. Over time, substantial majorities in Gaza had come to say they did not trust it, had experienced food shortages during its rule, and did not share its eliminationist perspective on Israel.
Second, support for Hamas in the broader Middle East was waning. This is suggested by the Abraham Accords in which the message from former well-wishing and fund-donating states seems effectively to have been: “For god’s sake, get a life! You've been bashing your head against Israel for something that happened 75 years ago, and you have nothing to show for it except an ever-bloodier head. We've been on your side for most of this, but you’ve got to realize finally that Israel is not going anywhere and that it’s time to find another policy.” Gaza’s leadership reacted by accusing the Abraham Accords countries of seeking to throw it under the bus. Perhaps they were. For example, UAE cut its support for Palestinian relief from $51 million to $1 million.
If this analysis is correct, Hamas was not deterrable by the prospect of Israeli retaliation. Indeed, in its view, a destructive response from Israel would work to its advantage by boosting its support in Gaza and elsewhere and by alienating those Arab countries that had signed, or, like Saudi Arabia, might have soon signed, the Abraham Accords. For the most part, of course, this has happened, at least so far.
Internationally, Israel enjoyed much sympathy when it was the sole victim. But much of this was dissipated when Israel reacted by killing far more civilians and destroying far more property than the Hamas invaders.
The declared goal of the Israeli government has been to “destroy Hamas.” This may not be quite as extravagant as the goal declared by President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 which was “to rid the world of evil,” but there is something of a resemblance. Hamas members can likely avoid destruction by simply going underground (in both senses of the word), and then rising again over time.
Even if it were possible to destroy Hamas one way or another, more radical groups could rise from the rubble, playing on the deep resentment in Gaza that has been engendered by the wildly disproportionate Israeli bombing and invasion.
The more restrained approach outlined above would have worked not to “destroy” Hamas in a physical sense, but to isolate it as an international pariah — something that was already in process before its deplorable attack on Israel and, as suggested, likely helped inspire it.
Overreaction is not necessarily required politically. It is true that no one seems to have put forward the observation after Pearl Harbor that there might be something absurd in sending tens of thousands of American soldiers and sailors to their deaths in a war triggered by an attack that had killed 2,300. And if someone had done so, the proposition would likely have been roundly rejected. However, while the option of doing nothing or next to nothing in response to an outrageous provocation might not be accepted or might not even be wise, it is one that should at least be on the table for consideration in any rational decision-making process.
And sometimes a restrained approach to outrageous provocation has been accepted. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and others have pointed out that India did not overreact when ten gunmen sent from Pakistan shot up Mumbai in 2008, killing 175 people. Nor did the U.S. overreact when terrorists blew up an airliner filled with Americans over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Instead, it launched a determined and lengthy effort using legal methods to go after those responsible.
Neither of these terrorist events was as destructive as the Hamas attack on Israel of October 7, of course. But for the most part, the world sided with the victims and aided their efforts. And it may be relevant to note that, although both attacks generated tremendous publicity for the perpetrators and for their cause, neither was attempted again.
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Photo credit: Colombian President Gustavo Petro (Daniel Andres Garzon/ Shutterstock); Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Isaac Fontana/ Shutterstock)
Colombian President Gustavo Petro sent shockwaves through the diplomatic world recently when he accused Israel of carrying out a “genocide” in Gaza.
“The head of the state who carries out this genocide is a criminal against humanity,” Petro wrote on X. “Their allies cannot talk about democracy.”
The comments are remarkable for a leader of Colombia, which has historically stuck with the United States on matters of international affairs. “It was just kind of unimaginable for the Colombian government to take a position like that, that would be so divergent from the U.S.,” said Alex Main, the director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Petro, who is the country’s first-ever left-wing president, has doubled down on his criticism of Israel in recent weeks. He retweeted a poster depicting a cartoon baby being menaced by Israeli rifles and called Israel’s attack on the Al-Shifa hospital a “war crime,” promised to petition the United Nations to make Palestine a full member state, and threatened to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court.
And Petro is far from alone in Latin America. While most states in the region condemned Hamas’s initial attack, their harsh response to the Israeli offensive in Gaza has only been equalled by that of Arab- and Muslim-majority countries. Belize and Bolivia both cut ties with Israel over the war, and Colombia, Chile, and Honduras have all recalled their ambassadors from Tel Aviv.
Even states that consider themselves neutral on the conflict — like Brazil and Argentina — have issued withering condemnations of Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza. “This is not a war,” said Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “This is a genocide.”
So why are Latin American leaders so pro-Palestine? Experts who spoke with RS said it mostly comes down to three factors: Latin America’s increasing independence from the U.S.; the rise of left-wing and indigenous movements; and the presence of large Arab diasporas in much of the region.
U.S. pressure ‘doesn’t count as much as it used to’
Brazil's Lula, as he is popularly known, has spent much of his first year back in office carving out an independent path for the country’s foreign policy. The leftist leader led a charge for talks to end the war in Ukraine while helping to bolster the influence of BRICS, a geopolitical grouping meant to offset the G7 that he had helped found in the late 2000s. So when a new round of fighting broke out in Israel-Palestine, there was little doubt that Lula would jump in with a pitch to solve it.
In practice, this meant leading an effort to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for humanitarian pauses to allow much-needed aid into Gaza. But his initiative hit a wall when the U.S. vetoed the resolution. That, combined with growing pressure from his domestic allies as well as the evacuation of Brazilians stuck in Gaza, led Lula to turn up his rhetoric on Israel’s offensive, according to Guilherme Casaroes, a senior researcher at the Brazilian Center of International Relations.
“He's defending the right of Israel to exist, but not the right of Israel to massacre Palestinians in Gaza,” Casaroes argued, adding that Lula views his approach to the conflict as a balancing act aimed at reaching a two-state solution. (The Brazilian leader is not the first to advocate for such a path forward; in fact, Brazil presided over the 1947 U.N. vote in favor of the partition of Mandatory Palestine.)
The episode, experts say, highlights the extent to which American influence has waned in Latin America since the height of the unipolar moment after the first Gulf War.
The U.S. has privately “expressed disappointment with governments that have done things like recall their ambassadors, or referred to genocide or used strong language and so on,” according to Main of CEPR, who has extensive contacts in Latin American governments.
“But that pressure doesn't count as much as it used to,” he argued. “It's a region that's changed enormously in terms of its dependence on the U.S. and the level of influence that the U.S. can have on foreign policy.”
The ‘pink tide’ rolls on
The pro-Palestine stance of many Latin American leaders also stems from the “pink tide” of left-wing and indigenous activists who have taken power in recent years. Left-of-center politicians now hold power in two-thirds of Latin American states, representing more than 90 percent of the region’s population and GDP.
As Main noted, these groups have long been involved in Palestine solidarity campaigns and other indigenous rights movements, especially since Israel had helped to arm many of the region’s most oppressive 20th century governments.
For many activists in the region, the disappointment of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s led them to view the situation in Israel-Palestine as little more than a new form of colonialism, according to Casaroes.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very often pictured in the back of the minds of Latin American leaders as the conflict between the oppressor, which is Israel, and the oppressed, which are the Palestinians,” he said.
This helps to explain why the Latin American left has been so united on this issue, as opposed to the war in Ukraine, which has pitted progressive leaders like Chile’s Gabriel Boric against traditional leftist stalwarts like Lula and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
While Boric has largely stood alone in his strong support for Ukraine, he has joined his fellow leftists in excoriating Israel for its conduct in Gaza and even withdrew Chile’s ambassador from Tel Aviv. “These Hamas attacks are without justification, they deserve global condemnation, but the response by Benjamin Netanyahu's government also deserves our clearest condemnation,” Boric argued following a meeting with Biden in Washington earlier this month.
Deep ties to the Arab world
The Arab diaspora in Latin America is also a major force behind pro-Palestine activism. Brazil alone has some 16 million citizens of Arab descent, and Chile has the largest Palestinian population of any country outside of the Middle East.
The phenomenon of Arab migration to the region dates back to the late 1800s, when many Lebanese and Syrian migrants fled to the Americas to escape the death throes of the Ottoman Empire. Palestinians followed in waves after each major war between Israel and Arab states.
This large diaspora has significant political influence across the region, with Arab politicians holding top positions in many governments. Fully 10 percent of Brazil’s parliament had Arab origins as of 2016, according to the Washington Post.
Contrast this with the region’s relatively small Jewish community, which numbered only 500,000 in 2017. As Main noted, Latin American Jews who support Israel also have no equivalent to powerful U.S. Zionist groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which will reportedly spend $100 million next year to try to push lawmakers advocating for a ceasefire in Gaza out of office.
Of course, there are notable exceptions in the Arab diaspora. El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, is of Palestinian descent but has thrown his full support behind Israel’s campaign in Gaza. But, experts say, most Arabs in the region still favor Palestine over Israel.
A new shift, however, could upset the region’s political balance in the coming years, according to Casaroes. Latin America has an increasingly large evangelical Christian movement whose leaders see the state of Israel as a crucial part of their theology of the “end times.” And survey research suggests that, as a country’s evangelical population grows, so does its support for Israel.
This has already led to political dust-ups in places like Brazil, where former President Jair Bolsonaro has made pro-Israel activism a key part of his efforts to bolster his evangelical support. Bolsonaro sparked a controversy earlier this month when he met with Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, a move that a ruling party official condemned as a “spurious alliance” between the former leader and the foreign diplomat.