Israel’s Expected Surprise: The Incursion into Gaza — Likely to Go On for Weeks

[This article is adapted from one written by Yossi Melman for the website of the privately owned 24-hour television news channel broadcasting from Israel, i24 News.]

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Israelis are beginning to realize that their army may pay a heavy price for the decision by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to roll into the Gaza Strip.  Military spokesmen on Sunday morning (20 July) announced two more Israeli soldiers were killed — making a total of 5 who lost their lives, so far, since the order to enter Gaza.

The surprise of Israel’s Thursday night ground assault on Gaza was in its timing. It was assumed for a few days that if a ceasefire is not reached and Hamas continues launching its rockets – and they did – Israel would have no choice but to send in ground forces. But this generally accepted estimate was camouflaged by several diversionary tactics which included rumors and disinformation spread to the international media.

On Thursday, the trusted BBC, followed by Reuters and other international news agencies, cited a senior Israeli official as saying a ceasefire agreement had been reached in Cairo negotiations involving Israel and Hamas.

Israeli media reported Friday that a decision in principle on a ground assault had actually been made on Tuesday evening by the nine-member Security Cabinet – pending the results of Egypt’s diplomatic ceasefire initiative.

After Hamas  rejected the ceasefire proposal as presented by Egypt — and then Hamas gunmen were caught exiting from a tunnel in Israeli territory and obviously hoping to attack a kibbutz — Israel’s Security Cabinet met again.

Reporters were told that ministers would get together only on Friday at 11am.  But, in fact, it was on Thursday that they gave the green light for a ground incursion.  At about 10 pm a massive Israeli force entered Gaza from three directions: north, east and south. As it is common in military operations, a heavy artillery and sea bombardment preceded the invasion.

Half an hour later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying that he and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had ordered the operation after Hamas rejected the Egyptian initiative – which Israel had already accepted on Tuesday.

The statement emphasized that the aim of the incursion was to remove the terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel.

There might be a contradiction between this limited stated goal and the size of the forces. Due to censorship restrictions, the exact size number of troops is classified, but it can be said that they are much bigger than in the two previous Israeli operations in Gaza (in 2009 and 2012).

But, in fact, there is no contradiction. The military goal is indeed to expose and demolish the tunnels – which Hamas has dug in recent years to hide rockets, launchers and other weapons, as well as to provide safe havens for top commanders and to enable infiltration into Israel for the purpose of terror attacks and kidnappings.

Israel also aims to destroy as much as possible of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and to kill the organization’s military commanders.

At this stage, Israel does not intend to enter Gaza city, one of the most densely populated places on earth. It would be too dangerous in terms of Israeli casualties and likely Palestinian civilian deaths.

More importantly, regardless of the size of the force, there is a political goal to the military operation: pressing Hamas to accept a ceasefire.

Israel’s decision on a ground incursion – ten days after the start of its aerial, naval and ground bombardment against terrorist targets in Gaza — also enjoys tail winds from an unexpected source.  Egyptian leaders, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have in recent days publicly blamed Hamas for rejecting the ceasefire.

It would thus be fair to assume that the Israeli invasion was coordinated in advance with Egypt and is in line with Egypt’s national security interesta.

Hamas warned Thursday that the Israeli invasion “was a silly and dangerous act” and vowed that Israel would “pay a heavy price.”

The price has, indeed, been of grave concern to Netanyahu. Some argue that it was one of his major considerations in rejecting pressure for ten days to order a ground assault. The troops are moving cautiously with great care to minimize Israeli casualties and to try to avoid hitting civilians.

Yet it’s a war, and casualties on both sides are expected.

It is also clear that the operation will take weeks, rather than days, and that after an initial shock Hamas commanders are pulling themselves together, regrouping and fighting back.

Militarily Hamas is not a match for the Israeli war machine. But by using rear guard and hit-and-run tactics, utilizing the elaborate labyrinth of underground tunnels built over years exactly for such a confrontation, this radical organization is a formidable foe. The head of the Israeli military’s Southern Command, General Sami Turgeman, also told the cabinet not to expect an immediate cessation of rocket launching against Israel.

All in all, it’s not going to be “stroll in the park.”  Hamas is no longer simply a terror organization. It is a quasi-military force. And war, albeit asymmetrical in nature, is still war.

[Yossi Melman is an Israeli intelligence and security commentator and co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon, inside Israel’s secret wars”. He tweets at @Yossi_Melman.]

July 19, 2014

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