Monday, February 26, 2024

Israel’s new plan to encircle Hamas

Sunrise brought a bit more clarity. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had indeed entered Gaza from two points: around Beit Hanoun, a town in the north, and Bureij, near the narrow midpoint of the 45km-long strip. Relentless air strikes and artillery had provided cover for dozens of tanks and other armoured vehicles carrying infantry and combat-engineering troops.

The incursion seemed bigger than the raids of the previous two nights, which were small and lasted only a few hours before troops returned to Israeli territory. This time they remained inside and established temporary strongholds within Gaza’s borders. Still, it was hardly the division-sized attack that the Israeli army had been signalling for the past few weeks, since Hamas murdered more than 1,400 Israelis (mostly civilians) on October 7th.

In interviews over the past several days, IDF officials said the aims of the war remain unchanged: to isolate and destroy Hamas’s military infrastructure, particularly its network of underground tunnels, and to remove it from control of Gaza’s government. But the army’s tactics are not what they were assumed to be in the days after the massacre. The two locations where Israel entered on October 27th—north and south of Gaza city, the enclave’s largest urban area—suggest a gradual plan to encircle it. One senior officer describes the ground offensive as a campaign that will take months, perhaps a year.

Some Israeli politicians have begun to argue that a big ground offensive would play into Hamas’s hands, drawing the IDF into urban fighting for which Hamas has surely prepared ambushes and booby traps. It would also cause significant civilian deaths and damage to infrastructure in Gaza, which would create international pressure for a ceasefire. Israeli strikes have already killed more than 7,000 Palestinians in the enclave, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. “I don’t want us to get bogged down there without achieving our goal of dismantling Hamas,” says Naftali Bennett, who served a one-year stint as prime minister until June 2022.

A slower campaign would rely, in effect, on siege tactics. Hamas has stockpiled fuel, food and other essentials in its labyrinth of tunnels. At some point, though, supplies will run out: a lack of fuel for generators would mean no fresh air or lights underground, which would force Hamas to surface. “Hamas doesn’t expect this at all. It expects a ground invasion for three to six weeks,” Mr Bennett argues.

Israel’s tactics are constrained already by the more than 220 hostages abducted on October 7th by Hamas and other factions. Their families have put pressure on the Israeli government to prioritise their release. So have foreign governments: at least 41 countries have citizens in captivity (around a quarter of the hostages are thought to be migrant farm workers from Thailand). Hamas has released just four women thus far. There are ongoing talks, mostly via Qatar, the Gulf state which is one of Hamas’s patrons, to free more.

One Israeli official says the limited size of the ground campaign is an effort to balance competing priorities: to show that Israel is prepared to attack, while leaving room for a hostage deal. Still, even the incursion on October 27th was enough to anger the families. They called it “the worst of all nights” in a statement the next morning, which bemoaned the “complete uncertainty regarding the fate of the abductees who are being held there and are also subject to the heavy bombardment”.

The presence of so many Palestinian civilians is another constraint. On October 13th the IDF told the residents of northern Gaza, more than 1m people, to flee south. Around two-thirds of the civilian population is thought to have heeded that order—which still leaves a vast number of people in the area Israel is encircling. The mobile-phone outage during the October 27th bombardment made it impossible to call ambulances. Witnesses in Gaza say people brought the dead and wounded to hospitals on tuk-tuks.

Even in the “safe” zone, conditions are intolerable. Israel has continued air strikes in the south (though they are less intense than those in the north). It has not allowed any supplies to enter Gaza via its border. Aid began to trickle across from Egypt on October 21st, after Israel lifted a veto on the deliveries, but it is woefully inadequate. Just 84 lorries of food, water and medicine have entered in the past week; the United Nations says 100 lorries a day are needed.

Israel still refuses to allow fuel into Gaza. The IDF said this week that Hamas’s underground headquarters is located beneath Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest, and that the same generators which provide electricity for medical treatment also power ventilation systems and communication networks in the tunnels below (Hamas denies these claims). For Israel, then, the blockade on fuel is a military necessity.

For civilians, though, it is a source of growing misery. Gaza’s sole power station shut down on October 11th. Overcrowded hospitals rely on generators for electricity (several have run out of fuel). There are hours-long queues for meagre supplies of bread at the few bakeries that still have fuel for their ovens. Israeli politicians insist they will not send any aid to Gaza until all of the hostages are freed. Army officials have begun to acknowledge this position is untenable, saying a prolonged war will require them to oversee a humanitarian effort.

On October 27th the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution that called for an immediate “humanitarian truce”. The vote was 120-14, with 45 abstentions. America, which rejects any talk of a ceasefire, was one of the “no” votes. “We’re not drawing red lines for Israel,” said John Kirby, a White House spokesman, on October 27th. Still, it has started pushing Israel for “humanitarian pauses”, temporary lulls that would allow more aid to enter and let people with foreign citizenship leave Gaza through Egypt. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, has also endorsed the idea.

Army officials also hope a more gradual war will keep other fronts quiet. Iran continues to make threats—and not only to Israel. “If the US continues what it has been doing so far, then new fronts will be opened up against the US,” said Hossein Amirabdollahian, the foreign minister, in an interview with Bloomberg on October 27th. Iranian-backed militias have already carried out at least 19 drone or missile attacks against American bases in Syria and Iraq. On October 26th the Pentagon said it had conducted retaliatory air strikes against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria.

None of this is unusual, however. Those militias have been attacking American bases for years, although such attacks had subsided since March with an undeclared truce linked to prisoner-swap talks between America and Iran. The events of the past few weeks are a reversion to the norm, in other words, not a major escalation.

Worries about a second front in northern Israel have also subsided. In the days after the Hamas attack Israel called up 360,000 reservists, many of whom were sent to reinforce the border with Lebanon amid fears of a similar assault by Hizbullah, the Shia militant group and political party. Though tensions remain high, Israel believes Hizbullah and Iran, its patron, are wary of broadening the conflict. Both Israeli and Arab officials say Hizbullah has suffered more casualties than expected—it admits around 50 of its militants have been killed so far—and may be reassessing its tactics. The Israeli army may consider sending home some of its reservists, whose mobilisation is a heavy burden on the economy.

A slower war, coupled with a serious effort to provide humanitarian aid, could ease some of the pressure on Israel. But it would not solve the strategic dilemma of how to uproot Hamas or what to replace it with—questions which Israeli officials admit they have yet to answer. And it is little comfort to civilians in Gaza, who would be fated to endure months of displacement and despair.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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