Gaza is experiencing “modern war”: when civilian casualties and ruins are desired

What threatens to reduce Gaza City to ruins is a “modern” war, say US experts. 90 percent of the victims in such urban conflicts are civilians, and Gaza is also facing this. In urban hand-to-hand combat, the Israeli armed forces are challenged like never before.

The facade of the house was torn apart by an explosion. The three soldiers work their way inside over mountains of rubble, crouching slightly. Opposite: multi-story apartment blocks, no more glass windows, just holes in the concrete. The men don’t know from which hole a terrorist could open fire against them. A side wall is still standing, protecting it to the left. There is a tank on the right, no protection possible from the front. The front soldier breaks away from the wall and shoots.

A moment of struggle, somewhere in Gaza City, the video is circulating in messenger groups. Accordingly, the soldiers belong to the 7th Armored Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The half-torn house from which they are firing is a Hamas government building that has been taken over by Israeli troops.

It is the first time in nine years that the IDF has pushed its way through Gaza’s urban canyons. The scale of the current operation far dwarfs that of 2014. After the extreme violence on October 7th, it was clear: this attack would mark a turning point for Israel. The previous policy of weakening the terrorist group through limited military operations every few years and curbing its capabilities – history. The Israelis had to find a new answer to Hamas’ fury, and the extent of the humiliation meant they could only do one thing: wipe it out.

At the end of the war, “of course there will still be Hamas members alive, and perhaps they will continue to live with their idea,” said Israeli security adviser Jakoov Amidror a few days after the attack. But Hamas will no longer have a military apparatus and no ability to attack Israel. “It will no longer exist as a military organization.”

This goal is far from being in sight and can only be achieved through a bloody urban war, into which Israel has thrown itself into with the ground offensive. If you believe John Spencer, a US security expert at West Point Military Academy who specializes in urban warfare, then it is the face of modern war as the world has seen it several times in the last 20 years – in Raqqa, Syria, or in Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq .

What these wars have in common is that they were fought among the civilian population. “90 percent of the victims of modern wars are not soldiers, but civilians,” says Spencer in his “Urban Warfare Project Podcast.” Their scenes become ruins. And nothing suggests to him that things will be any different in Gaza. The dimensions of this challenge are only just beginning to unfold.

A city beneath the city

A success like the Israeli “capture” of buildings mentioned at the beginning – just a snapshot in the Gaza Strip. The extensive tunnel system underground, called the “Gaza Metro”, offers terrorists the opportunity to move unnoticed between different fighting positions, quickly, criss-cross. They can also rise to the surface again where the Israelis have already driven the enemy away and have advanced further; open fire behind the soldiers.

Gaza is a city under which another city exists underground – that’s how military experts describe it. Where the enemy has created an infrastructure up to 40 meters deep in which fighters can stay permanently. In many places it has “power generators, ventilation systems, water pipes and food supplies,” Spencer describes in an essay. In his assessment, the tunnels are the crucial element of Hamas’ guerrilla warfare strategy.

Therefore, the Israeli advance in Gaza City is never just about attacking the enemy, finding ambushes or digging up weapons caches. In Gaza, the IDF essentially has to turn over every stone that might hide an entrance to the tunnel network. In videos, soldiers present access hatches in school basements, under bushes on the side of the road, and a few days ago a child’s bed in a private house that had been moved away exposed a meter-deep shaft.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers approach an exposed entrance to the Hamas tunnel system.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers approach an exposed entrance to the Hamas tunnel system.

(Photo: via REUTERS)

And once the tunnel entrance has been located, the even more difficult task arises: What do you do with it? Most military navigation and communication devices are no longer used underground, as are conventional night vision goggles. The IDF has special equipment, but not in such large numbers as it suddenly needs. In some shafts you can hardly breathe, and firing a weapon in the corridors, which are often only one meter wide and two meters high, is a risky undertaking. “A single defender,” Spencer summarizes, “can hold a narrow tunnel against a vastly superior force.”

At first glance, the brute force method seems to be recommended, for which Israel’s army has ground-penetrating ammunition at its disposal or can seal tunnels with a bulldozer. But for the first time, the troops have to weigh the effect of these tactics against the risk that they could endanger the lives of their compatriots who have been kidnapped as hostages. This prohibits a generalized approach and makes it necessary to make new decisions in each case.

Above ground, the situation is hardly less complicated and dangerous: Hamas is now also operating drones to investigate or attack. The example of the Ukraine War clearly shows how strongly the use of drones can influence the situation on the battlefield, where neither side currently seems to be able to attack its opponent in a moment of surprise. This shortcoming is more relevant for Israel’s troops than for Hamas, which can carry out surprise attacks from its tunnels.

The weapons are always in the right position

The essential advance with heavy tanks and protected vehicles poses a further risk in the narrow urban complex. What’s missing is the ability to attack targets from a safe distance. Instead, the mechanized units themselves can be targeted from all sides. Modern anti-tank weapons are portable and therefore ideal for quickly transporting them through the tunnels and positioning them in the most favorable position immediately before an attack.

In the past, Hamas was known for even digging water pipes out of the ground in order to make improvised rockets with limited resources. But it now has an impressive arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons. The terrorist group already showed this in 2014.

That operation lasted fifty days; according to Spencer, Hamas defended itself “with rockets, mortars, anti-tank missiles, tank grenades, machine guns and small arms, mainly deployed from protected bases.” This means that the terrorists can use the difficult urban environment as defenders much better for themselves than the attacking Israelis. It is not without reason that, in the opinion of many experts, the superiority in combat power necessary for a successful attack in open areas increases from 3:1 in urban environments to 10:1. The invading force must be able to muster ten times more strength in order to defeat the defenders who are entrenching themselves in the city.

And the last experiences that IDF soldiers had with urban warfare were almost 20 years ago. In 2005 there was a major operation in Gaza City, while in 2014 it was limited to the outskirts. Military historian Jacob Stoil believes that what the troops were able to learn from this for their current mission was limited. Reservists who fought in 2005 are more interesting.

The problem is that veterans who served in special forces 20 years ago lack the necessary equipment to venture into urban combat again. While around half of the Israeli reservists were previously fully equipped, equipment for more than 100 percent is now needed at very short notice. According to Stoil, who teaches at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies and has frequently analyzed the wars in Gaza, it is the largest and fastest mobilization in the last 50 years.

All this against the background that Israel is under enormous time pressure and that in this war – to a much greater extent than in other conflicts – the clock is ticking. It measures how long the Israelis will still have their partners behind them, with public attitudes but, more importantly, with military support. That clock is ticking in Washington. “The USA is the determining factor in most operations for Israel,” says Stoil in the “Modern Warfare Podcast”. In 2005, too, the central question for planning the offensive was: How much time is left until the USA stops the clock? The same question is being asked now, and with every attack on a Palestinian hospital, with every child’s body recovered from the rubble, the clock moves faster.

At the same time, Hamas’ inhumane strategy of hiding its weapons, fighters and command centers under clinics and schools means that Israel does not make quick decisions. According to Stoil, Hamas has designed almost all of its civilian construction projects in recent years as dual-use buildings, already planned with the aim of incorporating military infrastructure. “Hamas has designed its defense strategy to maximize the number of civilian victims and the suffering of the population,” says the expert.

The IDF is now trying to deal with this mortgage. While they had legal advisors on duty at a higher level in 2014, as usual, Stoil observes that the question of compliance with international law is much more important in 2023: “Legal advisors are now involved at a tactical level, on the ground, to ensure that any action is taken in accordance the law of war – in terms of proportionality, necessity, differentiation” between military and civil.

Taking time to legally secure one’s own actions, while at the same time making enormous haste so as not to lose international support – the contradictory challenges of this Israeli war have been brought to the extreme. In addition, a battlefield full of human shields, 240 kidnapped compatriots hidden somewhere and a hidden second city of the enemy under the battlefield. Each of these challenges can be handled by a strong army like Israel’s. “But here it’s the sum that counts,” says Stoil, and how everything is connected to everything else. “The effect of the individual factors increases exponentially.”

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