Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2023. © Richard Kemp
The Israel Defence Forces have been attacking Hamas in Gaza from land, sea and air for two weeks now, following a three-week air campaign. Before ground operations began, US military advisers urged the Israelis not to launch a large-scale campaign, which they believed would result in an IDF bloodbath – and be less effective than a combination of air strikes and special forces raids. The IDF rejected that advice, and moved into Gaza with a large combined arms force. And it has confounded its critics.
The IDF has exceeded even its own commanders’ expectations with the speed and the extent of Hamas’s destruction. It has encircled Gaza City and is assaulting terrorist strongholds, killing large numbers of fighters including key commanders, smashing command posts and gaining valuable intelligence, while its forces have sustained fewer casualties than anticipated.
This is highly impressive. When Hamas launched its massacre of Israelis on October 7, it knew that retribution would follow and prepared the ground in detail for exactly what is happening now. Cities are the toughest environment to fight in, especially when on the attack, with innumerable rat-runs, covered fire positions, and concealment for booby-traps, command-detonated explosive charges, snipers and ambushes. As the Russians found out last year, tanks and armoured personnel carriers are particularly vulnerable to short-range anti-armour missiles.
The vast tunnel network that Hamas has constructed beneath Gaza represents another element of extreme danger. But in a neat metaphor for its operation, the IDF is simply avoiding entering tunnels wherever possible, preferring instead to detonate or collapse them from above ground.
Just as Hamas almost certainly exceeded its own expectations in its initial assault, it probably also underestimated the ferocity of Israel’s response. Although the IDF hasn’t yet located and killed the top level terrorist commanders, there are signs that Hamas is now under enormous pressure. Rocket launches from Gaza are at the lowest level since the war began, and Hamas leaders are reportedly pleading with Hezbollah in Lebanon to mount sustained attacks to divert the IDF’s attention.
Another sign that Hamas is in trouble is its willingness to negotiate through Qatar over freeing hostages in exchange for a ceasefire. Israel has rightly resisted this idea, which would have the IDF pull back behind its borders and allow Hamas to regroup and reconstitute.
There is, however, a growing international clamour for a ceasefire, fuelled in part by increasing civilian casualty figures and accusations of war crimes. Casualty figures are supplied only by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, which makes no distinction between terrorists and civilians.
The IDF is also operating within the laws of armed conflict, doing its best to minimise civilian casualties, including by warning people to leave areas it is about to attack. Since this war began, it has dropped 1.5 million flyers, sent six million voice messages, 4 million text messages – and made phone calls on top of all that. Despite these efforts, many civilians have died in Gaza. This is tragic, but unavoidable when Hamas hides within civilian populations, often forcing them to remain in areas that are to be attacked.
While political leaders such as Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak have so far consistently resisted calls for Israel to cease fire, they constantly say that Israel must observe the laws of war and minimise civilian casualties. They know that is exactly what the IDF is doing, and their words amount to posturing to appease elements of their electorates that oppose support for Israel. They should know better than to provide cover for Hamas and its supporters in this way.
Picture: Wikimedia Commons