The first hours of Israel’s Operation Defensive Edge ground phase against Hamas were marked by heavy artillery and air pounding to soften up the terrain as the ground forces went in Thursday night, July 17. The troops advanced in two heads – one north to Jebalya and Beit Lahiya and the other south, where it went into action initially against Khan Younes and Rafah. The IDF took its first casualty before dawn Friday: Sgt. Eytan Barak, 20, from Herzliya, who served in the Nahal Division.
In its current phase, the IDF ground operation is focusing on southern Gaza, with the potential for expanding into further areas, as and when the government decides, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told the special cabinet session Friday.
The densely populated Gaza City has not been broached as yet.
DEBKAfile’s military experts maintain that the first 48 hours of a war are often critical for determining its outcome. If a tactical gain is not achieved early on and a psychological blow not inflicted on the enemy, the operation tends to start losing traction by the third and fourth days.
That is why it is so important to hit the teeming Gaza City without delay, because Hamas has buried its core infrastructure under the crowded town center: Housed in a fortified bunker complex are its command and control, its communications systems and its longest-range weapons, which are held ready to strike after an Israeli invasion.
Bringing a small special operations force close enough to the Hamas stronghold would be useful for making the enemy feel threatened. But most importantly, it could gather the kind of intelligence which spy satellites and the air force were unable to reach. A small ground force trained in surveillance could pull this data from a point 200-300 meters away from target.
So the IDF has not yet applied the full weight of its might against Hamas. The troop movements in the early hours of the ground operation appeared designed more as a signal to Hamas that the incursion would stop right there, if it accepted a ceasefire on Egyptian and Israeli terms.
This sort of tactic, which was evidently dictated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, has never worked with Hamas. It has been useful to Israel diplomatically for heading off international and domestic critics, who routinely accuse Israel of the reckless use of its military might.
But for a military offensive, this careful pace will cost the IDF the gains for shortening the war and allow the initiative to slip into the hands of Hamas, which has displayed surprising capabilities.
Both of its commando operations by sea and tunnel went awry. Israel soldiers were waiting and cut them down. The drones they sent were downed by the Israeli Air Force. The hundreds of rockets they fired, as far east as the Jordan Valley and north up Haifa and Nahariya, missed inflicting on Israel major damage or fatalities.
At the same time, the IDF in the first 10 days of Operation Defensive Edge, cannot be said to have pulled off any significant feats or snatched the initiative by means of its air strikes.
Hamas leaders, whom Israel expected to be deterred from continuing their offensive by the sight of the colossal damage caused to the towns of Gaza, misread them. Hamas couldn’t care less about damage to buildings. A check of $25 m from Iran or Qatar would be enough to restore all those buildings in less than a year.
For the Islamists, devastation, fatalities and the ruined lives of so many Palestinians are a cheap price to pay for the satisfaction of showing they can stand up to Israel’s armed forces, day after day, like the Lebanese Hizballah in the second Lebanon War of 2006.
The same misreading applies to Israeli tacticians’ hopes that a slow-moving military campaign will give Hamas time to come to its senses and grasp that its aggression has achieved no more than to bring the IDF down on its head on its own soil, and that intransigence will bring full Israeli might into the heart of Gaza City.
Hamas also misread Israel, when it calculated that the IDF would never send troops into the Gaza Strip. Now, too, the leaders of this radical Palestinian group are counting on Israeli forces not venturing into the densely-populated urban center of Gaza City to beard them in their bunkers and destroy their military machine. If they have got it right, they will have won.