Alex Selsky, senior advisor to the Middle East Forum's (MEF's) Israel Victory Project and an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reservist, joined Benjamin Baird, director of MEF Action and a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, on an October 23 Middle East Forum Webinar (video). The following is a summary of their comments:
Selsky, currently serving as a briefing officer for the IDF's Home Front Command, instructs the Israeli public on protective measures via the media as rockets from Israel's enemies continue raining down on civilians, schools, and cities. In the two weeks since Hamas massacred more than fourteen hundred people in southern Israel on October 7th, an Israeli society traumatized by the pogrom has drawn together. A poll commissioned by MEF with the Israel Victory Project found that a majority of Israelis support the staging of three hundred thousand-plus soldiers and reservists for the ground counter-offensive into Gaza to eradicate Hamas.
A possible reason for the delay in the ground war is to give more time to exhaust diplomatic channels attempting to free the two hundred-plus captives taken hostage by Hamas and held in Gaza. The IDF has warned Gazan civilians to move south as the Israel Air Force (IAF) targets Hamas strongholds in northern Gaza.
For now, Arab residents within Israel are quiet, opting not to participate in the unrest. Western European leaders have joined the Biden administration in supporting Israel as Israel's northern border is tested by Hezbollah attacks threatening to open a second front. There is speculation that Iran is reluctant to risk the transformation of Lebanon from its current status as a failed state to "non-existence" in light of the destruction the country suffered in 2006 after Hezbollah instigated a war against Israel.
Baird's familiarity with fighting ground wars in urban operations in the Middle East offers insights into the potential threats awaiting IDF ground troops. The complex conditions unique to Gaza differ from those U.S. troops encountered during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Gaza City, a "dense urban environment" extending over approximately twenty square miles, hosts thirty thousand Hamas fighters equipped by foreign militaries and trained into a "very advanced paramilitary fighting force." Jihadist weaponry used against the IDF is the "standard issue AK-47 and RPG," but it also includes "very advanced anti-armor weaponry," anti-personnel and anti-armor mines as well as "quadcopter drones."
Hamas's "command and control hub" is housed in approximately three hundred miles of tunnels below Gaza's surface. Soldiers tasked with clearing a fortified tunnel network cite the challenge of being caught in a "fatal funnel," a "choke point" where they are most vulnerable and exposed without "cover or concealment."
Above-ground, high-rise buildings in central Gaza pose a "tactical threat" to the IDF. As the high ground affords the enemy a strategic advantage, IAF airstrikes have reduced many of them to rubble. Air power has degraded many such buildings from which Hamas fires rockets, which are intentionally located and stored in or next to "schools, hospitals, and kindergartens." One of the side benefits for Hamas of locating launchers next to civilian infrastructure is that targeted strikes of these launchers can generate collateral damage, which hands the terrorists a propaganda win.
The battlefield itself will pose the threat of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), some of which can penetrate armor. "Explosively formed penetrators" can go through even the thickest tank armor, and smaller anti-personnel mines will be hidden among the ruins to kill troops. In Iraq, IED's would be planted to trap U.S soldiers on foot patrol. The enemy placed IEDs to anticipate soldiers' reactions to being ambushed with small arms fire. Troops trained to "react to contact" by maneuvering from "a file" or "a wedge formation" to a standard defensive fighting formation often triggered mines, wounding and killing soldiers. Soldiers adapted to the threat by using minesweepers, which incorporate "de-mining technology."
One approach would be to "separate Gaza into different small sectors of five square miles each," with captured Hamas terrorists held in even smaller "strategic zones." Blocking positions, set up at great distances to mitigate the risk of friendly fire, would contain "inner cordons" to stop the enemy from fleeing, with "larger outer cordons" keeping the terrorists from reaching and supporting their fellow combatants.
The advance into Gaza will likely originate from the north to permit increased freedom of movement for tanks and armored personnel carriers. Overall, the complex logistics of the mission require "a deliberate, highly choreographed operation."
Once the objective of defeating the "military and governing capabilities" of the terror group is achieved, the formidable challenge will be to "take and hold key infrastructures." Protecting the next entity replacing Hamas could well involve "walling off parts of the city and creating elaborate traffic control points." Any transitional government in place will need to be safeguarded from the formation of a "protracted insurgency."
Hamas's weapons could well have been obtained from "Iraqi or Syrian theaters." Possible purchases from U.S. allied countries, such as Qatar, that use NATO weaponry and are willing to "pass it on" to terrorists in Gaza could be another source.
Israel's dilemma in a ground counter-offensive is balancing the risk to the hostages with the necessity of restoring deterrence. It is a balance fraught with immense challenges for a small country that places such a high value on the life of each Jew. That prior to Israel's establishment, "for two thousand years we've been living, not in a state, but in small communities," explains the connections felt by Israelis: it is a nation comprised of "families and communities." This is why Hamas's brutality shocked Israel at such a deep and personally existential level. The obscenity of Hamas's carnage on defenseless Israeli civilians is a clarion call to every one of its soldiers and citizens to "do what it has to do, and only based on our interests."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.