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Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip after the Israeli army issued an evacuation warning to a population of over 1 million in northern Gaza and Gaza City to seek refuge in the south ahead of a possible Israeli ground invasion. Image Credit: AP

Washington: Israeli soldiers preparing for a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip will face a hellish thicket of tightly packed buildings, mines and tunnels while hunting Hamas militants who blend in among civilians, a precarious situation that could cause immense human suffering and draw other countries into the war, said US officials and analysts familiar with the conflict.

The operation is expected to be the Israel Defense Forces’ most significant in years, pitting them against Hamas, the Gaza-based militant group that carried out an unprecedented massacre in Israel beginning October 7 in which more than 1,400 people were killed and up to 150 were taken captive. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that “every Hamas fighter” will be “destroyed,” while the Israeli government has urged civilians in Gaza to evacuate Gaza City.

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Officials across the region are bracing for a broad assault on a heavily populated area that could last for weeks, kill thousands of people and destroy entire neighborhoods. On Sunday, Palestinian officials said more than 2,750 people had been killed in Gaza since the fighting began.

“I think they’re going to go back in, heavy, and it’s going to be a bloodbath for everybody,” said Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., a retired Marine Corps general who served as the chief of US Central Command until last year. He predicted that the violence will be “dragged out over a much longer period of time” than the Hamas attack, with the Israelis getting bogged down in the messy unpredictability of urban warfare.

The IDF has experience with operations in Gaza, a 140-square-mile enclave on the southwest corner of Israel that borders the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. Limited ground offensives in 2014 and 2009 were designed to punish and degrade Hamas, but the scope and scale of the recent atrocities - including an assault by gunmen on a music festival that killed at least 260 and the killing of children and elderly people - have prompted Israeli cries for an invasion that would “end” the militant group.

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Flyers dropped by Israeli military over Gaza. Image Credit: AFP

‘Integrated and coordinated attack’

Israeli officials have broadcast their intentions for days, dropping leaflets over Gaza City that instruct civilians to flee south and not return until further notice. More than half the population of more than 2 million has been directed to evacuate, drawing alarm from humanitarian groups and the United Nations, which said doing so will be “impossible” for many. IDF officials said on Saturday that they would soon launch an “integrated and coordinated attack” by land, air and sea, and accused Hamas of blocking civilians from departing northern Gaza.

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Gian Gentile, a retired Army colonel and military historian with the Rand Corporation said that the scope of Israel’s offensive is “obviously going to be much larger” now than operations in recent years, and will come with challenges that the United States was able to avoid in some of its most intense urban combat, such as the November 2004 assault on Fallujah, Iraq. While that city of 250,000 people was isolated in a desert and most civilians left before the US offensive began, it will be more difficult for civilians to flee this time, Gentile said.

Israel’s offensive will benefit from having a well-trained force that relies on military technology second only to the United States, said Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University.

‘Drones and dog fights’

But Hoffman also said that the challenges that Israeli soldiers will find in Gaza will be “exponentially greater” than what US troops faced in Fallujah. Hamas officials have claimed multiyear preparation and planning for their attack on Israel, he noted, and probably expected that the IDF would respond with a ground invasion. Both sides are likely to use drones, he said, possibly resulting in “dog fights” between them with parallels to how crewed aircraft were used in earlier wars.

Hoffman said it has become conventional wisdom that there is no military solution to countering terrorism.

But he cited as a counterexample a campaign waged against the Tamil Tigers, a militant group that, for decades, launched suicide attacks on officials and civilians in India and Sri Lanka. It was eventually wiped out in 2009, after a brutal military offensive by Sri Lankan government forces into territory the Tamil Tigers controlled. A UN panel later found that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the process, most from shelling by Sri Lankan forces.

“God forbid that that sort of carnage unfolds today,” Hoffman said. “But, if you’re determined to destroy a terrorist organisation, you can. There’s a ruthlessness that goes with it.”

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Image Credit: AFP

Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and co-founder of the Lobo Institute, said that the IDF has superior troops, weapons and equipment to those of Hamas. But Hamas, he said, has “become very efficient” at fighting in urban terrain and has probably prepared for Israeli forces.

“In order to clear buildings, basements and the extensive network of tunnels, they will have to dismount their infantry and essentially fight soldier-on-soldier and block-by-block in the built-up areas,” Mulroy said. “Special operations forces may be leaping ahead in surgical strikes to take out Hamas leadership and recover hostages.”

Cutting the territory in two

Mulroy, who served in both the Marine Corps and CIA, said that the IDF is likely gathering intelligence now as it plans the ground offensive and using airstrikes to shape the battlefield to Israeli forces’ advantage. He predicted that the main assault force will come from Israel through the Erez crossing into Gaza, at the far northern end of the strip, and that it will include battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. The IDF also may attempt to punch into Gaza from the east, effectively cutting the territory in two and limiting Hamas’s ability to move fighters and equipment, he said.

In an assessment of Israel’s last ground operation in Gaza, in 2014, a task force comprising several retired US military officials found that Hamas sought to provoke “collateral damage” — civilian deaths in legal military operations — and then distort facts about them “to undermine Israel’s international legitimacy.”

The assessment, published by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, found that Hamas deployed “a different and more dangerous concept of operations than the United States . . . encountered” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and portrayed Israeli military operations “as indiscriminate and disproportional,” despite their being “lawful, defensive responses to aggression.”

Endgame unclear

But while the tactics of the offensive operation are coming into view, the endgame is unclear.

Blaise Misztal, vice-president for policy at JINSA, said one consideration for Israeli officials is how to extricate the IDF from Gaza after Israeli officials believe they have achieved their goals. Israel has not had a permanent presence within Gaza since 2005, when the government of Ariel Sharon withdrew the IDF, believing that an occupation there wasn’t sustainable.

“They didn’t want to go into Gaza again. They didn’t want to occupy it. They didn’t want to be responsible for administrating it,” Misztal said. “But now what are they going to do, if they have this much more maximalist objective?”

A senior US defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said on Thursday that the Biden administration does not plan to put additional US forces on the ground in Israel “at this time” — but did not rule out that deployments could occur if the conflict widens. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement on Saturday that he was deploying the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean, joining the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier group in a rare concentration of US military power.

A small number of US troops are assigned to the US Embassy in Israel and have been advising Israeli officials.

Austin, speaking on Friday during a visit to Israel, warned other potential belligerents to stay out of the fight. He drew a distinction between the tactics that Hamas used and how Israel can prosecute its ground offensive.

“Terrorists like Hamas deliberately target civilians, but democracies don’t,” Austin said. “This is a time for resolve and not revenge, for purpose and not panic, and for security and not surrender.”

But Israel’s recent rhetoric raises the possibility of mass killing in the ground offensive, said Yousef Munayyer, a senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC. The Israeli operation, he said, could bring not only devastation to Gaza, but spiral into a regional conflict that ensnares the United States.

“It’s hard to see how other players do not get involved. And then all hell breaks loose,” Munayyer said, noting that Hamas would welcome other militant groups and Arab countries joining the fight.

“Every day that goes by, it becomes harder and harder to control the outcomes and the implications,” he said. “I feel like we are sleepwalking into a situation that, generations from now, people will say, ‘What are we doing?’”