Israeli forces have seized sparsely populated areas in northern and southern Gaza and by Monday morning were dug in on the edges of Gaza City, which has been isolated and surrounded.
As of this writing, Hamas is trying to draw IDF forces into the cities of Gaza, and the IDF is trying to coax Hamas combatants out into the open. While Hamas is trying to pull the IDF in, the IDF currently has the time to decide where and what to strike. It’s up to the IDF to decide which bait to take and which not.
But there is a question as to how long the forces can stay in their current static, defensive position, which leaves Hamas the initiative to bait the IDF. Once the IDF takes the initiative and attacks, it will force Hamas to “shape” its forces accordingly. The longer the IDF waits outside the cities the greater Hamas’s power in shaping the battle.
There are several ways Hamas will try baiting the IDF into the urban areas. For one, it will attempt to kidnap soldiers, which would require rescue missions. Sniper fire is another form of bait, as the sources of fire have to be taken out. At present, snipers are being killed with anti-tank rockets and helicopter fire. But once they fire from civilian buildings inside an urban setting, these methods will become tricky.
Hamas will eventually fire mortars at troop concentrations outside the cities from within built-up areas and the IDF will then have to direct fire at the source of the sniper or mortar fire, which would ideally be done by tank, artillery, or helicopter, meaning from the outside.
In short, each side is trying to “shape” the other to suit its advantages and mask its weaknesses.
Further movement into the heart of the built-up areas would mean deadly urban warfare, replete with house-to-house fighting in crowded streets and alleyways familiar to Hamas’s 20,000 fighters. Hamas has booby-trapped the streets of Gaza cities with explosives placed along routes and at the entrances to buildings.
This will be devastating for ground forces walking into that kind of area and will cause most of the IDF’s casualties. Hamas has also dug tunnels throughout the major cities and will carry out much of its fighting through them. A target seen in one building could disappear through a tunnel and appear in another building. Hamas combatants will appear and disappear through tunnels, engage on several streets and building levels, and it will seem like there are more of them than there actually are.
In a densely populated urban setting such as Gaza City, there are a lot of hiding places for snipers to shoot from; suicide bombers can come running up from everywhere and even fall onto troops from buildings. There is not much a force can do about that, except for shooting anything that moves.
Any Gazan approaching a force will be suspected of being a shooter or suicide bomber. Many members of Hamas’s military wing will not be wearing their uniforms. These two factors will make extreme prejudice on the part of the IDF very difficult.
Hamas may use stone-throwing children as shields, from behind which they’ll fire at IDF units. Past experience has shown that civilians caught in the hell of urban warfare will try to run away, which means a lot of movement on the streets and much confusion about the identity of combatants and civilians.
If the IDF is to perform what Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu calls a “root canal and not just a filling” on Hamas’s terror infrastructure, troops will have to go into the cities and take on the hardcore of Hamas’s military wing. The IDF believes it has a good chance of inflicting damage on Hamas fighters inside the cities, as the military’s training over the past two years has included testing fighting techniques – both in simulation and actual fighting – whereas Hamas fighters have not faced tough ground opposition in recent years.
Ten days of aerial bombardment have served to disrupt Hamas military coordination and the ground operation has severed Hamas military units from each other. Unlike Hizbullah, Hamas in Gaza has no territorial depth, and will find it hard to resupply its stocks of weaponry. The IDF is much better coordinated, its troops are trained in urban combat, and their marksmanship has improved radically in the past two years. The IDF has a range of aircrafts that provide ground units with tactical information as well as supporting fire.
Even though Hamas technically has superior numbers in the cities, the IDF can bring to bear a more effective fighting force. Technically, the IDF is invading Hamas territory, not occupying the Gaza Strip, so its operations there are offensive raids, whereas Hamas is playing defense. Since the aim is not to control the population of Gaza and occupy territory, IDF units can make aggressive incursions and retreat to staging areas.
This was not the case in Stalingrad, where each side was trying to take and hold territory. An occupying force needs to defend garrisons, which guerrilla fighters can attack in various ways [circa First Lebanon War].
There are two different types of urban combat: military-to-military and guerrilla. In the former, anything goes, including the use of artillery to bomb buildings, massive use of armor and indiscriminate aerial bombardment.
An example of this is the battle of Stalingrad. Gaza will not be Stalingrad. In Gaza, the IDF’s armored units will become susceptible to anti-tank rockets in the narrow streets and tight corridors, which can easily disable the slow-moving machines. Pulling men out of burning tanks and APCs becomes more difficult under a hail of bullets and RPGs. During the Second Lebanon War, units would stop their advance to rescue and evacuate wounded comrades.
The units in Gaza have been trained to first suppress the source of fire and only then deal with wounded, so as not to put more soldiers into death zones already created by the initial burst of fire. In Gaza, the IDF will mostly be using infantry without armored support. Before taking over buildings, soldiers will have to sweep them for bombs. The main goal is to minimize the amount of infantry within the streets. The IDF will try damage the enemy as much as it can “from the outside” – using suppressing fire from tanks and helicopters.
Once the troops enter dense urban spaces to carry out missions, they will be operating in an extremely sensitive environment, requiring careful command and control abilities and specific fighting techniques.
They will have to work slowly but move quickly, and be very aggressive. Both sides aim to cause the other a maximum amount of casualties. So far, the Israeli public has displayed much more sensitivity to soldiers’ deaths than Gazans have to Hamas combat dead. The commanders will have to learn their routes and know exactly which buildings they are to take.
They will need to know their environment well so that when the teams disperse nobody gets detached from the force. Most of the work for the commander is coordinating movement and fire. A company or platoon commander has to know where his soldiers are at all times and make sure there is no friendly fire, which is the most difficult part.
The problem with urban areas is that all IDF’s technological advantage will be largely nullified. Everything becomes close-quarters battle. On the streets of Gaza it is easy to be surprised by the enemy, because targets cannot be seen properly. With technology diminished, training and technique come to the fore. Effective urban guerrilla fighting comes down to movement on the streets using cover fire from several different positions, and the IDF has been training intensively for this.
A force heading towards a target will want to enter its theater of operations through several different streets, so that each part of the force can have cover fire from the other. If one force is stuck another one can outflank the enemy.
In urban fighting cover fire is of supreme importance. Every corner wall that a soldier passes he momentarily loses eye contact with the rest of his force. These are perilous seconds.
Command and control becomes key and here again the IDF has been putting a lot of emphasis in its training over the past two years. In an urban area a commander will not always be able to see the troops he is controlling. Each movement has to be extremely well coordinated to avoid friendly fire, which is also a very big concern in an urban area.
The trick is to work slowly and systematically.
Units cannot allow themselves to be drawn into traps, which is exactly what Hamas is trying to do. The forces cannot work too slowly, however, as the threat to their safety increases in proportion to the amount of time they remain in the theater of operations.