Daniel Orenstein

Are we rushing into a trap?

Kfir Brigade Soldiers Practice Urban Warfare (Photo by Pvt. Eden Briand, IDF Spokesperson's Unit, under Attribution-Non-commercial license)
Kfir Brigade Soldiers Practice Urban Warfare (Pvt. Eden Briand, IDF Spokesperson's Unit, under Attribution-Non-commercial license)

This week’s headlines have been fairly consistent: “The IDF continues pummeling Hamas targets amid preparations for a ground operation in Gaza” and that we are “completing preparations to strike Gaza ‘from air, sea and land’”.  It appears that an invasion is imminent. However, the objectives have not been fully revealed to an anxious public (e.g., me). We get vague expressions of “destroying the Hamas infrastructure,” “freeing our captive citizens”, and maybe temporarily “occupying Gaza City”. Other than that, the army spokesperson acknowledges that “urban warfare is difficult”, that Hamas has an entire underground city of tunnels and weapons stores, and that our citizens are also likely held underground. We also all know that in this densest of populated areas in the world, Hamas has no hesitation hiding behind human shields.

All of this suggest the need for a deep think regarding our next steps. While we remain furious at the slaughter of some 1,400 citizens and soldiers two weeks ago and most of us want something that fluctuates between revenge and justice, we cannot let those thoughts cloud our better judgement of the optimal response. If we are honest in our public statements, we are determined to achieve our military objectives without needless loss of life – that of our soldiers and of their civilians.

Lessons from 7.10

It is precisely with the heinous massacre in mind that we should pause before we invade Gaza. One of the earliest lessons we’ve learned is that Hamas is a much more talented and ruthless enemy than we imagined. It has strategic capacities that we completely overlooked, political will to carry its strategy out, and tactical abilities to see them through. If they were able to successfully occupy a portion of Israel, including army bases, what are their capacities to defend the Gaza Strip, where Israelis have not set foot for years? It is already known that Hamas has traps ready for our soldiers. Colonel (res.) Yigal Carmon, former anti-terrorism advisor to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, has been absolutely insistent and unwavering on this subject – Gaza is a trap for our soldiers.
Lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Our own two Lebanon Wars, and more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine teach us more about the dangers of underestimating your enemy, on the one hand, and entering a ground war on the enemy’s terrain, on the other.

Vladimir Putin expected to take over Ukraine and install a puppet government in Kiev within 10 days. He expected most Ukrainians to welcome the arrival of Russian troops. He did not expect the Ukrainians to mount a significant defense. He was wrong on all accounts, and the kilometers of burnt-out military vehicles serve as the most visceral reminder of Russia’s mistake. Ukraine had prepared for an invasion. Months and days and hours before it occurred. Further, Russia’s troops had little preparation and little knowledge of their overall objectives. Since Russia’s partially failed invasion plans, there are many other lessons to be learned about how a smaller, but determined, military face down a military powerhouse. These include a host of new, small, deadly weapons that can be operated by an individual against large targets and can be easily hidden from site (drones, shoulder-launched missiles, etc., etc.), or operating in small, highly mobile groups on foot against less nimble mechanized forces.

Lessons of our previous invasions and occupations

I do not know how we mark “successes” of the Lebanon Wars or of the Occupations of Gaza (prior to the ‘disengagement’) and the West Bank in the past, although the costs in human life have been well documented and they don’t reflect well on the potential to escape an urban ground war without terrible losses of our soldiers and their civilians. 1,200 Israeli soldiers were killed in the first Lebanon war and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon, between 1982 and 2000. Despite that war, Hezbollah was created. Due to continued provocations, Israel again attacked and entered Lebanon in 2006, leading to the deaths of 120 Israeli soldiers. Despite that incursion, Hezbollah remained and has since increased in strength (though Lebanon is in ruins). Today Hezbollah has 100,000 or more missiles facing Israel, along with what is considered the strongest non-national army in the region, if not the world.

Defending ourselves on our terms

October 7th forever changed our thinking about the possibility of co-existence (or even detente) with Hamas and Hezbollah. It is not a matter of our occupation of territories beyond our international borders. It is a matter of our existence. But however we choose to engage them must be on our terms at the time we choose. And that engagement, again, must consider minimizing casualties.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has always maintained a even-handed and sober perspective on some of the world’s most gruesome conflicts, even while maintaining a high ethical standard. In a warning-from-a-friend, based on his observations of US experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, he concludes his column on his fears of a ground war in Gaza as such:
“The counsel we Americans should offer Israel is threefold and admittedly difficult to follow. First, Israel has right on its side when it goes after its assailants. Second, urban combat has a poor record in achieving its goals — and a considerable history of horrendous casualties. Third, if your moral compass is attuned to the suffering of only one side, your compass is broken, and so is your humanity.”
The perpetrators of the massacres in Israel will be served justice. But Israel needs to proceed with confidence and the wisdom of past experiences, before the number of Israeli and Palestinian casualties skyrockets due to an ill-conceived and hastily executed urban ground war.
About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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