Hanging by a thread: Israel and the West are underestimating a deep crisis

Photo of the “Lochnagar Crater” taken by drone. The Lochnagar mine south of the village of La Boisselle in the Somme département was an underground explosive charge, secretly planted by the British during the First World War, to be ready for 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Wikimedia Commons / Erwann Nvx / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Photo of the “Lochnagar Crater” taken by drone. The Lochnagar mine south of the village of La Boisselle in the Somme département was an underground explosive charge, secretly planted by the British during the First World War, to be ready for 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. (Wikimedia Commons / Erwann Nvx / CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the first month of Israel’s war draws to a conclusion, Israel’s terrorist enemy is, at last, feeling the weight of Israel’s far superior military strength. The loss of 12 ‘battalion commanders’ by Hamas is one indicator of the difficulties it is now encountering. The fact that no foreign nationals have been allowed to leave Gaza today is, perhaps, an even stronger one. Nonetheless, Israel’s strategic security, and that of the West, is hanging by a thread.

The first reason why both Israel and the West face deep strategic problems is that the specific operation that the IDF is currently conducting in Gaza is limited in scope, and largely focused on storming Gaza city from the east and west. As can easily be seen on any map, for example that provided by ABC, Gaza city constitutes approximately a third of the total area of the Gaza strip. Necessarily, this means that Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to function in the rest of Gaza, and are not confronted with the prospect of an imminent IDF ground attack.

If Israel does not extend the offensive into the rest of the Gaza strip, and simply withdraws once Gaza city has been taken, Hamas will reconstitute within a couple of years. It barely needs to be written that this would constitute strategic disaster for Israel. It would also be a disaster for the West, because Israel, for all the IDF’s many flaws, is more capable of defending itself than almost any other Western or Western-allied country. Israel spends about 4.5% of its GDP on defence, whereas America manages to allocate just 3.49% to the same purpose. Germany’s spending, at a mere 1.57% of GDP, would be laughable, were it not so dangerously low. An Israeli failure would certainly lead the West’s enemies to think that many other Western countries, whose militaries are worse-funded, are vulnerable. An already fragile worldwide security situation would rapidly deteriorate. Much more than just Israel’s security depends on the IDF achieving victory.

Extending the operation, and achieving the needed victory, will not be easy. At the time of writing, CNN’s chosen headline for its live updates page ends with “outcry grows over Gaza crisis”, while the second half of NBC’s reads “U.N. condemns ambulance strikes”. CNN acknowledges that the Gaza health ministry, like everything else in Gaza, is run by Hamas, yet nonetheless gives space to the statement by that health ministry that the ambulance struck by the IDF was not being used by Hamas. NBC carries the U.N. Secretary General’s statement that he is “horrified by the reported attack”. At a minimum, this approach de-emphasises Israel’s version of events, that the ambulance was being used by Hamas and terrorists were killed in it. At maximum, CNN and NBC are implicitly accusing Israel of committing a war crime.

Such coverage has significant influence on American politics. Of the enormous sum of $8.9 billion spent on political advertising prior to the U.S. midterm elections a year ago, $1.7 billion went to cable TV, like CNN, and another $4.7 billion went to broadcasts television channels, like NBC. American politicians pay a great deal to carry their messages on these channels, and they pay attention to the way in which these channels cover the news.

The increasing media pressure suggests that Israel will be continually challenged to curtail its operations. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant’s view, expressed as recently as 22 October, that the IDF ground operation will take “a month, two months, three,” does not sufficiently account for the fact that media, and hence political, pressure on Israel will continue to rise. As of the time of this writing, the ground operation, which began on 27 October, has lasted slightly longer than a week. This has been enough time for Politico to report that “[House] Democrats are preliminarily discussing measures to penalize Israel should it not change course”.

Israel will quite simply not survive if it does not learn to resist, and actively counteract, external pressure. In the current case, the ground offensive into Gaza, Israel must emphasise relentlessly and very loudly that the survival of Hamas is not compatible with the survival of Israel, so the war will continue no matter how much political and diplomatic force other countries might try to exert on Israel. Unless the Israeli government does this, Hamas may well live to fight another day, with catastrophic consequences for Israel in the near future.

Even taking aside the question of outside pressure, it is far from obvious that Israel’s economy and society can withstand a long war. In 2014, Operation Protective Edge, the longest of Israel’s many operations in Gaza, lasted 50 days from 8 July to 26 August. Towards the end of this operation, Israeli commentators were complaining that the country was “being dragged into a war of attrition” and that the alternative, a ground operation to destroy Hamas, would “result in widespread destruction, damage to Israel’s international standing, and a lack of certainty concerning would ultimately take control of the Gaza Strip”. Now, after the enormous losses Israel has already suffered as a result having allowed Hamas to continue to exist, those considerations have receded far into the background, but this does not mean that Israel is substantively prepared for a long war.

The most prominent of many problems affecting Israel’s ability to sustain a long war is the scale of government expenditure involved. Yogev Gradus, director general of the Finance Ministry’s budget department has already warned of dramatic economic consequences, and estimated the current war-related additional defence expenditures, after less than a month of combat, as more than 20 billion shekels ($5 billion, at the current exchange rate). This represents almost a third of the planned defence spending for all of 2023, 64 billion shekels ($16 billion), and more than 4% of the total national budget, 484 billion shekels ($123 billion).

Apart from miliary spending, there are demands from 300 economists for additional large expenditures on civilian reconstruction and economic recovery, amounting to tens of billions of shekels. The worst-case market prediction for next year’s budget deficit has already reached 8%. American aid, which will partly mitigate the fiscal crisis, is currently intended to amount to $14.3 billion (56 billion shekels). This would, on the one hand, almost double Israel’s previously planned annual defence budget, but on the other hand would cover less than three months of accelerated defence spending, as estimated by Mr. Gradus, to say nothing of non-military expenditures.

Israel needs not just to win in Gaza, but to win as rapidly as is feasible. This will be far from easy. So far, 28 soldiers have been killed in Gaza, and simply extending and intensifying the ground operation in its current form will lead to many more casualties. Better methods must be found, particularly to solve the most important challenge, that of Hamas tunnels, which allow the terrorists to launch surprise attacks on Israeli forces in Gaza. The IDF’s current primary approach to destroying these involves planting explosives inside the tunnels after they have been discovered.

Both distant and recent history suggest two better approaches are feasible. The first of these is undermining, planting explosives underground and detonating them to collapse targets above and around the mined location. The Spanish military engineer Pedro Navarro, count of Oliveto, was successfully digging tunnels and destroying enemy fortifications with gunpowder mines placed in the tunnels as far back as 1503, five centuries ago. By 7 June 1917, more than 106 years ago, engineering troops of the British Empire refined such techniques to simultaneously detonate 19 mines, with a total of more than 450 tonnes of ammonal and nitrocellulose explosive between them, against German positions on Messines Ridge in Belgium during the First World War. The German defences on the ridge imploded, and thousands of prisoners were taken.

In the present day, much more powerful explosives than ammonal are readily available, for example composition H-6, a mixture of RDX, TNT and powdered aluminium used in American-made aircraft bombs. The mining industry has extensive experience in using the less powerful ANFO (Ammonium nitrate – fuel oil) for underground mining and quarrying. Powerful underground explosions, carefully designed to produce most of their explosive energy in a particular direction, will not only collapse Hamas tunnels over a considerable distance, but incapacitate significant numbers of survivors by the explosive shockwave which will pass through the tunnels.

A second method is simpler. In 2015, Egypt pumped sea water from the Mediterranean into the tunnels on its border with Gaza, flooding many of them. This approach is most easily employed within a short distance of the shore, so is of limited relevance to destroying those tunnels which are a considerable distance from the sea, and is not fully effective. Jeff Goodson of RealClear Defense, who proposed flooding the tunnels three days ago, acknowledges another flaw of this method – it will take time. Undermining, on a large scale and with powerful modern explosives, is a more effective choice.

About the Author
Dan Zamansky is a British-Israeli independent historian, with a particularly strong interest in the history of the World Wars and the long shadow these cast over the contemporary world. He believes that the mistakes of the past are being systematically repeated at present, and this process must be urgently reversed.
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