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Military briefing: the shape of a Gaza invasion

As Israel continues its aerial bombardment of Gaza and masses forces on the border of the coastal enclave, the objective of the Israeli campaign has been made clear: to destroy Hamas.

How the Israeli military plans to do that is still unclear. By ordering nearly half of Gaza’s 2.3mn population to leave their homes and flee south or risk death, it has raised fears that any impending ground invasion would first seek to capture northern Gaza.

Or, it could be a feint. 

Whatever the order of battle, it is clear that any ground invasion would involve overwhelming force from the most powerful military in the Middle East seeking to vanquish an entrenched enemy that killed 1,300 Israelis in a sophisticated cross-border raid on Saturday, according to Israeli officials.

The scale of the death toll on the Israeli side and atrocities committed by invading Hamas commandos has shocked the country, with Israeli officials making comparisons to the horrors of the Holocaust. 

The retaliatory Israeli air strikes that have killed at least 1,800 Palestinians — half of them women, or below the age of 18, according to local health authorities — are just the beginning of a long campaign. 

“Right now, there is a certain amount of softening, bombardment with air and artillery,” said Eitan Shamir, who helped shape Israel’s National Security Doctrine at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. 

Late on Friday, the Israeli military said it had sent small raids of infantry into the strip to search for hostages and collect evidence.

If the Israeli military follows with a full-scale ground invasion, which looks increasingly likely, Shamir said the first 24 hours will be “very swift and formidable, with forces entering from many directions”. “Your options are limited here but they will be trying to do it an unexpected way with a very swift, overwhelming force.”

For now, the expectation is that the invasion will come from the north — and maybe capture Gaza City, the 40km-long enclave’s largest population centre and the heart of Hamas’ political and military infrastructure.

“It looks like [the Israeli war cabinet] has decided: a northern incursion, in force and with rolling firepower, possibly four divisions along with naval power and special forces, to get into Gaza quickly and conquer Gaza City,” said Ehud Yaari, a veteran Israeli analyst and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Having called up a record 360,000 reservists, Israel has swelled its military to just over half-a-million soldiers. Airlifts of US weapons are arriving near daily, replenishing its Iron Dome air defence system with interceptors and adding to stocks of munitions. Reservists are being given refresher training and provided with weapons. Armour is being repositioned. 

“You’re looking at a reserve army — on Friday, there were bank clerks, mechanics, not professional soldiers so it takes some time to get them ready all at once,” said Shamir, now at the BESA Centre, at Bar-Ilan University. 

Rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City © Hassan Eslaiah/AP

This is so “ambitious” an objective that it has held previous Israeli government’s back, precisely due to the likely high price in Israeli fatalities, said Amos Yadlin, a retired general and former head of Israel’s military intelligence.

“The goal of this operation is destroying Hamas, taking all its military capabilities and governance capabilities and [replacing] it with something else,” he said. 

How Hamas’ fighters respond will shape Israel’s military strategy. Many could slip away with the civilians fleeing south, but that will play to Israel’s strengths, said Shamir. It can set up forward bases, move equipment closer to the frontline and destroy Hamas’ underground infrastructure. 

“The fighters are going to melt away, but you clear the tunnels, you clear everything, you don’t leave anything that they can possibly use,” he said. “This is only the first phase, and then they will go to the south, and clear that.”

Hamas’ vast system of tunnels — built to house and protect the group’s fighters and commanders — poses a daunting challenge, but Israeli forces would try to destroy it without necessarily having to enter. 

“The underground network could also be a death trap for them, with Israel burning and killing them inside,” said Yaari. 

Women and children evacuate Gaza City on Friday © Mohammed Saber/EPA/Shutterstock

Whatever the exact contours of the Israeli offensive, analysts are convinced it is coming — most likely within a matter of days.

The UN and other international agencies are trying to convince Israel to extend its 24-hour deadline for leaving northern Gaza so civilians have more time to prepare. Even with little fuel, destroyed roads and sheer panic gripping the population, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are on the move

Basel al-Sourani, international advocacy officer for the EU-funded rights group, said he now recognised how other Palestinians felt in 1948, when they were displaced from areas such as Haifa and the Negev during the formation of the Jewish state. “Just like 1948, will we see the same thing in 2023?” he said.

This round of Israel-Hamas violence, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, spokesperson for the Israeli military said on Friday, would be unlike anything seen before. And when it’s done, Gaza “will be something else”. 

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