The bloody reality of fighting an embedded enemy David Kilcullen, The Australian, 23rd March 2024

The bloody reality of fighting an embedded enemy

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 23rd March 2024

Just like the fierce nine-month battle to remove Islamic State terrorists from Mosul, there was no way for Israel to remove Hamas from power without mounting a full-scale ground invasion.

You can tell a lot about a military force, and the conditions under which it operates, by watching how it prefers to fight. Americans, for example, prefer stand-off strikes with laser-guided bombs and long-range rockets: they seek the illusion of distance, precision and cleanness, avoiding the bloody, complex reality of ground combat. Russians, by contrast, are famous for massing enormous weights of artillery against a single point, then flinging disposable infantry into meatgrinder assaults.

A central tool of Israeli tactics is the armoured bulldozer: slow, implacable, destroying obstacle after obstacle as it grinds forward. Israel’s ground campaign in Gaza has relied heavily on these bulldozers, which weigh more than an Abrams tank and can demolish buildings, clear rubble, destroy strongpoints or build berms under heavy fire.

US criticism of Israel’s approach reflects the preference for precision. Richard Haass, one of America’s most distinguished foreign policy thinkers—chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations—wrote recently that Israel could have fought a different war. Its approach, Haass argued, ‘should have been more precise, giving priority to eliminating Hamas’s leadership and key fighters as intelligence allowed. Israel should have relied more on small-unit operations rather than aerial bombardment.’ While acknowledging that this might have taken months or years, and ‘some Hamas fighters who embedded themselves in schools and hospitals would have escaped punishment’, he argued that ‘this would have been preferable to killing thousands of civilians, further radicalizing the Palestinian population and alienating the region and the world.’

It might indeed have been preferable, but would it have been possible? Could Israel really have adopted a stand-off approach, using small-team raids and surgical strikes to target Hamas leadership, do minimal damage to Gaza and its population, and still achieve its objectives? Answering these questions starts by understanding why the armoured bulldozer has become so central to Israeli tactics in the first place.

We are talking here of what is, rather than what ought to be. In an ideal world, October 7th would not have happened, Israel would never have needed to mount a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza strip, and thousands of civilians—Israeli and Palestinian, men, women and children—would be alive and well today instead of dead, wounded, or held hostage. But those things did happen, and any attempt to make sense of the war needs to take that fact as its starting point.

For reasons we will explore, destruction of the urban environment itself, rather than merely defeating an opponent within it, has become a key part of how the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) fight in cities. This in turn reflects the reality that, in a multi-generational struggle for territorial and demographic dominance, across a tiny area—all of Israel is only about twice the size of greater Melbourne—it’s often simply impossible to disentangle opponents like Hamas from the populations and landscapes in which they hide.

Under these conditions, military commanders sometimes see destroying an urban area outright (or flattening parts of it) as the only way to achieve their missions. Some analysts (including several Israelis) condemn this as ‘urbicide‘—killing entire cities, rather than just fighting within them—but many IDF commanders, tasked by Israeli politicians with clearing a deeply-embedded enemy from a densely-urbanised, heavily-populated area, see few other options.

On the ground in Gaza, infantry and armour move together in integrated combat teams with dismounted troops, tanks and armoured personnel carriers cooperating to support the manoeuvre of bulldozers as they push forward, clearing rubble, destroying Hamas positions and knocking down houses. Demolition teams, equipped with explosives and moving on foot, systematically blow up structures that could pose a threat. Tunnels and bunkers are blown or bulldozed, their entrances sealed, with explosions often caught on video and disseminated on social media by the troops themselves. These videos have prompted criticism, and some were cited as evidence in the genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. But the videos also encourage civilians to evacuate ahead of advancing troops, reinforcing official IDF calls for the population to leave, and arguably reducing their exposure to combat.

Much of the Gaza strip is now not only uninhabitable, but uninhabited. The IDF advance has pushed the population ahead of it, with civilians fleeing along evacuation corridors such as Salah al-Din Road, the main thoroughfare that runs down the middle of the strip and connects Gaza City with Khan Younis further south. Both are depopulated, with 1.5 million civilians now crowded into Rafah, in the far south. Only about 300,000 civilians now remain in northern Gaza. (Before the war, the entire strip had a population slightly less than 2.2 million people.)

As the advance pauses each evening, rather than withdraw and thereby cede territory that would then have to be recaptured, the bulldozers build berms and defensive positions for the assault troops, allowing them to encamp in the ruins and restart the advance after resting. Most camps are used for one or two nights, then abandoned as the advance moves on, but some are semi-permanent forward operating bases. Attack helicopters provide fire support and air cover. By January, entire neighbourhoods in Gaza had been razed using these methods.

Israeli forces are also constructing a buffer zone along Gaza’s landward border. Described before the current war as the ‘world’s largest open-air prison’, Gaza already had a 300-metre-wide exclusion zone that separated residential areas from the border fence. Israeli observation posts covered that zone and could shoot anyone approaching the fence. But October 7th showed that a determined enemy could cut the fence at multiple places, so bulldozers and combat engineers have been widening the buffer since. Israeli officials say this is a critical security measure to allow civilians to return to the settlements that Hamas attacked on October 7th. IDF engineers are also bulldozing buildings to construct an east-west road across the northern third of the strip, cutting Gaza in two and creating a field of fire 300 metres wide.

The bulldozer (or perhaps the steamroller) is an apt metaphor for the campaign itself—the IDF is, in effect, bulldozing its way across Gaza, slowly but implacably pushing the population ahead of it, destroying Hamas as it goes, while removing much of the urban area itself. This represents a brutally terrain-centric approach to battle. But it also reflects the reality of deep entanglement among armed enemies, civilian populations and dense urban areas, in a zero-sum territorial conflict fought explicitly for control of living-space. It embodies decades of tit-for-tat adaptation by both sides.

One battle—the Battle of Jenin, fought in a West Bank refugee camp in April 2002—was an inflection point in this process of adaptation. The term ‘refugee camp’ is technically accurate but gives the wrong impression: the Jenin camp was not a temporary collection of huts, but a densely built-up area with multi-storey concrete structures. The IDF entered the camp to clear it of Hamas and other militants who were using it as a base for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Nine days into the battle, after severe losses in an ambush, the IDF pulled back, reorganised, then re-entered using new tactics based on small combined-arms combat teams centred around armoured bulldozers. The bulldozers cleared IEDs and booby-traps, destroyed fighting positions, then flattened a 200-by-200-metre area in the centre of the camp, which became an IDF base, effectively ending that round of fighting.

The IDF approach in Jenin was studied by US and Australian commanders during the Iraq war. They concluded that its impact on civilians—and its physical destructiveness—made it a last resort at best. US forces tried (often unsuccessfully) to protect Iraqi civilians and avoid urban incursions. They built kilometres of concrete T-wall in Baghdad, for example, to keep hostile populations apart, separate them from insurgents, and stop militants moving around the city, precisely so as to avoid destructive armoured forays into inhabited areas.

But Iraq—where the American-led coalition saw itself (and was seen by locals) as a purely temporary presence, trying to defeat an enemy with minimal damage, then stabilise things enough to leave—was far different from Israel, where both sides claim much of the same territory as their own. This is a demographic and territorial conflict between populations with irreconcilable claims to the same tiny area of land, a zero-sum contest where destruction of settlements and denial of access helps cement control at the expense of the adversary.

A more apt analogy for today’s fighting would be the battle against Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul during 2016-17. This was an enormous battle, about the same size and duration as the current Gaza campaign. It did massive damage to Mosul, which before the battle had a population of 1.2 million people, and lasted nine months.

Islamic State had just over two years to put Mosul into a state of defence—from June 2014, when they captured the city, until October 2016, when the Iraqi-led offensive to retake it began. In that short period, they developed dense belts of booby traps, dug deep defensive positions, and embedded themselves in the human and physical fabric of the city, thereby making it impossible for an opponent to attack them without also damaging the city and killing civilians.

Ultimately, Mosul soaked up more than 90,000 Iraqi troops and hundreds of foreign advisers, against 6-12,000 Islamic State fighters. It displaced at least a million people, destroyed large parts of the city and may have killed as many as 40,000 civilians, according to the Asayish, the Kurdish Regional Government’s intelligence service.

Hamas, by contrast, had almost two decades in complete control of Gaza (from 2006 to 2023). It used that time to develop a fearsome defensive complex, with multiple strongpoints and hundreds of kilometres of underground passages, embedding itself thoroughly into the physical environment of the strip and its population. The organisation had 30,000 fighters in total before the Gaza campaign began, far more than the Islamic State garrison defending Mosul.

Any ground invasion of Gaza was therefore bound to be bloody, protracted and destructive, on the scale of Mosul or larger. This is exactly what we are seeing, and what most military analysts expected. The notion of a clean, surgical, stand-off campaign, using precision strikes and small-team raids to destroy Hamas without damaging Gaza or harming civilians—as attractive as it sounds in theory—is simply not practicable, as our own recent history in places like Mosul shows.

Again, we are talking about what is, rather than what ought to be. But reality is reality: the only way for Israel to avoid the kind of campaign that is happening now would have been not to go in at all, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza, which was politically unacceptable after October 7th. To understand why that was so, we need to return briefly to Jenin.

Jenin was designated in the 1995 Oslo II Accord as part of “Area A”, putting it under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but the IDF repeatedly raided the camp both before and after the 2002 battle. From March 2022, incursions increased to an almost nightly tempo under Operation Breakwater, a counterterrorism effort targeting Jenin and the town of Nablus, 35 kilometres further south.

The IDF said in mid-2023 that at least 50 attacks against Israeli civilians had originated from Jenin in the preceding two years. In late July, weeks before the October 7th attacks, Israeli tanks, bulldozers and infantry mounted their largest incursion into Jenin since the 2002 battle. Since the IDF launched its full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, raids into Jenin, Nablus and other West Bank towns have continued.

This is what some Israelis call ‘mowing the grass’—repeated raids into an area to disrupt terrorist groups and reduce the threat. IDF commanders historically knew that such incursions were only a temporary measure, doing little more than managing the threat until it inevitably regenerated. They recognised the destruction and enduring hatred that the raids caused among local populations, but accepted that the intractable politics behind the conflict precluded any permanent solution.

This attitude—resignedly mowing the grass, forever, with no hope of any permanent settlement given the underlying politics—changed radically for many Israelis on the morning of October 7th. After that assault, public pressure for a final defeat of Hamas  built up inexorably on the Netanyahu government, from a population stunned by the audacity, scale and suddenness of the attacks, infuriated by the intelligence failure that allowed them to happen, horrified at their brutality, and demanding Hamas be destroyed once and for all. Mowing the grass was no longer acceptable.

Tactics are downstream from politics, and this fundamental change in the underlying politics of the conflict is why, despite escalating criticism from the Biden administration and a genocide accusation in the Hague, Israel’s campaign has unfolded in such a bulldozer-like manner. Since October 7th, opinion has hardened even further on both sides: in polls last month a large majority of Israeli respondents expressed opposition to a Palestinian state ‘under any circumstances’ and opposed a ceasefire until all hostages are released. Likewise, last November, 59% of Palestinians surveyed said they ‘extremely supported’ the October 7th attacks, while 16% ‘somewhat supported’ them.

The IDF’s campaign, successful though it has been in achieving the goals laid down by Israeli political leaders, has reached the point where politicians themselves have to take it to the next stage. This is all that any military operation can deliver. But given the hardening of Israeli and Palestinian public opinion—and the fact that Hamas still holds more than 130 hostages and has refused to guarantee their safety—it’s hard to see any space for a political solution. The pre-October 7th political conditions, of uneasy coexistence and periodic mowing of the grass, have been overtaken by events, suggesting that the campaign (with or without a temporary ceasefire) will only end with a complete Israeli tactical victory in Gaza. Whether such a victory would meet Israel’s broader strategic goals—and whether the country could then rebuild relationships that have been tested by the conflict—is a more complex question.

The next military objective is Rafah, where vast numbers of civilians are now crowded, under horrific conditions, into one of the last remaining Hamas-controlled areas. The more the advance squeezes civilians into this south-western corner of the strip, the greater the pressure on Israel for a ceasefire or evacuation of non-combatants. That pressure has been growing from the U.S. congress and the Biden administration, with stop-start negotiations periodically raising hopes of a temporary ceasefire but offering little likelihood of an enduring end to the fighting.

But even as the campaign inside Gaza itself comes to a crisis, two other crises threaten to expand the conflict. Roughly 1900 kilometres south of Gaza, in the Bab al-Mandab, the narrowest point of the Red Sea, forces loyal to Ansarallah—the so-called Houthi movement that controls much of Yemen—have mounted a successful campaign to interdict shipping, using drones and missiles, in support of Hamas and probably at the behest of Iran, which sponsors both the Houthis and Hamas.

Targeting western and Israeli-connected ships, the Houthis have managed to reduce regional shipping by more than 90 percent since last November. Perhaps more importantly, the cost to ship a 40-foot container from China to Europe has almost tripled since the start of December, putting significant pressure on global trade. This brings other players—including several European powers and, most importantly, China—into the equation. China’s approach has been characteristically cautious, but the Red Sea crisis is increasing pressure on Tel Aviv to end the conflict, even as the IDF nears its last major objective.

A second problem is Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy whose forces sit just across Israel’s northern border, and are vastly more militarily capable than those of Hamas. Indeed, it is hard to overstate how much more powerful Hezbollah is than Hamas: it possesses an enormous inventory of rockets, drones and missiles, exercises functional control of Lebanon’s government, and has barely used its most capable assets since the start of the Gaza conflict. Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, has repeatedly called for an end to the war, and Hezbollah is intensifying its artillery and rocket attacks against northern Israel, but is yet to mount a ground offensive or unleash its full force. If it were to do so, Israel’s strategic position would catastrophically worsen, overnight.

All this is true, but also perhaps irrelevant. In war, military action is driven by political decisions, and political decisions are shaped by public opinion. In Israel’s case, public pressure for a permanent defeat of Hamas is now overwhelming, and this in turn drives political decisions that have resulted in the Gaza ground campaign. In turn, the evolution of Israeli (and Hamas) tactics and tools over decades of conflict have shaped the way that campaign is being conducted. To imagine that Israel could or should have fought the campaign using a surgical, precision, stand-off, small-team approach would be a fundamental misunderstanding of urban warfare, and of how the underlying politics driving the conflict have shifted since October 7th.

While many Australians are rightly watching the Gaza war with horror, the harsh reality—as Mosul shows—is that this is what happens when you do large-scale combat operations in a heavily-populated city. The only way to avoid this would have been for Israel not to go in at all, or for October 7th never to have happened. Short of a ceasefire (which seems highly unlikely), or a fundamental transformation of the conflict via direct Hezbollah intervention, things seem set to continue as they are for the immediate future.

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