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Will Israel repeat its military tactics in southern Gaza?

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Israel resumed its military operation in the Gaza Strip on Friday with heavy bombardments. As strikes continue, the United States is pressuring the Israeli military to exercise restraint, particularly in the south, where nearly 2 million Palestinians are now concentrated. Will it work? 

After the seven-day truce ended on Friday morning, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) resumed their campaign in Gaza with a scale and intensity reminiscent of the first wave of their response to Hamas’s October 7 attack. Operations are now focused on the southern part of Gaza where hundreds of thousands fled following IDF bombardments in Gaza City and the north of the Strip. 

The US has urged Israel not to repeat the military tactics used during the first weeks of the war. Officials fear missile strikes followed by a ground offensive – the strategy used in the north – will result in too many Palestinian deaths and threaten a wider regional conflict.  

To prevent this outcome, senior Biden administration officials are urging Israel to change its approach. In Tel Aviv on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that any such offensive must put “a premium on protecting civilians and making sure that humanitarian assistance gets to those who need it”.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS’s Face the Nation that the US has been talking “at length” with Israel to ensure that any “continuing military operations should learn lessons from the north (of the Gaza Strip).”

President Joe Biden himself reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “that the way Israel operated in northern Gaza, which included a wide assault and three armoured and infantry divisions, can’t be repeated in the southern part of the enclave because of the millions of Palestinians who are there now”, according to Axios, citing anonymous officials in the US administration.

“[The US] is saying that more attention should be paid to potential civilian casualties in the military operation,” says Omri Brinner, a Middle East geopolitics specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security Verona (ITSS), an international collective of experts on international security issues.

Since the start of Israel’s campaign, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled the northern part of the enclave to seek refuge in the south, where nearly 2 million people now reside. The United States does not want to see the count of Palestinian civilian casualties soar. (Editor’s note: the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, which does not distinguish between civilian and military casualties, says more than 15,200 people have died since the war began.)

Despite US efforts, Israeli rhetoric has not yet moderated. “When we return to fighting, we will apply the same force and more, and we will fight across the whole of the Strip,” said Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant before the hostilities resumed.

Israel’s actions also appear to contradict American demands. On Friday, Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets in parts of Khan Yunis, the main southern city where Israel believes Hamas’s leadership is based. “The city of Khan Yunis is a dangerous combat zone,” the leaflets read. 

However, says Brinner, these calls for civilians to leave future combat areas can only have a limited effect. First, the southern Gaza Strip is already too small for the 2 million Palestinians who have found refuge there. “They certainly cannot all take refuge in an even narrower area.” 

Second, Hamas fighters “have perfected the art of blending in with the civilian population and using it as a shield against Israeli soldiers”, says Amnon Aran, a professor of international politics of the Middle East at the City University of London.

“They (Hamas) will do everything to deter [civilians] from leaving,” says Brinner.

American demands incompatible with Israeli objectives

“We now realise that Israel made a major tactical mistake by choosing to advance slowly and steadily from the north to the south, rather than attacking simultaneously in the north, centre, and south of the Gaza Strip,” says Ahron Bregman, a political scientist and specialist in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at King’s College London. By doing so, the army “contributed to strengthening the human shield formed by the civilian population around Hamas in the south, where the army now wishes to inflict the most damage”.

In addition to this already complicated humanitarian context, “the main Hamas fighting forces are in the south”, says Aran. “Out of the 14 battalions engaged in the war against Israel, 10 are based in this region of the enclave.” 

Israel sees the US demands as making its goals more complicated. Especially given the specificity of some of the demands. Washington has called for the creation of “de-escalation zones” (specific buildings such as UN facilities, hospitals, or schools) where Israeli soldiers cannot open fire to ensure the safety of the civilian populations inside.

“Hamas is known for using buildings such as hospitals or schools to shelter weapons and fighters. I don’t see how this American demand would be compatible with Israel’s stated military objectives,” says Veronika Poniscjakova, a specialist in the military aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.  

“If the intelligence establishes beyond doubt that Hamas militants are hiding in certain buildings, the Americans should not prevent Israeli strikes,” says Brinner. 

According to the Washington Post, the United States has also called on Israel to “use smaller and more precise munitions” – in other words, to refrain from dropping large explosive charges, as was the case in the north.

Is Israeli victory impossible?

The goal of minimising civilian casualties – commendable in and of itself – is also a way of preventing serious geopolitical repercussions, says Aran. “The population density will be such that the possibilities of a miscalculation during a bombing are multiplied. This also increases the risk of a major incident that could ignite the region, forcing the United States to intervene militarily.” 

However, the Israeli government may be reluctant to exercise restraint in its aerial campaign. Some parts of the Israeli public would perceive it as “putting the safety of Palestinian civilians above that of Israeli soldiers [who need air support to ensure the safety of their advance],” says Brinner. This is not the kind of message Netanyahu wants to convey.

Israel is walking a fine line. If Washington turns on Israel, Israel risks losing its main support in the UN Security Council and losing its largest weapons supplier. 

In the build-up to the US presidential elections, Israeli leaders will have to be mindful of the repercussions of what is happening in Gaza on the American campaign, says Aran. Biden may be much less patient with Netanyahu if the Israeli military makes him appear complicit in what some of the US electorate perceive as atrocities against Palestinian civilians.

In this context, it is difficult to imagine that Israel will achieve its stated military goal in the Gaza Strip, namely the eradication of Hamas and its military capabilities, says Bregman. “The Israeli military can diminish [their] military capabilities, destroy some weapon-manufacturing facilities and tunnels, but certainly not wipe Hamas off the map permanently.”

“At some point, Netanyahu will surely say that Israel has won, but it will be a meaningless statement … Hamas has already won a victory once on October 7 by striking Israel, and a second time by securing the release of prisoners, earning them some admiration from all Palestinians,” he adds.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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