July 10, 2014

Israel prepares for an incursion into Gaza - but will they do it?

Israel has certainly not been subtle in signaling its preparations for a possible ground incursion - a polite word for an invasion - into the Gaza Strip to attack elements of HAMAS* who have been firing hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities. Up to 40,000 reservists have been alerted and front-line units (including the elite Golani Brigade) have been deployed to the border with Gaza.

If the order is given to mount an invasion, the Israel Defense Forces are extremely capable, well-trained, well-equipped and well-led. They will of course be opposed by a determined - sometimes bordering on fanatical - experienced guerrilla force. There will be casualties on both sides, but we should not be under any illusion as to who will suffer the most casualties. Not only will there be loss of life on both sides, the Israeli incursion will severely damage the Gazan infrastructure. There will be no equivalency of the levels of damage on the two sides. It has always been that way - the Israeli troops will inflict massive damage in a short amount of time.

The incursion will likely follow the usual Israeli tactics. Note the tracked vehicle that resembles a tank without a turret in the foreground of the above photograph. That is an armored engineering vehicle based on Israel's former Chieftain tanks. These vehicles normally are the first to cross into hostile territory - their mission is to create a safe passage for the following armor and infantry forces. The combat engineers remove obstacles, disarm booby traps and IEDs, remove minefields, etc. It is a difficult, dangerous job. All of this will be covered by Israeli Air Force fighter bombers and very accurate artillery. Even the Israeli Navy will play a role, conducting naval fire support and possibly commando operations from the Gazan littoral.

If history is any guide, the Israelis will launch a multi-axis assault. In addition to the air and naval attacks, the Israeli Army will attack from the north and the east, pushing into Gaza to cut the Strip in two, isolating the Gaza City area in the north from the Khan Yunis area to the south. Then they will begin moving through the two sectors, eliminating as many HAMAS rockets, launchers, fighters and facilities that they can. Unfortunately, many HAMAS facilities will be co-located with sensitive civilian venues - mosques, schools, hospitals, housing areas, etc.

That said, what will be the objective of an Israeli incursion? Of course, the stated objective is to stop HAMAS from firing rockets at Israeli cities. That is nothing new - we saw this in 2009 and again in 2012. However, 2014 is a bit different. HAMAS has acquired a much more lethal capability: Chinese-designed, Syrian-built long-range M-302 artillery rockets that can reach almost any spot in Israel.

A few comments on the M-302. Many in the media refer to this as a missile, however it is a rocket - missiles carry an on-board guidance system; the M-302 does not. The confusion is understandable - the Arabic language offers no distinction. The rocket can deliver a 385-pound warhead to a range of 100 miles. These are the rockets HAMAS is launching at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Yes, Jerusalem, the city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims. The M-302 is not accurate enough to launch at one of the world's most revered cities and be sure of not hitting a site that may be holy to well over half the inhabitants on the planet.

It has been interesting to watch the performance of the largely U.S.-funded Iron Dome defense system - it has proven itself to be very effective, however, it cannot cover the entire country and intercept every rocket. Unfortunately, in the Israeli optic, the only way to prevent further damage to Israel is to invade Gaza and root out the rockets, launchers and HAMAS fighters.

Will they do it?

I have seen no indication that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is bluffing. In the wake of the murder of three Israeli teens that they have blamed on HAMAS, Netanyahu feels he has the moral authority, public support and political capital to move against HAMAS at this time.

It could happen anytime now - all it takes is the order from the Prime Minister.

* HAMAS is an acronym for حركة المقاومة الاسلامية, harakat al-muqawamah al-islamiyah, or the Islamic Resistance Movement.