Australia/Israel Review

“An absolutely unique form of enemy”

Mar 1, 2024 | Ahron Shapiro

Fighting but also learning: Israeli soldiers in Gaza (Image: IDF)
Fighting but also learning: Israeli soldiers in Gaza (Image: IDF)

Hamas’ October 7 massacre of more than 1,130 Israelis and foreign nationals and the kidnapping of 253 others in the Gaza border region was a traumatic wake-up call for Israel in a variety of ways, according to Haviv Rettig Gur, a Senior Analyst for the Times of Israel. Visiting Australia, Rettig Gur spoke with journalists in Melbourne on February 15 and was interviewed by Sky News’ Chris Kenny on Feb. 19 and “Outsiders” on Feb. 18. 

Encouragingly, Rettig Gur said, Israel has demonstrated remarkable social cohesion and resilience, and the IDF and other defence agencies are proving capable of learning from mistakes and rapidly adapting to tactical and strategic challenges in the multifront war the Jewish state is now facing. This includes producing plans to further reduce civilian casualties as the IDF prepares plans to eliminate Hamas’ four battalions based in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, and hopefully find the top Hamas leadership there.

“What we had known and understood about our enemy, about Hamas, [before October 7] turned out to be completely wrong,” said Rettig Gur. “We thought that they were deterred by our massive firepower. And we discovered, on October 7th, that in fact, not only had they not been deterred, they had developed a doctrine, a very subtle and complex and sophisticated doctrine, for deterring us.” This centred on the construction of a serpentine network of military tunnels some one and a half times the length of the London Tube.

“By doing that [Hamas] transformed itself into an absolutely unique form of enemy military that has never existed before in the history of the world. We’ve seen guerrilla armies that attack and then hide behind civilian populations… And we’ve seen [conventional] standing armies. Hamas [leads] the first ‘country’ in the history of warfare, certainly to that extent, that you have both. You have [an army] with the irresponsibility for civilians of a guerrilla force, whose own side’s civilian death toll is [its] force multiplier.” 

And so, according to Rettig Gur, Hamas’ 17 years of tunnel development had remarkably transformed Israel’s own firepower into a liability.

“Any threat that they could possibly pose to us… the only way to go into those tunnels and to get at them is to cut through the civilian population, and that was unimaginable” to Israel before October 7. So Hamas was allowed to continue its preparations largely undisturbed.

Hamas’ October 7 attack, however, left Israel no choice but to destroy Hamas’ capability to wage war. “I agree with the world that there’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. I don’t think any Israeli denies it,” Rettig Gur said. But he explained that was Hamas’ own war plan.

“Hamas committed two atrocities on October 7th,” he explained. “The smaller one by far was the one committed against [Israel]. Hamas’ second atrocity, and it’s the much larger one, was building Gaza into that battlefield where the civilians are the strategy. There is no other survival strategy. Hamas literally has no other plan for surviving this or winning in any way” but to force Israel to devastate Gaza’s civilian population and infrastructure.

Even so, Rettig Gur said, the IDF has found ways to reduce civilian casualties despite Hamas’ efforts to the contrary. Meanwhile, international diplomatic pressure against an IDF advance into Rafah has failed to account for this, he said.

IDF operations in Khan Yunis, Rettig Gur pointed out, saw a “much, much lower civilian death toll than the earlier battle in northern Gaza, in Gaza City.”

At the start of the war, he said, the IDF would “get to tunnels by removing buildings – that resulted in civilian deaths – [but] we’re not doing that now because we know how to get to those tunnels using various means, some secret, including sonar and engineering solutions. Also, [the IDF has] captured many Hamas planners, which has given them a mapped-out vision of some of these tunnel networks without having to go through them.”

Simply put, “the Israelis are learning how to pull Hamas out of those tunnels [and] dismantle those Hamas battalions without that [earlier] level of harm to civilians. That is probably, hopefully, what we’re going to see in Rafah.”


Israel questioning all previous assumptions

Rettig Gur told journalists that in the wake of the mistakes that saw Israel caught with its guard down on October 7, the Israeli security establishment is “questioning all of its assumptions about its enemies on all fronts.’’

“[Israel] is a lot more dangerous [to its enemies] because we don’t trust our own analyses anymore… the thing we misunderstood about [Hamas] was the fundamental strategy they were pursuing for a generation. And if that’s true of Hamas, it can be true of Hezbollah, and it’s true of [Iran’s other] proxies, and it’s true of ultimately Iran itself.”

If Israel believes it can no longer trust the assumptions of deterrence upon which it has built the foundation of its military posture over the past 50 years, “then the only thing that matters is capability [and not trying to control enemy intentions].”

According to Israel’s new security philosophy, if the enemy “has an asset [such as the] 150,000 missiles Hezbollah has aimed at Israel from under 200 villages in southern Lebanon – then they intend to use it,” Rettig Gur said. 

“That’s the new Israeli vision of the world,” he added. “How could we possibly afford to assume otherwise?”

However, despite the fact that Israel has suffered painful losses and is facing a long, protracted war, Rettig Gur said Israelis weren’t feeling pessimistic.

The war, he said, put Israeli society to the test, and Israel discovered that it had incredible reserves of social capital in the form of enthusiastic and motivated soldiers and reservists, volunteerism and a sense of common bonds. 

“And all Israeli families of those soldiers and all of Israeli society, incidentally, Arabs and Jews alike, are committed to getting rid of Hamas,” Rettig Gur told Sky News.

Rettig Gur’s visit was arranged on behalf of Zahal (IDF) Disabled Veterans Organisation (ZDVO) Beit Halochem Australia, a charitable organisation aimed at helping rehabilitate disabled Israeli soldiers. According to a recent report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli Ministry of Defence has estimated that in 2024, 12,500 new disabled veterans will be registered, a 25% increase over the 50,000 veterans currently on the Defence Ministry’s Rehabilitation Department rolls. 

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