Lessons from 100 days of war for the next 100
Jan 25, 2024 | Ahron Shapiro
October 7 is a day that, for Israelis, will forever live in infamy. The passing on January 14 of the milestone of 100 days since Hamas’ attack provided an opportunity to consider some lessons that will help map the road ahead for a war that is expected to be measured in many months, if not years.
The war so far
To briefly summarise the events of October 7: Taking advantage of the convergence of the Sabbath and a Jewish holiday, when many soldiers were on furlough, a trained Hamas terror army numbering in the thousands invaded southern Israel through multiple breach points in the barrier surrounding Gaza. Attacking early in the morning under cover of a huge rocket barrage, this terror army took Israeli security forces completely by surprise.
They massacred around 1,200 people in 22 Israeli communities, raping and murdering and taking hundreds of hostages, wounding more than 5,000 men, women and children.
The Nova music festival, held on the grounds of Kibbutz Re’im, became a killing field, accounting for nearly one-third of those murdered. Israeli Arabs and foreign workers were not spared. Entire kibbutzim along the Gaza border were temporarily occupied by armed terrorists for several hours. Using pickup trucks and vans fitted with heavy machine guns, terror cells moved quickly, penetrating also into small cities, like Sderot and the more distant Ofakim (both with a population of about 30,000). Israel Defence Forces (IDF) bases and command centres near the Gaza border were almost completely overrun, with many soldiers killed or taken hostage.
The IDF’s response was initially uncoordinated and reflected the chaos on the ground, and it took a few days before the IDF could say with confidence that all of the terrorists involved in the attack remaining inside Israel had been captured or killed.
Next, in stage one of Israel’s “Iron Swords” war, the Israeli Air Force began bombing high-value Hamas targets and warned civilians in northern Gaza to evacuate south. Israel drafted 360,000 reservists – the highest number ever activated at one time. After a pause, to refresh training, prepare equipment and weapons and make sure the troops were mentally ready for battle, a second phase began on Oct. 27 – an intense invasion of northern Gaza, coordinating ground, sea and air forces.
In late November, a hostage deal was struck, giving Hamas a week-long temporary ceasefire and a release of some Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of most, but not all, Israeli women and children hostages, together with some foreign citizens. Hamas ended the ceasefire by refusing to release the remaining female hostages and firing rockets.
By the end of 2023, the IDF had completely cut off northern Gaza and cleared most of that territory of Hamas terrorists, while making inroads into the Hamas stronghold city of Khan Yunis in the south.
In the first days of 2024, phase three of the war began. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the IDF was changing tactics and would focus on “raids, the destruction of terror tunnels, aerial and ground activities, and special operations,” while withdrawing a substantial number of troops and giving many reservists a chance to go home and resume normal lives.
The complete destruction of Hamas, one of the goals initially outlined by Israel’s leaders and security agencies, still seems far off. On the other hand, Hamas’ ability to wage war has been greatly reduced and it’s well within Israel’s power to see to it that it stays that way.
Here are five key points to bear in mind as the third stage of the Iron Swords war unfolds in Gaza over the coming weeks and months:
1. October 7 as Israel’s September 11
As often as Hamas has attacked Israel from Gaza since it seized control in 2007 – mostly with rockets and mortars – it would be natural to view the current war as an extension of previous conflicts, only much more intense.
It is however, quantitively different: it is the result of the first mass invasion on Israeli territory since the 1948 War of Independence; the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust; and a mass hostage-taking event on a scale the world has rarely, if ever, known.
For Israelis, October 7 was traumatically cataclysmic, like September 11 was for the US, but many times worse.
October 7 shattered what is popularly referred to as the conceptzia (from the word “concept”) that guided Israel’s security strategy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip and its goals in all previous conflicts with Hamas. This was a belief, shared by most Israeli security analysts, that after many war failures, Hamas could be “deterred” from initiating any major conflict and was shifting its focus to governing Gaza, improving its image abroad, and preparing for war sometime in the distant future. Accordingly, if massive monthly cash infusions from Qatar to Hamas were required to keep the border quiet, that was not a problem. In recent years, Israel also sought to provide a further incentive to Hamas to maintain quiet by providing Gazans tens of thousands of monthly permits to work inside Israel.
Israel did fear a ground incursion – but from Hezbollah on the northern border, not from Hamas. Israeli intelligence wrongly believed Hamas was too weak and inexperienced to carry out such an incursion.
Today, it is known that ostensible Hamas efforts to keep the border quiet were a ruse to lull the IDF into a false sense of security – while many of the Gazan workers are believed to have been recruited as spies who provided intelligence for planning the October 7 attack.
Almost no one in Israel believes today that Hamas can be “deterred” or contained within Gaza.
2. On casualties, a ‘war of influence’
Both the IDF and the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry agree that Palestinian casualties have been high over the past three months of war. The difference, of course, is that the Hamas-affiliated statistics – which at one point dubiously claimed 97% of one day’s casualties consisted of women and children – serve the Palestinian war propaganda effort, in what Israeli scholar Prof. Kobi Michael has termed the “war of influence”.
By contrast, Michael estimated that combatants account for 40-50 percent of the war’s fatalities. Moreover, claims of disproportionate deaths of “children” fail to take into account that Hamas and other terror groups recruit terrorists in their teens.
As AIJAC’s Oved Lobel noted on Jan. 17, “Israel claims to have killed more than 9,000 operatives of Hamas and other terrorist groups thus far in Gaza. If one believes Hamas that approximately 23,000 Palestinians have been killed overall as well as the Israeli estimate of terrorist casualties – neither number can be verified – that means that, at worst, 60%-65% of casualties to date have been civilians. This is tragic, but by no means excessive” compared to similar conflicts involving extensive urban warfare.
Even Ramesh Rajasingham, Director of Coordination of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), testified before the UN Security Council on May 25, 2022 – speaking mostly about Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine – that “in densely populated areas… civilians accounted for 90% of the casualties when explosive weapons were used, compared to 10% in other areas.”
Yet no serious analysis would suggest the IDF’s combatant to non-combatant fatality ratio in Gaza is anywhere near this bad, despite heavy bombing, because the IDF has gone to extraordinary lengths to warn civilians to evacuate areas it intends to attack.
A Nov. 8 BBC report by Alice Cuddy vividly illustrates one such effort, detailing how Gazan dentist Mahmoud Shaheen received a call from Israeli intelligence urging him to go from building to building and door to door to warn nearby residents to evacuate ahead of a planned airstrike.
He did so, and “it is believed that none of his neighbours died that day,” Cuddy noted.
3. Tunnel vision
How is it that Israeli forces captured Gaza in a day or two in both 1956 and 1967 but have advanced at a snail’s pace in the current campaign? Simple – Hamas tunnels. According to a Jan. 17 New York Times exposé, Israel now estimates that the tunnels extend for up to 725km – well above pre-war estimates of 400km or so. It is also now estimated that 5,700 separate shafts lead down to the tunnels, and Hamas has stocked the tunnels with months of provisions (much of it siphoned off international humanitarian aid, including that supplied during the current conflict).
Throughout the war, Hamas has largely been avoiding open battles in Gaza, preferring to lie in wait underground while the IDF advances into an area and only emerge later and try to catch Israeli troops off guard. For this reason, the IDF may have control on the ground over most of Gaza but Hamas is expected to continue to launch attacks in small groups from within captured territory for months to come.
This means that international demands that Israel allow Gazans to leave tent camps in southern Gaza and return to repopulate the largely evacuated northern parts of the strip simply can’t be acted upon until the tunnels in northern Gaza are fully discovered, searched and destroyed. This is nightmarishly difficult, as Hamas has booby-trapped many of them with IEDs and is thought to be hiding hostages in others. No army has ever faced a comparable challenge, so no one knows how long this might take.
Most of the tunnels were built after the 2014 Gaza War using cement that entered the Gaza Strip stolen from aid shipments provided for reconstruction of war-damaged buildings.
Israeli estimates say the tunnels required some 6,000 tons of concrete and 1,800 tons of steel – enough to build many whole neighbourhoods of housing.
4. The return of the security zone
Before October 7, Israelis put their faith in the concept that IDF deterrence made it safe to live along Israel’s border fences – the only obstacle between them and armed terrorist militias, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
That sense of security has now been shattered, perhaps for an entire generation, and for good reason: it took Hamas a matter of only minutes from breaching the fence to gunning down civilians and taking hostages. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has used anti-tank missiles launched from inside Lebanon as weapons of terror to strike Israeli homes as far as six kilometres away.
Understandably, Israelis are today demanding a no-man’s land in Gaza to allow more warning time in case of a future invasion.
Likewise, northern Israelis are refusing to return home unless the Lebanese Army replaces Hezbollah control along the border in southern Lebanon – an unfulfilled pledge under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended the last Lebanon war. Should diplomacy fail, full-scale war may be inevitable. At least 110,000 Israelis still today remain internally displaced from the multifront war.
5. Palestinian extremism remains an obstacle to Gazan self-rule
The desire by the US, Australia and other proponents of the two-state peace paradigm to return the Palestinian Authority (PA) to power in Gaza for the first time since Hamas’ bloody 2007 coup seems logical and understandable.
Unfortunately, this appears to be an unrealistic goal in the short- to mid-term for numerous reasons, as outlined by Michael Mandelbaum in the edition.
It seems more realistic to expect a technocratic government to be formed in Gaza cobbled together from the leadership of Gazan clans not affiliated with the Hamas regime, as Israeli Defence Minister Gallant has proposed. Hopefully, such local powerbrokers might be more willing to serve the needs of post-war Gazans instead of making plotting endless war against Israel their top priority.
Moreover, it must be acknowledged that the sickening jihadist indoctrination of a generation of Gazans over the past 17 years by Hamas is not an obstacle that can be downplayed or wished away.
A memorable image from the war was taken from an abandoned apartment where a pre-schooler’s “Liberate Palestine” puzzle showed cartoon images of children attacking Israel with machine guns and other weapons. Gaza’s future depends on the re-education of not only the children of the war, but adults too.