Early Stages of Israeli Ground Assault in Gaza Shrouded in Secrecy

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
A buildup of Israeli tanks in southern Israel on Saturday as it expands a ground assault against Hamas in Gaza.

TEL AVIV – Israel has now launched what it is calling the second phase of its assault to destroy Hamas in Gaza, a conflict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as his country’s “second war for independence.” Israeli troops are inside the Gaza perimeter – probing, destroying tunnels and learning in close-quarter combat about the Palestinian fighters who shocked the world when they attacked Israel on Oct. 7.

The early movements, even near-term objectives, of the Israeli military’s ground assault remained shrouded on Sunday, not so much by the fog of war, but by a smokescreen of secrecy.

The United Nations said the ground operations were accompanied by the “most intense Israeli airstrikes and artillery shelling” since the start of the war more than three weeks ago. But Israel’s military and civilian authorities, watched over by military censors, are issuing sentences – not pages – of information about what exactly is happening.

The Israel Defense Forces on Sunday released short black-and-white, ghostly video clips showing tanks, armored bulldozers and troops on foot inside Gaza.

The numbers of soldiers, their units, how much artillery they have, how far they have penetrated into Gaza and where they are have not been revealed.

Still, a general outline is emerging.

Israeli tanks and military bulldozers have entered the territory. Israeli forces are spending the night. They are fully in. These are not the “targeted” raids that the IDF carried out last week, which it said were executed by small, elite units that crossed back into Israel at the end of their mission. This is the beginning of what Israeli leaders are warning could be a very long war, which would see Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, destroyed, and a new entity installed to govern the enclave.

But instead of a massive D-Day-style assault, military analysts in Israel say it appears that the IDF is moving slowly, cautiously into the strip, not mile by mile, but 100 yards at a time, searching for and destroying Hamas booby traps and tunnels around the perimeter and preparing corridors for the quick deployment of tanks and troops to the periphery of Gaza City.

Gaza is only 25 miles long and six miles wide. At present, Israeli troops are mostly operating at the very edges of the narrow enclave, in farm fields and emptied villages, and around the Erez crossing in northern Gaza, said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University and former senior member of Israel’s defense intelligence.

But what happens when Israeli forces enter Gaza City and the densely packed refugee camps that surround it? Several analysts, including Milshtein, reached for the same shorthand to describe the intense and bloody urban combat that might come.

“Fallujah,” they imagined, referring to the 2004 American-led, block-by-block assault in the Iraq War that left 95 U.S. soldiers and more than a thousand Iraqis dead.

On Sunday evening, the Israeli military reported that its troops came upon Hamas fighters exiting the shaft of a tunnel inside Gaza near the Erez crossing in the north.

“Following the identification, the soldiers confronted the terrorists, killing and injuring them,” the IDF spokesman said.

The word Israeli military analysts kept using to describe the Israeli strategy was “gradualism.”

IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said on Sunday that more and more Israeli troops were now continuously, and gradually, joining forces already fighting on the ground, “progressing along phases, according to plan.”

Hagari was referring to the three-phase plan outlined by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Oct. 20, in a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

It includes, first, airstrikes and other “maneuvers” intended to kill militant leaders and obliterate Hamas infrastructure; followed by “lower intensity” operations “with the objective of eliminating ‘pockets of resistance'”; and, finally, the “removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip, and the establishment of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel,” according to a statement issued by his office.

On Friday night, internet and cellular service were cut, plunging Gaza into digital darkness. (Spotty service returned on Sunday.) Netanyahu, in a televised statement Saturday night, described the escalation as “the second phase of the war.”

The war will be “long and difficult,” Netanyahu warned. Israeli officials would not say whether the expanded campaign represents the start of the anticipated major ground incursion.

The prime minister said Israel’s objectives are clear: “to eradicate the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and return the hostages home,” referring to the 239 Israelis believed to be held in captivity in the enclave.

Yoel Guzansky, a former official on Israel’s National Security Council and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said that Israel’s slower, more gradual approach might undermine predictions that it would go in aggressively and quickly, as it did in the four previous wars it has waged against Hamas.

Guzansky said that the troops being sent in – probably composed of elite infantry units and combat engineers, whose numbers remain undetermined – have been deployed to the northern and eastern border areas.

They are seeking, he said, two tactical objectives: to identify and clear booby traps, improvised explosive devices, and any other natural or man-made obstacles to the entrance of larger numbers of troops; and, more conceptually, to give Israel a chance to learn about the enemy that it had for so many years discounted.

“If you enter a little bit, you can provoke the fighters, draw them out of hiding, and you can deny them all kinds of capabilities, and prepare for the big show later on,” he said.

But the IDF, he said, is also aware that the way Palestinian fighters engage with the IDF will provide clues as to “the ‘new Hamas’ – how it’s fighting, where it’s hiding, what capabilities, weapons, tactics it has.”

A former Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, on Saturday night tweeted what he called “The Gaza Siege Plan.” It is not clear whether the Israeli military shares Bennett’s vision.

Bennett said the IDF should “suffocate Hamas operatives in their tunnels,” while Israel occupies a “security strip” inside Gaza until Hamas forces surrender and release all hostages.

The former prime minister said the IDF should “not act in the way that Hamas expects us to act.”

He also said that publicizing the siege plan “scares and stresses Hamas leaders and will be a catalyst to bring about results.”

Bennett imagined a “new security strip” two kilometers (1.2 miles) wide along the entire border, “a permanent strip.”

He advocated “massive firepower and ground forces, and engineering. Imagine bulldozers simply leveling the area.”

Bennett said Israel should cut the Gaza Strip in half, controlling the northern sector and letting civilians flee south, until “Hamas disarms unilaterally and releases all the hostages.”

Bennett imagined this could take months to years.

Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said the offensive is now beginning to clear routes for operation in the Gaza Strip.

“Each night the raids are deeper and deeper, and we are cleaning all the routes from the border to Gaza City,” he said.

“All the cleaned areas are paved for the massive land incursion, which is the third phase of the operation. This is the gradualism of this war,” he said. “Everything is being done because Israel doesn’t want to cause a very big collateral damage and to save as much as possible the life of innocent civilians.”

Kobi did not envision Israeli troops at this point entering the Hamas tunnels.

“We are not going to fight in the tunnels, 30, 40 meters under the ground. But we have, I assume, some creative means and manners that will enable us to destroy these tunnels on the heads of Hamas terrorists that are hiding inside,” he said.

Ben Milch, 31, from Raanana in central Israel, served as a combat engineer in the Israeli military during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip. He and his unit were involved in destroying Hamas tunnels.

“We know that they are slowly moving in with ground forces little by little. I would imagine that part of that is – from the engineering perspective – to clear tunnels to reduce the capability of Hamas popping up within Israel and behind our soldiers and setting up ambushes on us.”

Tunnels actually played a minimal role in the Hamas-led assault inside Israel, when militants stormed into Israeli communities in the south mostly by land but also by sea and air, with fighters paragliding over the perimeter.

But the network of underground passages could be vital for Hamas going forward, according to Yair Golan, the IDF’s former deputy chief of staff. Israel believes that Hamas leaders seek refuge in the tunnels, store weapons there, and are also probably using them to hold the hostages taken from Israel, Golan said.

“We can’t say exactly what the fighting will look like,” he said. “But the last two nights have been Israel’s declaration of intention to Hamas – to say, ‘Pay attention; Israel will continue to apply pressure unless you begin to cooperate with us.'”