To be precise, the respite in Gaza was a four-day pause twice extended, first for two days and again for one day, and the resumption of the ground invasion was expected. The Egypt and Qatar-led negotiating process required arduous effort just to procure this brief cessation of hostilities.
Then, throughout the truce, the Israeli defence minister, chief of staff and other officials reiterated their intent to commence a second phase, the plans for which were apparently finalised the day before the fighting resumed.
Regardless of the justifications both sides cited for allowing the truce to lapse, it was clear that the Israeli army had taken advantage of the pause to prepare for another round. It used the interval to give reservists a brief rest, to repair equipment, rearm, and to replenish ammunition stocks via the US arms supply airbridge to Israel that has been operating nonstop since late October.
More significantly, Israel used the interval to take stock of its mistakes in the first round, making up for shortcomings in the ground operations. The most important were the inefficacy of the field tactics that relied heavily on armoured vehicles and the failure to achieve tangible success in its declared aim. The Israeli army had launched three arrow offensives in northern Gaza, maintaining intensive missile bombardment of the Strip throughout. Yet the Qassam Brigades never lost their command-and-control ability, to which exchanges of fire during the truce testified.
In the second phase, the Israeli army is expected to resume its ground incursion in a more meticulous manner. Currently, it is carrying out preparatory operations for these incursions while holding off on wide-scale clearing operations in northern Gaza. This may explain why a portion of the reservists have been given longer leaves. The Israeli army also appears disinclined to call up more reservists in large numbers, perhaps to avert the partial economic paralysis that occurred when the army launched its ground offensive in October. Israeli authorities also believe that the second phase of fighting will last a long time and, therefore, should be fought in stages.
The main aim of the second phase of the ground offensive is the same as the first: to drive the civilians to the south in preparation for creating buffer zones in the north. The Israeli army has divided the Strip into 2,300 operational sectors to facilitate evacuation. Presumably, the residents should be prepared to leave their homes when their sector’s number is called.
According to the leaflets that Israeli warplanes dropped when the fighting resumed, the Israeli occupation forces intend to target the eastern and northern parts of Khan Younis, specifically the neighbourhoods of Al-Qarara, Khuza’a, Abasan and Bani Suheila, all of which have sustained heavy bombardment in recent weeks. The occupation forces instructed the residents of Khan Younis to move northward to Al-Mawasi in northern Rafah and told the residents of Jabalia camp and the Al-Shujaiya neighbourhood to move north to Gaza City Centre or south to Al-Tuffah. This suggests that the Israeli army’s focus in the next stage will be on clearing Jabalia, the most densely populated part of Gaza City, and launching an offensive east of Khan Younis. If this is the case, then the second stage, the offensive into the central part of Gaza around Deir Al-Balah, is around the corner.
Another major purpose of the renewed operations is to force more Palestinians to flee south, this time towards Rafah as opposed to south of Wadi Gaza, as was the case before. It is clear that the Al-Nawasi area near the border with Egypt is the target direction of this stage in Israel’s forcible transfer of Palestinians.
Several factors on the ground support this assessment. The current axes of Israeli troop movements in northern Gaza include, in addition to the Sheikh Radwan quarter and Jabalia camp, the northern areas of the Nuseirat Camp. This is the so-called Netzarim axis, and it indicates a thrust towards the central Gaza Strip from the north. Secondly, the Shayetet-13, an Israeli naval special forces unit, carried out an amphibious landing operation at night on 2 December, targeting the beach west of Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza. The purpose is to facilitate the strategic aim of the second phase, which is to cut Deir Al-Balah and central Gaza off from southern Gaza and to cut Khan Younis off from Rafah City. Thus, theoretically, Gaza would be divided into a southern and northern zone, but practically it would be divided into four sections.
According to some reports from the ground, by 2 December, Israeli tanks managed to reach Salaheddin Road, on the northern outskirts of Khan Younis, confirming that the occupation forces have already launched an offensive along the eastern Kissufim-Qarara axis and that they have partially severed communications between Gaza City, the Nuseirat Camp, Bureij and Deir Al-Balah to the north, and Khan Younis and central Gaza to the south.
The Israeli army appears to have entered the second phase of its operations in Gaza with a different strategic mindset, one that has girded itself for the possibility that the fighting will last for weeks and perhaps months. But the objectives are still the same since they were not accomplished in the first round. And yet there remains the possibility of another “pause” since there remain 137 hostages in Gaza, including 17 women, according to Israeli estimates. During the seven-day pause last week, Hamas released 113 hostages, including 24 foreigners.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly