“Sadly, there is no victory in sight,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a political analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, recently. “Netanyahu’s talk about a war lasting a long time is not a Churchillian vision for an anguished nation – it is a marketing ploy for a non-existent victory.”
“Hamas has deceived us a second time, giving us a whole day to penetrate the Gaza Strip on two axes and then surprising us with elite forces, leaving the bodies of our soldiers on Al-Nasr Street and elsewhere. It looks as if our forces have two options: either withdrawal or humiliating death and surrender.”
A new situation has taken shape on the battlefield since the Israeli army launched its “limited” ground offensive into northern Gaza. The fighting has shifted from the envelope around Gaza, the focus of various offensive operations by the Palestinian factions, to close-quarter fighting in the northwestern, northeastern and southern parts of Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip.
This imposes different options on both sides in the conflict, especially the Palestinians.
The current Israeli plan of action on the ground now seems clear, despite the downgrades in the aims of the plan from a full-scale invasion of Gaza, to completely “crushing” Hamas’ military capacities, to a drive to curtail, if only partially, Hamas’ control over the Strip.
These changes are the product of various political factors as well as serious challenges in the field. The Israeli forces are mainly focused on northern Gaza where from the outset of the military operation after 7 October the Israeli authorities issued repeated warnings to the inhabitants to head southwards beyond Wadi Gaza in central Gaza.
It was not long before it became clear that Israel intended to drive people further south than that. The Israeli army’s orders instructed them to head to the Al-Mawasi “safety” zone located only six km from the Egyptian border.
Operationally, the Israeli ground offensive is proceeding along three main axes. The first, in Beit Lahiya in the northwest of Gaza, is the main one. Israeli mechanised infantry and armoured and engineering units are moving along four sub-axes. The first is along the coast from the Al-Maqousi area towards the Al-Shati Refugee Camp and the adjacent Al-Karama neighbourhood, and then the Sheikh Ajlein and Ansar areas.
The thrust of the offensive is the strongest along this sub-axis as it leads through the Shifa Hospital, which Israel has identified as a Hamas “military zone,” Tel Aviv’s customary way of justifying the frequent targeting of Palestinian hospitals and other healthcare facilities in Gaza.
The second sub-axis in this direction targets the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, while the third and the fourth are in the direction of Al-Atatreh and Beit Lahiya, where Israeli forces are carrying out engineering operations against the Hamas tunnel network in the area.
The second main axis is in the Beit Hanoun direction in the northeast of Gaza. It is primarily targeting the Jabalia Refugee Camp and the Tuffah neighbourhood. The third main axis is in the direction of the south and southeast of the Zeitoun area, centring on Juhr Al-Dik. It is an important axis at the tactical level, as it aims to sever the north from the south of the Gaza Strip by cutting off the two main north-south roads: the Salaheddin and Al-Rashid Roads along the coast.
Israeli forces are fighting the Palestinian resistance forces in two main directions along this axis: from the north, south of Zeitoun and Tel Al-Hawa, and from the south, north of the Nuseirat and Al-Bureij Refugee Camps.
The Israeli advances in the north are reinforced by three axes in the south. The first is towards Khuza’a – Al-Qarara located between the south of Deir Al-Balah and east of Khan Yunis; the second is in the direction of Maghazi, east of Deir Al-Balah; and the third is in the direction of Rafah City at the southern end of Gaza.
The Israeli forces here are carrying out limited attacks with no intent to dig in or press forward. The main aim is apparently to pin down the Palestinian forces in order to keep them from supporting their fellow fighters in the north.
The Israeli forces are using a classic approach to advance along the axes in the northern part of the Strip. This has featured in all Israeli ground operations, whether in the October 1973 War or the invasion of Beirut in 1982.
It relies mainly on intensive aerial bombardment to level the urban environment before ground forces move in. Towards this end, the Israeli forces have been using the heaviest bombs available, ranging from guided missiles to Vietnam-era free-fall M-117 demolition bombs, which can have devastating effects on residential areas precisely because they are not guided.
After the aerial assaults, and depending on the results, Israeli armoured forces then moved in.
However, heavy Type D-9 armoured bulldozers are brought in first in order to clear the way, something like minesweeping equipment. These pave the way for tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and they also bulldoze any tunnel openings that are discovered.
The Israeli army has also brought in specialised armoured engineering vehicles called Puma, which are equipped with the mine-clearing systems. They can also be used to destroy buildings and concrete obstacles.
On the Palestinian side, the nature of the combat environment is the most important asset. Fighting in an urban environment is one of the most formidable challenges for regular armed forces, while it favours the guerrilla tactics used by resistance fighters. Gaza has one of the densest urban environments in the world, with a population of approximately 2.3 million people living in only 365 square km, or a population of several thousand per square km.
This complex and crowded urban terrain adds to the density factor, as it restricts the manoeuvrability of armoured vehicles and soldiers. It is no surprise, therefore, that Israeli infantry units have found it difficult to advance quickly while maintaining formation, as they are moving through narrow streets and closely packed buildings.
Sometimes they are forced to wait until the Air Force steps in to demolish buildings in their way. This could make these units sitting targets for Palestinian anti-tank missiles or mortars, especially since the only shields they have during tactical stops or while refuelling the sandbag walls they erect to protect their vehicles. These makeshift fortifications have proven ineffective against mortars.
Another challenge posed by the urban environment is that it can disrupt or distort an army’s visual and wireless communications. Poor radio transmissions between armoured and infantry units and command centres due to the irregular urban terrain can generate major operational hazards. This terrain and its risks can severely complicate crucial logistical operations, such as refuelling, rearming, and rotating forces, which are already being carried out under fire in a hostile environment.
The most important asset of the Palestinian factions in an urban environment lies in the many opportunities it offers for snares and ambushes. As the confrontations that have taken place in recent days have shown, Palestinian fighters have effectively taken on Israeli armoured units from well-camouflaged areas and from hideouts amidst the rubble of demolished buildings.
A further danger for the invading force is the tunnel networks that the factions have built throughout the Strip. These have been used as staging points for attacks, for storing ammunition, for bringing food and materiel to the fighters, and to transport fighters from one battle front to another. In general, the tunnels negate many of the technological advantages available to modern armies, which need specialised equipment and techniques to counter tunnel warfare.
For armoured units, anti-tank weapons present one of the greatest risks in urban environments as the density of the infrastructure offers plenty of places for fighters armed with anti-tank launchers to hide, detect, and target enemy vehicles. In Gaza, the Palestinians frequently use portable shoulder-launched missiles such as the Al-Yassin 105mm anti-tank rocket, a locally developed version of the Soviet PG-7V. While this has many versions, they are all designed with a dual detonation mechanism to pierce through the armour of a tank.
The Al-Yassin RPG made its first appearance among the Palestinian fighters in 2004. It has since undergone major developments that have significantly reduced the margin of superiority of Israeli armoured vehicles.
In their face-to-face battles with Israeli tanks and other armoured vehicles in northern Gaza, the Palestinian fighters have shown that they are fully cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of each type of vehicle in the arena.
For example, they have realised that the main weaknesses of the Merkava Mark 3 and Mark 4 battle tanks lie in the hull, the rear escape hatch, the joint between the turret and the hull, the ammunition feed under the gun, and the missile magazine at the rear. They have also identified the main weaknesses of the personnel carriers and other vehicles in the Israeli army.
Testimony to this came in the destruction of a Namer armoured personnel carrier at the beginning of the ground offensive, killing 11 Israeli soldiers. In this operation, the resistance fighters targeted the rear door, a weakness of this type of vehicle. Israel claimed that the Palestinian rocket used hit a Matador anti-tank rocket launcher aboard the personnel carrier, causing a larger secondary explosion inside.
The Palestinian resistance fighters are also familiar with the mechanisms of the soft- and hard-kill systems that some Israeli tanks have in order to protect themselves against anti-tank missiles. This helps to explain why the Merkava 4, known as Paz, was unable to activate its Trophy kill system, which consists of a set of sensors that detect an approaching anti-tank projectile and trigger a missile to destroy it before it reaches its target.
Real-life tests in the field have shown that this system is less efficient during combat among concrete obstacles. It also cannot protect a tank against missiles fired from distances of less than 60 metres. The Palestinian fighters took advantage of this when intercepting the Merkavas in northern Gaza. They were equally successful against the ALWACS soft-kill system used by some earlier Merkava tanks, as well as against the Israeli D-9 armoured bulldozer, which is the spearhead of the current ground offensive in northern Gaza.
The ALWACS jams the guidance system of infrared anti-tank missiles. It is therefore useless against shoulder-fired rocket launchers such as the Al-Yassin that uses unguided missiles.
However, if the urban terrain appears to favour the Palestinians in the north, the fact that the Israelis have severed the north from the south of the Strip along the Juhr al-Dik axis means that the fighters in the north cannot be resupplied and reinforced from the south apart from through any still-existing tunnels. This means that they must hold their ground and continue to wreak attrition on Israeli armoured units through ambushes and other guerrilla tactics.
Further testimony to their success in this lies in the fact that the Israeli army has begun to form new armoured battalions equipped with older versions of the Merkava 3 that had earlier been earmarked for retirement.
It should be noted that the resistance fighters have been careful not to deplete their stocks of newer anti-armour missiles, such as the Russian Kornet anti-tank guided missile. They have also held back on their use of long-range missiles, such as the Ayyash-250 and the R-160. The same applies to mobile munitions, such as the Zouari drone. Instead, they have opted for commercial drones that have been modified to carry grenades or anti-tank warheads.
This economising is a sign that the factions are aware that the battle in northern Gaza will not be the last and that the Israeli army’s moves to drive the Gazans towards Al-Mawasi near the border with Egypt means that Israel may soon launch a second phase of the ground offensive. That could include the central sector, where Nuseirat and Deir Al-Balah are located.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly