Gaza’s genocide continues

Mohamed Mansour, Thursday 4 Jan 2024

Israel is gearing up for the third phase of its war on Gaza in the wake of the ambiguous results of the first two phases.

A child holds a plate while sitting between rubble in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip
A child holds a plate while sitting between rubble in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (photo: AFP)

 

Israel is fast completing the second stage of its military operations in Gaza. Unlike the first, this one covers all the main sectors of the Strip. While on the surface the movements of the Israeli ground forces suggest considerable progress compared to the first stage, the lack of a major operational accomplishment makes the net results much the same as those of the first.

In recent days, the Israeli operations have mostly ended in the north of the Gaza Strip, especially along the Zaytoun and Shujaiya axes. This leaves only the Daraj and Tuffah neighbourhoods as the main focus of the operations in the northern sector and the Jabalya Refugee Camp, where the fighting is less intensive.

The operations have now shifted to central Gaza with the aim of seizing control over the refugee camps in that sector, namely Bureij, Nuseira, Maghazi and Deir Al-Balah. The tactical aim is to secure this area as quickly as possible to shape the situation on the ground in a manner that allows the Israeli forces in the north to end the operations there completely and to create a definitive separation between the northern and central sectors.

In the southern sector, the operations have continued in the east and southeast of Khan Younis, with a particular focus on Bani Suhaila southeast of the city and Al-Katiba on the outskirts of the Al-Amal neighbourhood in eastern Khan Younis. This week, Israeli forces launched a new offensive axis in the direction of the Khuzaa area southeast of Khan Younis. The move suggests that Israel wants to accelerate operations in the central and southern sectors, preparatory to commencing the third stage.

In terms of the disposition of forces, the Israeli 162nd Division continues its operations in Daraj and Tuffah, the 36th Division remains focused on Bureij, and the 98th and 99th Divisions are fighting in the Khan Younis area.

Sudden changes have been made in troop deployments in northern and central Gaza. The Golani Brigade withdrew from Shujaiya, while a paratrooper brigade landed in Khan Younis and joined the 98th Division.

In addition, the Israeli command announced that they have pulled five reserve brigades out of the fighting in northern Gaza, namely the 460thArmoured Brigade, which is in charge of the armoured corps training base; the 261st Brigade of the Wartime Officer Training School; the 828th Brigade of the Infantry Officers and Division Commanders School; the 14th Reserve Armoured Brigade; and the 551stParachute Brigade.

While the adjustments indicate that the operations in the northern sector are winding up, the reason for the withdrawal is primarily economic. These brigades, normally tasked with military training, will resume their normal activities, while the reservists will be demobilised so that they can return to their jobs. The massive call-up of reserves had drained the Israeli economy of a large chunk of its labour force.

According to several Israeli media outlets, the Israeli army is gearing up for a third stage in the coming weeks. It is believed that it will consist of intensive combat operations, while the large-scale ground invasions will end, and the reserves will be sent back home. The scale of operations will be reduced with an emphasis on “surgical” strikes and missions aimed at hunting down and eliminating first-line commanders of the Hamas Al-Qassam Brigades and at creating a buffer zone inside Gaza.

The most politically charged aspect of the transition to the third stage appears to concern timing, as the transition process involves withdrawing from certain areas while sustaining ground incursions against different target areas in Gaza as well as air strikes. The US, which has been pressing Israel to change the nature of its operations, especially in the southern sector, wants the transition to more limited operations to occur sooner and by 31 January, according to some US circles.

Another point of contention revolves around the future of the Strip itself. “Scenarios for the day after” have been the subject of extensive discussions in Israel. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly refused to discuss the “day after,” he has reportedly tasked security officials with identifying possible local forces in Gaza that might cooperate with Israel in managing the affairs of the Strip after the war.

The officials would also explore the possibility of strengthening armed clans and other amenable local forces and helping them assume control over certain parts of Gaza.

The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC) has confirmed this thinking. It reports that Tel Aviv wants to establish a body made up of local residents to administer and distribute aid in collaboration with international agencies. The body, according to the report, would operate primarily in the northern sector where Israel presumes it has achieved military control.

The IPBC report is further evidence that Tel Aviv opposes any involvement of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the administration of Gaza. The point was also made by the US Washington Post newspaper, which has noted Israel’s lack of support for the US’ efforts to strengthen the role of the PA and position it to assume control in Gaza after the war.

The situation along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon complicates projections regarding the coming phase. Netanyahu, in remarks to the press, has said that his government is pursuing diplomatic channels to resolve the problem to the north but that, if those fail, “there are other ways.”

Lebanese sources report that the US and France are using the Israeli threat of war as a means to pressure Beirut into agreeing to a plan whereby the Lebanese army would replace Hizbullah forces in the south.

Meanwhile, most of the heads of Israeli settlements in the north have come out against Netanyahu's plan for evacuating the northern settlements, which would paralyse the economy in the area.

Confusion and anger grew among the settler communities when the Israeli radio station Kan B reported that there was a discrepancy between Netanyahu’s public statements regarding the distance Hizbullah should be removed from the border and what was being discussed behind closed doors.

Israel is passing messages to Lebanon through US and French diplomatic channels conveying proposals that conflict with Netanyahu’s positions on Hizbullah and Lebanese army deployments in southern Lebanon.

As to how the third stage of Israeli operations will unfold, Netanyahu has often mentioned the notion of “security control” over Gaza. This could suggest several possible scenarios involving the imposition of buffer zones

SCENARIO

One scenario involves Israel taking control over the Salaheddin (Philadelphia) axis, thereby assuming control over all land crossings into Gaza, including the Palestinian side of the Rafah Crossing, and creating a buffer zone covering the entire area between the Salaheddin Road, which stretches the full length of Gaza, and the border between Gaza and Israel.

This scenario has met with muted opposition in the Israeli military establishment, which is not keen on having a permanent presence in Gaza. The military prefers continuing with the current scenario that aims to wrest control of Gaza from Hamas and impose new administrative arrangements in the post-war period.

Some Israeli circles have suggested creating a military body responsible for executing intermittent incursions into the Strip along the lines of the way the Israeli occupation has been handling the West Bank. This scenario presumes that the military capacities of the Palestinian resistance factions will have been completely degraded or at least degraded enough not to pose a threat to Israel. That goal has not been achieved yet.

Another scenario calls for internal buffer zones separating the northern, central, and southern sectors from each other. According to this logic, cutting up Gaza in this way would prevent Hamas from regaining its military capabilities.

Implementing this scenario would demand the almost total annihilation of Palestinian military capabilities so that Israeli troops could be permanently stationed in the Strip without facing a formidable threat. Presumably, the troops would act as monitoring force on guard against any hostile activity.

The increasing area of the Israeli military presence in north and central Gaza should not be taken as proof of field dominance, especially not when Palestinian resistance operations continue in areas where Israel has announced its operations have ended, such as Zaytoun and Shujaiya.

The Palestinian rocket fire into Israel has decreased. However, the declared Israeli goal was to completely end the missile threat. It is therefore remarkable that the resistance has sustained its ability to fire rockets, if at a slower rate, nevertheless.

In the first week of December, following the collapse of the truce, Hamas fired an average of 75 rockets a day into Israel. The following week the number dropped to 23, then to 16 a day from 15 to 21 December, and 14 a day from 22 to 27 December.

Tel Aviv has not been able to deliver effective blows to Hamas at the level of the Al-Qassam Brigades command structure either. The greatest attrition at this level has been felt by a single brigade, the Gaza Brigade.

Here, Israeli forces managed to eliminate most of its battalion commanders, including Haitham Al-Hawajri, the commander of the Shati Battalion; Rifaat Abbas, commander of the Daraj and Tuffah Battalion; Wissam Farhat, commander of the Shujaiya Battalion; his predecessor, Imad Qureiq; Mustafa Dalloul, commander of the Sabra and Tel Al-Hawa Battalion; and Nassim Abu Ajina, commander of the Beit Lahiya Battalion.

In addition, the Israelis killed Rateb Abu Sahiban, commander of Hamas’ naval forces of the Gaza City Brigade, and Raafat Salman, director of the military support system. This leaves only Ezzeddin Al-Haddad and Imad Islam, commanders of the Zaytoun and Furqan battalions, respectively, in the Gaza Brigade command structure.

Against this, there are also the losses incurred by Tel Aviv. These include 825 pieces of heavy military equipment, according to Palestinian estimates. More significantly, the longer Israel continues its military operations in Gaza, the worse attrition it will wreak on the Israeli economy.

Israel’s debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to rise to 66 percent in 2024. So far, the war has cost Israel $51 billion, which comes to 10 percent of the 2024 budget in which the deficit has climbed to $6 billion. Israel has already had to borrow $8 billion.

Such factors should logically compel Israel to wind up the operations as soon as possible or, at least, to shift to a “limited operation” approach. Washington will be pressing in this direction now that it has entered a presidential election year.

Another major critical factor is potential problems with ammunition and weapons supplies, to which the situation in Ukraine testifies. Then there is the problem of Congressional hurdles in the US, which recently held up what would ordinarily have been a “normal” deal to supply Israel with 20,000 M4A1 assault rifles until its terms could be reviewed


* A version of this frontpage article of the 2023 Al-Ahram Weekly Yearender appears in print in the 4 January 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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