Rafah mission catastrophe

Mina Adel, Tuesday 14 May 2024

What is the strategy the Israeli army is using in its campaign against Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, asks Mina Adel

Rafah mission catastrophe


At sunset on 5 May, one of the commanders of the Israeli 401st Armoured Brigade stood up to read from the Torah and then blew the Jewish shofar or prayer horn. His soldiers finished their prayers and prepared for the Rafah operation. The preparations had lasted for more than a week in training camp “Tselem” known as “little Gaza”, so the soldiers received the latest instructions on how to carry out this complicated operation.

The operation started with 50 air strikes on the city, and the Israeli army advanced into it along two main axes. The 401st Armoured Brigade took the first axis towards Rafah City, equipped with Merkava Mk 4 Windbreaker tanks mostly from the ninth and 46th battalions. A second advance took place eastwards using elite Merkava Mk 4 Barak tanks from the 52nd battalion.

The 84th Givati Mechanised Infantry Brigade took the second axis in the direction of the village of Al-Bayuk. It breached the border at two points away from the newly built logistical road near the Karem Abu Salem Crossing using Namer-IFV (infantry fighting vehicle) armour without escort from main battle tanks.

This was an obvious shift in Israeli tactics, and it appears that their task was to control the Salaheddin Road. The operation was conducted under light air cover from Apache attack helicopters, Hermes drones, and some fighter jets, indicating that it was limited in scale.

Israeli tanks headed in a provocative manner along the Philadelphi Corridor, led by an unmanned M113 Zelda armoured personnel carrier carrying the Israeli and 401st Brigade flags and passing through an area not authorised under the Camp David Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli journalist Amos Harel said that “this was yet another demonstration of reckless and undisciplined conduct: soldiers were dictating the manner in which this operation was depicted outside the country, thus advancing the aims of one political camp concerning the correct priorities of this war.”

The unnecessary show of flags, he said, and the operation itself have left the international community even more concerned about renewed harm to the humanitarian aid flowing into the Gaza Strip, which could be endangered by the combat taking place adjacent to central arteries and the Rafah Crossing.

Israel’s insistence on operating in the heart of a densely populated part of Rafah could hasten a direct confrontation with the Biden administration, Harel said. Some hours later the Biden administration reportedly halted the delivery of 6,500 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs due to domestic political pressure against the Israeli ground invasion of Rafah.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying that “if we have to stand alone, we will stand alone. If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails. But we have much more than fingernails.”

“We did not have weapons,” he said, referring to the 1948 War. “There was an arms embargo on Israel, but with great strength of spirit, heroism, and unity among us, we were victorious.”

In fact, the Jewish militias of the period had many capable soldiers and mercenaries with extensive combat experience in World War II. They were also armed with powerful weapons imported from Eastern Europe and the US.

In order better to understand the Israeli military campaign in Rafah, Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to French experts General François Chauvancy, an expert on military doctrine with a career that has spanned more than 40 years, first in the regular army and then in NATO, and retired Colonel Michel Goya, an expert on military operations and a former assistant to the chief of staff of the French Armed Forces on issues of military doctrine.

Chauvancy described Rafah as a “small operating theatre, highly urbanised, heavily populated with 2.5 million inhabitants and dependent on international aid with small tactical depth (41 km long and six to 12 km wide, so within the range of artillery) and landlocked between Israel and Egypt, states which have closed their borders to any movement of refugees, and bordered by the Mediterranean.”

Hamas units include six to eight battalions that have been holed up in Rafah in fortified urban dwellings for six months. They are restricted to the middle of the Strip, he added.

“In order for the Israelis to achieve their objectives, they will try to find the location of the resistance forces and command centres and possibly also the places of detention of the hostages by electronic means and intelligence reports and then isolate the city of Rafah in order to tackle the Hamas fighters.”

“They will prepare secure corridors and reception areas to allow the population to leave. They will also inform the population about the upcoming attack, destroy by targeted strikes the identified resistance points, and distribute by combat unit areas of operations that will be cleaned successively, neighbourhood by neighbourhood and house by house, by the infantry supported by armoured vehicles.”

“Several areas of operations can be processed at the same time to partition Rafah and prevent Hamas from presenting a coordinated defence. The cleaned areas should be occupied in order to prevent the return of Hamas fighters, such as happened recently in northern Gaza.”

“The attack on Rafah will be very similar to that carried out on Khan Younes,” Goya said, “with, as far as possible, the evacuation of the civilian population followed by a concentration of at least five Israeli brigades around the city and the methodical conquest of different neighbourhoods for probably several weeks.”

“The objective is to destroy the four or five remaining Hamas battalions and perhaps finally eliminate its main leaders and of course also free the hostages by force or at least by military pressure.”

However, it appears that the operation will be extremely difficult for the Israeli Occupying Forces because Hamas still has the resources to counterattack.

According to a report by the US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 10 May, the sophisticated nature of the Hamas attacks requires planning, coordination, and organisation, further underscoring the fact that the Hamas battalions in Rafah are cohesive fighting units that can mount a deliberate defence against Israeli clearing operations in the southern Gaza Strip, as was recently proven in the Al-Zanna ambush, a surprise attack by Hamas forces on Israeli forces at Al-Zanna east of Khan Younes in April which unveiled multiple indications proving the amount of military training that the Hamas militants received through the implementation of plans based on Western doctrine, such as TLP-Troop Leading Procedures.

According to Chauvancy, “in Rafah and also in the Gaza Strip more generally, Hamas will be able to launch urban guerrilla operations in small groups, including anti-armoured and anti-personnel ambushes using mines, booby traps, snipers, and rockets from ruined buildings, and it will be able to carry out actions behind the Israeli lines through undiscovered tunnels or uncleaned areas. It could also create a new front in the West Bank.”

Goya said that “faced with the Israeli offensive on Rafah, which should not take long, Hamas will continue to resist as much as possible while trying to take advantage of the underground tunnels network to transfer its forces, leaders, and the hostages to another area of Gaza, if it has not already done so.”

“It is likely that at the end of the Israeli operation, Hamas and especially the population as a whole will have suffered new and heavy losses, while the general situation will probably not have changed.”

The immediate question remains the humanitarian situation of the evacuated Palestinians in the light of harsh Israeli bombardments that make use of artificial intelligence (AI).

According to the UK newspaper the Guardian, Israel is using its Lavender AI system developed by Elite Intelligence Unit 8200 in Gaza. According to testimony from six intelligence officers, AI systems are being used to identify Hamas targets in the war.

Two sources said that during the early weeks of the war they were permitted to kill 15 or 20 civilians during airstrikes on low-ranking militants. The Israeli +972 Magazine stated that “in the event that the target was a senior Hamas official with the rank of battalion or brigade commander, the army on several occasions authorised the killing of more than 100 civilians in the assassination of a single commander.”

Chauvancy said that in this type of conflict, procedures to avoid civilian losses are limited. According to some states and international law, the application of humanitarian principles, and therefore the protection of populations, should take precedence over military operations.

However, whether in Gaza or Ukraine, wars aim at the destruction of the adversary. They call into question principles of population protection. A secondary issue of the conflict is the hostages. Losses are assumed, but at the same time they are exploited to arouse indignation and serve as propaganda.

Goya said that “despite Israeli efforts to get the population out, the major problem is the extreme brutality of the air campaign, which despite the precautions taken ends up causing havoc.”

A second problem is the immaturity of the Israeli soldiers, young conscripts for the most part, and a third is the fact that the Israelis have not really taken into account the needs of the displaced population.

“We can legitimately consider that the Israeli army has committed many war crimes. To avoid this and to save their image, the Israelis should have taken many more precautions, should have massively helped the Gazan population, including on Israeli soil, made much less use of aerial firepower, and better supervised the troops,” he said.

“This was not done, and the result has been catastrophic for everyone.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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