The tactics behind Israel’s ground offensive

Israel responded to Hamas’s devastating assault on October 7 with the biggest mobilisation in the nation’s history. But when its tanks and troops finally entered Gaza this weekend, it was not the full-scale invasion some had expected.

Current and former officials said the seemingly limited scope of Israel’s initial incursion — which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dubbed the “second stage” of Israel’s war with Hamas — reflected a complex mix of factors. But above all, Israel wanted to maximise its firepower advantage over Hamas and minimise its own casualties, while attempting to avoid drawing other adversaries into the war, they added.

On a tactical level, the smaller than expected footprint meant ground troops could more easily be provided with close air support — crucial cover for entering parts of northern Gaza where Hamas has spent years preparing defences, according to one person familiar with Israel’s battle plans.

“We are not taking any chances,” said Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military. “When our soldiers are manoeuvring we are doing this with massive artillery, with 50 aeroplanes overhead destroying anything that moves.”

Officials say the fighting in Gaza will be intense: Hamas has trained for urban combat and has built a huge network of tunnels, nicknamed the “Gaza Metro”, which helps move fighters and weapons undetected. The militant group also has an arsenal of anti-tank weapons and improvised explosive devices.

In a taste of the battles to come, Israel’s military on Sunday engaged with Hamas militants who emerged from a tunnel near the Erez border crossing.

“The only thing worse than combat in urban terrain is combat in the rubble of urban terrain. There are so many places where they can hide and carry out ambushes,” said Eyal Hulata, who was head of Israel’s National Security Council until earlier this year.

“When the Israeli military becomes static, they are more vulnerable. That’s why you see them in slow but constant movement, [being] very careful in securing the places they are already in.”

The Israel Defense Forces has been tight-lipped about the precise deployments for one of its most important operations in decades. But officials say the more gradual build-up of forces aims to reduce the likelihood of Hizbollah, the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese militant group that fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006, joining the conflict.

Committing fewer troops in Gaza would also mean manpower could be deployed more easily to the north if Hizbollah — whose militants have been engaged in escalating cross-border skirmishes with Israeli forces — did enter the war, according to the person familiar with Israel’s battle plans.

“I think the messaging for the Israelis [on the land offensive] is very deliberate,” said a western diplomat. “They have been worried that Hizbollah and Iran might see the land invasion as a trigger for some sort of escalation, that’s why they have not called it a land invasion.”

The limited initial incursion was also a reflection of Netanyahu’s pledge to destroy Hamas and remove it from the Gaza Strip being too big to complete quickly, said Yaakov Amidror, a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America and former national security adviser.

“The goal is not a tactical one that we will achieve tomorrow,” he said, adding that he expected the operation to last between six months and a year. “What you are seeing is cautiousness on a tactical level — why should we lose more soldiers than necessary? — and an understanding that the goal is so big that anyhow it cannot be achieved in the next week.”

Other observers think that the scale of the initial incursion is a sign that Israel is aiming for something less ambitious than toppling Hamas. “It seems that their aims are short of completely eliminating Hamas from Gaza.

It seems instead they are in the space of wanting to degrade both the military infrastructure and kill the leadership,” said the western diplomat. “But the honest answer is they still have not really spelt out what the end objective is, maybe because they haven’t really worked it out.”

Israeli officials insist they will not be swayed by international pressure to rein in their armed forces before they have decisively defeated Hamas, whose militants killed more than 1,400 people on October 7, according to the government. Ministers also argue the initial ground incursions will increase pressure on Hamas to release the more than 230 hostages captured that day.

“In this war there is no ‘diplomatic hourglass’, but an operational clock and a human commitment for the return of the kidnapped,” Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said on Saturday. “We will listen to our friends, but we will do what is right for us.”

Others are less sure. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who oversaw major ground operations in Gaza and Lebanon, said Israel probably had less time than the war cabinet believes to realise its goals, given the images of widespread destruction emanating from Gaza.

Israeli strikes have killed 8,005 people in Gaza and injured more than 20,000, according to Palestinian officials. The UN has warned that Israel’s decision to severely restrict supplies of electricity, fuel, water and goods to Gaza has brought it to the brink of a humanitarian collapse.

“The time is shorter than [the war cabinet] think,” said Olmert. “Until now, [the US] gave us ‘presents’. In future, they may give us orders.”

Israel’s initial incursions into Gaza came near Beit Hanoun in the north of Gaza and Bureij in the centre of the strip. Analysts say the approach suggests Israel may try to gradually surround Gaza City, which Israeli officials claim is the base for much of Hamas’s military infrastructure.

Amos Harel, a military correspondent and author of a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Israeli forces had moved 3km to 4km inside Gaza, but were not yet engaged in urban combat. “The logic seems to be to apply pressure, force Hamas fighters out [of their tunnels] and then strike them,” he said.

The person familiar with Israel’s battle plans said that as of Sunday morning the resistance Israel had encountered had not been “major” and it was unclear why Hamas had not fired more anti-tank missiles at the IDF’s armoured vehicles as they entered Gaza.

But others cautioned against reading too much into Hamas’s response at this early stage, especially since Israel’s intelligence spectacularly misjudged the group’s capabilities and intentions earlier this month.

“Everything that has happened since October 7 has been a huge surprise,” said Hulata. “So I would be very careful in making assessments of what Hamas can and cannot do.”

Originally Published in Financial Times.