The deadly bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday night, which has killed at least 500 people according to health officials, has sparked global outrage and triggered another round of mutual accusations.
The Palestinian side is convinced that the explosion was caused by another smart bomb dropped from an Israeli Air Force plane, but Israel was quick to point the blame at Palestinian fighters, claiming that the blast was caused by a rocket fired from Gaza that failed to reach full flight trajectory.
Scant evidence available in the immediate aftermath is insufficient to draw definite conclusions. Only a careful analysis of the debris left at the hospital that should uncover fragments of the outer shell of the device that exploded could result in a positive identification.
Yet even before this latest attack, there was a growing volume of evidence indicating that Israeli air raids on Palestinians in Gaza have been largely indiscriminate. Most careful target analyses fail to reveal a clear military pattern in the relentless aerial pounding, forcing a question: What logic prompted the Israeli call to Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza last week?
From a military strategy perspective, there are two possible answers. For Israel, either would be a mistake.
The first possibility could be the desire to create such chaos on the roads of the Gaza Strip that the movement of Hamas fighters would become difficult or almost impossible. That logic would follow classic military thinking, proven many times in different wars. But this is not a classic war with two equal sides, nor are Hamas fighters a classic military formation. Any Israeli approach that does not recognise that cannot guarantee even limited success.
Over the years of Israel’s blockade of the enclave, Hamas fighters created a cobweb of tunnels dug under the Gaza Strip. For obvious military reasons, their very existence was a closely guarded Palestinian military secret and even when their presence could no longer be denied, only the vaguest information was allowed to leak out, so they are still shrouded in mystery.
It appears that the practice of digging passages under the ground first started with the need to overcome Israeli occupation of the territory that lasted until 2005. First speculations that Gaza Palestinians might be smuggling goods, military supplies and classic contraband appeared in the 1990s, at the time when the strip was still under the political control of Fatah.
Initially, those tunnels were assumed to be very rudimentary, long just enough to pass under the border fences with Egypt with entrances on both sides hidden by houses. They ran for a couple of hundred metres and were so small that people had to crouch to use them. Whoever visited the Sarajevo Tunnel, a structure hastily dug by the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in mid-1993 to relieve the siege of the city, can imagine what the early Egypt-Gaza tunnels probably looked like: a narrow, cramped hand-dug tube with the low ceiling held by beams and poles.
In time cross-border tunnels became very effective means of smuggling supplies into Gaza. The network expanded inside the Palestinian territory as well, allowing for free movement away from prying civilians who could have been enemy informants and Israeli surveillance equipment ranging from satellites, aeroplanes and helicopters to pilotless drones. In the process, the diggers became highly skilled and improved the quality of the underground facilities.
Hamas videos released in the past week show tunnels of amazing size and sophistication, constructed of proper prefabricated concrete elements, tall and wide enough to allow not only standing height and enough width for fighters to move through at a fast pace, but also enough room to act as well-protected storage for arms and ammunition, including rockets.
The extent and exact location of tunnels are unknown but there is no doubt that the network is extensive and that they allow for the efficient movement of troops and ammunitions underground. For all practical purposes, the relatively small Hamas fighting force could redeploy from one firefight to the next through the tunnels, both in defensive and offensive operations. So, if Israel’s order for people in northern Gaza to leave was aimed at slowing down Hamas’s deployment of troops, it’s a misreading of the ground – or rather underground – reality.
The second possible line of thinking by Israeli military commanders for the order could be the desire to empty the area of non-combatants and make the offensive simpler and easier to conduct.
In theory, there is sound logic in this: if most civilians evacuate, the attackers can assume that whoever is still present on the ground is a fighter, and thus a legitimate military target. Furthermore, such a development would lessen collateral civilian victims and reduce accusations that the Israeli Defense Forces indiscriminately kills civilians.
In reality, Israel must have known – as the United Nations and multiple humanitarian organisations have emphasised – that it would be impossible for 1.1 million people in an already densely populated territory to move overnight, especially under siege conditions where food, water, medicines and fuel are in short supply.
But even if all non-combatants were to follow the directive and miraculously succeed in leaving the northern areas, an Israeli ground offensive would by no means be a walk-over despite their disproportionate advantage in trained, armed and equipped infantry, total unchallenged control of the air and dominance in sophisticated last-generation hi-tech equipment.
An old military maxim says that a commander can consider a territory taken only when his own soldiers’ boots are on the ground in every corner and in the centre of that area. A rubble-filled dense urban terrain, where buildings have already been largely destroyed or damaged by aerial bombardment and preparatory artillery fire, is arguably the most demanding and challenging type of ground for military advance.
When looking for a precedent, Stalingrad comes to mind. Despite their better training and military experience and vast technical superiority, German armies there struggled for eight months to take the ruined city, to be overcome by the Soviet defenders’ determination and sacrifice.
In half-destroyed cities, attackers are in a much more difficult situation than in any other terrain and the classic 3:1 ratio needed by the attacking army to stand a chance of success is not sufficient, with a 5:1 or higher ratio being more realistic.
Paradoxically, if civilians in Gaza heed Israeli demands and vacate the north, they will make it easier for Hamas fighters to fight as they would not have to worry about the effects of their actions on their own brothers and sisters. They could hit anyone who moves on the ground without thinking, knowing that their comrades would as much as practical use the underground corridors to disappear from one place and reappear unexpectedly somewhere else.
Israel is certainly preparing for the next stage. In the days to come, we will examine its military options, capabilities and possible tactics.