Gaza Update: as Israel begins its ground offensive, the conflict’s reverberations are being felt far beyond the Strip
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The ground assault on Gaza is now well underway and, as they advance into the Strip’s urban areas, the Israel Defence Forces are coming up against an elusive enemy that has been preparing for this conflict for years. For Hamas’s military wing, a key part of those preparations has been the construction of a large network of tunnels which it can use to move fighters from location to location to mount hit and run attacks and vanish again.
Destroying this network is one of the key objectives of what Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says is the “second phase” of this campaign. Known as the “Gaza Metro”, this comprises an estimated 300 miles of tunnels, some as deep as 70 metres underground. The network has been under development for years, but construction was stepped up when Israel relaxed its embargo on the shipment of building supplies into Gaza in 2012.
The renewed conflict between Israel and Hamas has been shocking and distressing – and raised major questions about the future of the Middle East. The Conversation is calling upon some of the leading experts with a deep knowledge of the region to help readers understand the big issues. You can subscribe to our fortnightly recap of expert analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Chris Morris, who teaches military strategy at the University of Portsmouth, writes that Israel has anticipated and developed a military doctrine for fighting in these tunnels, many of which have been built under schools, hospitals, refugee camps and other residential areas.
Israel is trying to destroy as much of this network as it can from the air, but inevitably the Israeli Defence Forces will need to venture underground and, writes Morris, will find them “defended, booby-trapped and likely to be populated with human shields and hostages as well as fighters … challenging for even a well-equipped and capable attacking force”.
What the Israel Defence Forces can expect when they enter the ‘Gaza Metro' tunnel system
October 7 2023 has been called Israel’s 9/11. It is one of the most alarming crises to engulf the Middle East since, with the potential to escalate across the region. This article is the first of what will be a fortnightly roundup of The Conversation’s coverage of the conflict, calling on some of the best thinkers on Middle East politics and security to provide their analysis of this fast-moving situation. You can sign up to receive this as an email here.
Like the 2001 terror attacks on New York, the Hamas assault over the border into Israel came so out of the blue that not only did it take the world by surprise, but it also caught Israel’s famed intelligence services – commonly thought to be among the best in the world – on the hop.
Robert Dover, a professor of intelligence and national security at the University of Hull, says Israeli intelligence severely underestimated Hamas’s capabilities. The use of thousands of rockets to neutralise Israel’s Iron Dome defence system before the attack was launched by fighters using hang gliders to fly over the security fence and bulldozers to push through. Border guards were neutralised and the indiscriminate killing began.
Dover believes that key to this was a failure of Israel’s use of what is known as “humint” – human intelligence gathered from informants – something at which Israel had previously been thought to be adept. He also raises the question, which has become increasingly pertinent over the weeks since October 7, that Israeli intelligence might have written off the idea of an attack of this magnitude because of the likely severity of Israel’s response. Perhaps, he writes, this is precisely what Hamas was hoping for.
How Israel underestimated Hamas's intelligence capabilities – an expert reviews the evidence
Paul Rogers, an expert in international security at the University of Bradford, has been following conflict in the Middle East for decades. Having watched as Israel has fought four wars in Gaza since 2007, he warns that a ground assault is likely to come with significant casualties on both sides, but particularly among Palestinian civilians, as is already being reported.
Pointing to the fact that it took a US-led coalition nine months to wrestle the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State, Rogers notes that the Iraqi force that conducted operations on the ground lost more than 8,000 troops and caused the death of more than 10,000 civilians. With the aforementioned network of tunnels in Gaza, Hamas is likely to be prepared for a lengthy campaign. The question is whether Israel’s international support will collapse as the casualties mount.
Israel-Hamas war: hard experience says a land war won't go well – and faltering international support suggests the world knows it
Netanyahu under pressure
Before the events of October 7, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was already under considerable pressure as a result of his hugely unpopular reforms of the judicial system which effectively gave the Knesset – the Israeli parliament – control over the supreme court. Many of his opponents believe his reform was motivated by the multiple corruption charges he faces – he has been dubbed the “crime minister” – and hundreds of thousands of people from across the spectrum of Israeli society, including members of the IDF, were regularly taking to the streets in protests, unprecedented in the country’s history.
The October 7 attack has had the effect of pulling Israelis together, and Netanyahu has attempted to reach out across the political spectrum, calling in former defence minister Benny Gantz as part of a war cabinet. He also asked Yair Lapid, the leader of the main opposition party, to join, but Lapid declined to serve alongside the far-right ministers whose support Netanyahu has depended on to stay in power.
But this has not halted criticism of the Israeli prime minister, who many blame for the country’s unpreparedness for the attack, writes Amnon Aran, a specialist in the Arab-Israeli conflict at City, University of London. Aran notes that there have been widespread calls for a vote of no confidence in Netanyahu’s leadership and adds: “His day of reckoning will come, possibly even before the Israel-Hamas 2023 war is over.”
Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership is questioned even as Israelis rally round the flag
Of course the great fear is that this conflict will spill out across the region, drawing in Israel’s neighbours and what has been dubbed the “axis of resistance”: Iran and its network of proxy fighting forces across the Middle East.
Hezbollah, the Iran-backed political and military movement which operates mainly out of Lebanon, has already theatened Israel’s Lebanese border, while further afield in Yemen, Iran-backed Houthi rebels are maintaining a barrage of rocket fire and have declared that they are ready to join Hamas in an all-out war against Israel.
Hussein Abou Saleh, a Middle East expert at Sciences Po in France, considers the nightmare scenario if all Israel’s antagonists in the region join forces. At present, he writes: “Players … seem to be walking along the crater of a volcano.”
Iran's ‘axis of resistance': how Hamas and Tehran are attempting to galvanise their allies against Israel
Simon Mabon, a professor of international relations at Lancaster University, whose latest book The Struggle for Supremacy in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran is a detailed examination of power politics in the Middle East, offers us this Q&A considering the key regional issues which will be affected by the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Israel-Gaza conflict: how could it change the Middle East's political landscape? Expert Q&A
Meanwhile, watching with what you’d have to imagine is a degree of trepidation from Beirut is the caretaker prime minister of Lebanon, Najib Mikati. This week Mikati came up with a three-point peace plan calling for a five-day ceasefire followed by a permanent cessation of hostilities and the convening of an international conference to finally resolve the issue by implementing the ever-elusive two-state solution.
Tarek Abou Jaoude, who researches Lebanese politics at the University of Portsmouth, believes there is a distinct lack of appetite in Lebanon for this conflict to cross into his country. With the economy in a parlous state Lebanon simply can’t afford war. But with Hezbollah an influential fixture in the country’s political system, he may not have much choice. Hezbollah is already firing on IDF positions along the border with Gaza and the fear is that with Iran’s encouragement, this could well escalate in coming days.
Israel-Hamas war: Lebanese peace plan reflects country's lack of appetite for more conflict
Memory of a more peaceful time
During the October 7 attack, hundreds of young people – Israelis and tourists – were killed or kidnapped from an all-night dance party in the Negev Desert close to the Kibbutz Re'im.
Anna Lippman, a sociology instructor at York University in Canada, volunteered on the kibbutz back in 2010. She recalls golden days “when we would gather at the swimming pool amid the beautiful landscape and drink beer and smoke shisha while the radio blared in the background and kids took their mandatory swimming lessons”. She also recalls being taken to the Gaza border where she saw Palestinians locked into what is widely known as the “world’s largest open-air prison”.
She writes: “As I watch the news from Canada, I can’t help but cry for the people of Gaza as well. Unlike Israelis on the other side of the fence, Gazans have no bomb shelters.”
I once lived on Kibbutz Re'im: Before and after Israeli airstrikes, daily life in Gaza is brutal
Talking is vital
One of the most challenging aspects of this war is its polarising effect.
There are those that feel the pain, loss and histories of Jewish people have been dismissed. On the other hand, those attempting to apply an anti-colonial lens to the issue are being shut down and labelled as antisemitic.
Natalie Rothman is a professor of historical and cultural studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She grew up in Israel. She has friends and relatives in the region, including family members who have been taken hostage by Hamas.
Norma Rantisi is a professor of geography and urban planning at Concordia University who has done work in the region. She has family in the West Bank and is a member of the Academics for Palestine Concordia, and the Palestinian-Canadian Academics and Artists Network.
In this podcast produced by our Canadian colleagues, the pair get together to discuss a way forward.
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