We are now four days into the conflict along the Gaza – Israel border which has shocked the world with its ferocity and ruthlessness. Casualties continue to mount on both sides, with more than 1,000 Israelis dead and suggestions of 830 Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes. In addition, Israel claims to have found some 1,500 bodies of Hamas terrorists inside its territory. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) say they have now sealed the border along the Gaza Strip following their declaration of war on Hamas and have essentially imposed a siege on the Palestinian territory. They have also stopped power, supplies, and any movement into or out of the Gaza Strip.
This, however, together with the extensive air attacks on Hamas locations and command centres inside Gaza, is only the first phase of the Israeli reaction to the terrorist attacks on their territory. It now looks certain that the IDF will advance into Gaza, winkle out the Hamas leadership and militants from their hiding places, and destroy them. To this end an IDF spokesman has stated that they have assembled some 35 battalions, which could mean anywhere up to or beyond 20,000 troops in the front line, on the border for the imminent operation. On top of this, they have called up as many as 300,000 reservists, many flying back from around the globe, to meet the threat.
Israel is deadly serious in its intent.
I fear that the invasion and re-occupation of Gaza, if that is indeed what the Israeli government has in mind, will not be straightforward. Despite their overwhelming military advantage in troop numbers and weaponry, much of the area they are about to enter is urban, calling for specialised training and techniques and huge amounts of ammunition and supplies. Urban settings almost always favour the defenders, and Hamas has had years to prepare. Casualties will be heavy.
This has all the makings of an immense struggle. I reckon that the Israelis have a window of opportunity of only a few weeks before what is certain to be an intensive and destructive conflagration brings international condemnation and calls for a cessation of hostilities. But Israel is not minded to relent until it has rid itself of the Hamas menace, and their enemies in turn have stated they will not negotiate over the hostages they have taken until the fighting stops. Above all else, much of the current support for Israel will depend on them being able as far as possible to isolate the militants and protect innocent civilians.
We will see very shortly whether they will be able to achieve this. And as for the hostages, well, it may be that the Israeli government and military high command has already written them off. War is a brutal and unforgiving affair.
In the meantime there are fears that the conflict could spread in the region and beyond. There have already been incursions from South Lebanon which the IDF has dealt with, and it is currently moving more troops there to deal with that threat. Whether this has involved Hezbollah, a well-known long-term ally of Hamas which has its base in south Lebanon, is not yet clear.
At the same time a US carrier battle group, comprising the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier, a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, and four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, is moving into the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Israel. This is mainly a show of strength and a pre-emptive measure, but it may also be positioning itself for the evacuation of US nationals.
What we do know is that Hamas and their allies in Hezbollah have access to modern anti-ship missiles, so the US ships are not sailing into a benign environment. There has been no direct threat to the battle group yet as far as we know, but it only takes one hothead to fire a missile at the US fleet and we will enter a completely different ball game.
In the event of the unthinkable happening the USA would be obliged to respond, and would therefore become directly involved in the conflict. And, bearing in mind that any anti-ship missiles directed at its fleet would almost certainly have been supplied – either directly or via proxies – by Iran, there could be follow on action. As I have written many times before, the USA is going to have to deal with Iran at some point, and a missile attack could possibly provide an appropriate casus belli. Let us hope and pray that it doesn’t come to this, because it could lead to a much wider regional or even, Heaven forfend, global conflict. Against such a doomsday scenario the sooner Israel sorts out Hamas the better.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now