Israeli soldiers on the Israel-Gaza border on Nov.
The Israeli air force continues to bombard targets within the Gaza Strip, but
thus far ground forces have not yet begun an incursion into the territory.
Whether the current air campaign escalates to a ground assault will largely
depend on the mission that the Israeli military is trying to accomplish.
Israel Defense Forces' official statements have emphasized that the goal is
the severe degradation of Gaza militants' ability to launch rocket strikes,
particularly the new Fajr-5 rockets that are purportedly capable of striking Tel
Aviv. Halting rocket attacks was also the mission during Operation Cast Lead,
Israel's most recent large-scale military operation involving Gaza, which took
place in late 2008 and early 2009 and consisted of an air campaign similar to
the current one followed by a ground invasion. Examining how Operation Cast Lead
developed could provide useful context for how an Israeli ground invasion of
Gaza could unfold.
Operation Cast Lead can be separated into two distinct phases: air and
ground. The air phase lasted for about one week and targeted suspected rocket
smuggling routes, storage locations and firing positions, as well as targets of
opportunity that emerged as hostilities progressed. This is very similar to what
the IDF is doing currently, primarily with air assets but also assisted by naval
and land assets capable of attacking from a distance.
The second phase was the ground attack. This phase consisted primarily of two
distinct geographic theaters within Gaza. In the southern theater, Israeli units
moved in and set up blocking positions near Rafah and Highway 4 in order to cut
Hamas' logistical supply lines running north toward Gaza City. Air and naval
strikes were also used to enforce the border between Gaza and Egypt, where a
strategically significant road known as the Philadelphi route is located. In the
north, Israeli forces penetrated into the Gaza Strip to the north, northeast and
slightly southeast of Gaza City itself. This served to isolate Gaza City and
clear out initial rocket firing positions as well as defensive positions located
in the immediate rural regions. After this initial move, follow-on forces were
brought in to thoroughly search and clear identified enemy rocket launching
sites, logistical hubs and command and control structures. Notably, Israeli
forces did not venture deep into major population centers such as Gaza City and
Rafah City to avoid the potentially higher casualties and more serious
infrastructural damage associated with urban combat.
A ground operation now would likely look very similar to Cast Lead in design
and tactics, since Cast Lead was considered an operational success and its
mission was similar to the current one. However, there are two notable
differences. First, in the southern theater during Cast Lead, Egyptian security
forces worked to secure the Rafah crossing from their end and allowed Israeli
forces to engage the Philadelphi route. Egypt now has
a very different government, which brings into question its willingness to
support a ground operation.
Cairo has already announced that the Rafah Crossing
will remain open. This creates an even more serious imperative for Israeli units
to cut the supply lines in the south of the Gaza Strip to Gaza City. Israeli
ground forces may need to physically occupy the Egypt-Gaza border because naval
strikes and airstrikes may not accomplish the mission. This would be a slight
expansion on the action taken in 2008-2009 and could bring Israeli forces into
uncomfortably close contact with Egyptian forces.
Second, in the north, the potential range of the Fajr-5 missile expands the
potential firing zone that needs to be cleared. As stated earlier, Cast Lead
focused on Gaza City and its surrounding areas in clearing operations. In order
to degrade militants' abilities to reach Tel Aviv with the Fajr-5's expanded
range, the IDF will need to clear all potential firing areas to just south of
Nusayrat. In theory, this would require the isolation of a larger area and the
potential use of more forces or require more time to accomplish.
Tactically, IDF troops entered the Gaza Strip during Cast Lead by operating
at night and creating their own crossing points as opposed to using previously
established points. They also relied heavily upon combat engineers, armored
construction equipment including unmanned D9 bulldozers, and dog teams to
establish their own avenues of approach instead of using common routes through
Gaza. Ground units also worked in heavy conjunction with air assets for
reconnaissance and close air support, and had access to comprehensive artillery
support. This allowed them to avoid improvised explosive devices, heavily mined
primary access routes, ambushes and counterattacks militants had planned near
the assumed IDF approaches.
In a likely ground incursion, we can expect IDF to use similar tactics that
have been refined even further over the past four years, but we must assume that
militants in Gaza will not make the same mistakes twice and will use different
tactics in order to inflict more damage on ground forces. Already in this round
of fighting, unconfirmed reports have emerged saying that militants are using MANPADS.
If these rumors are true, it could force a more limited role for rotary-wing air
support as well as anti-tank guided missiles and thus seriously hamper the
firepower, cover and protection provided by armor.
Many of the conditions, geographic settings and stated goals of the current
mission are similar to Operation Cast Lead, so one can assume that the potential
upcoming ground phase would be similar as well. That being said, some
differences have emerged that would likely force an expanded role for ground
forces, and the mission stays the same only until the first exchanges of fire
happen, as militants and other political actors would also be able to influence
how events unfold. With the evolution of the battle, a ground operation
is becoming increasingly likely and with the transition to the ground phase of
operations casualties, tensions, and political ramifications will only