The world closely watches as the Operation Swords of Iron war in Gaza unfolds. Hamas, the Sunni Islamist political and military organization that controls the Gaza Strip, claimed responsibility for the atrocities of October 7th. Over 1,200 Israelis were murdered, and over 200 hostages were taken captive. Israel mobilized 300,000 reservists to fight Hamas, and to locate and free the hostages.
The Israeli army has penetrated deep inside the Hamas-controlled heartland in the Gaza Strip and has taken partial control of the northern end of the 140 square mile enclave. Clearly, Israel has a strong advantage militarily. However, Hamas has employed a number of stalling strategies to keep Israeli troops from advancing forward and now downwards in what has evolved into a subterranean war.
Israel also faces external threats by Iran’s other proxies as they mount attacks on the northern and southern borders and from Yemen. Every decision made by the leadership is a critical one as battling Hamas, rescuing hostages, and minimizing losses all are top priority.
In response to the Oct. 7th massacre, Israelis put aside their differences and became united. Hamas’ actions declared to the world that they had little concern for the political leanings, ethnic affiliation, or religious views of any Jew who had the misfortune to be in their murderous path on October 7th. From foreign nationals to Israeli Arabs, from young to old, none were spared. The atrocities sent shockwaves across the nation and world.
The Israeli Air Force began a barrage of airstrikes against Hamas. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stated that he had ordered “a complete siege” on Gaza and that there would “be no electricity, no food, and no fuel” entering the territory, while Energy Minister Yisrael Katz said he instructed the Water Authority to cut off Israel’s water supply to the Gaza Strip on the same day.
But the provision of some supplies, including water, has resumed to a limited extent, following heavy international pressure – particularly from the Biden administration – amid concerns voiced by the UN and international NGOs that a humanitarian crisis could develop in Gaza.
The IDF has ramped up intelligence operations to locate and assassinate Hamas leaders. On the top of the list is Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza since 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to end the threat of Hamas and refused to agree to any ceasefire until the hostages are safely released and are back home safely. Israeli troops first entered into the Gaza Strip on October 27th. Now there are over 20,000 troops deployed within Gaza, mostly in the north. The region is effectively split into two parts.
This figure represents the largest number of Jews to have entered Gaza since Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement in 2005, when all Jewish settlements were dismantled and abandoned.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he expected the “second stage of the war” to wage on for “months.” Future stages include eliminating pockets of resistance. Apart from Hamas, other militias that have armed presence are the PFLP (Popular Front for The Liberation of Palestine), PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad), and DFLP (Democratic Front for The Liberation of Palestine).
In Israel’s battle to wipe out Hamas, one of the main targets has been Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, said to be trapped inside a bunker in Gaza City, the Hamas stronghold in the north of the territory.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told a televised news conference that Israeli soldiers had advanced to the “heart of Gaza City” and “were tightening the noose.” Israeli troop presence within city limits is limited and a siege was undertaken.
Diplomacy and the World Picture
Diplomacy during this war is very different from times past. This is primarily due to two reasons – now Israel’s ties with the Middle East and the West are rapidly evolving and also because emotions run high. Following the Abraham Accords in 2020, a few Arab nations have warmed up and even recognize Israel including the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. These Arab countries share a common enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran.. Commentators point to the United States’ pro-Israel stance as connected in part to the US position on Iran.
However, international attitudes could change. The longer the war in Gaza continues there is a chance of media fatigue with the Middle East. For now, the media spotlight has taken our minds off the Ukraine War. The more things evolve on the ground and change, international pressure could change, for the better or for the worse.
So far, more than a million Gazans have been displaced and many traversed on foot south into Khan Younis and other towns. The IDF issued multiple warnings to the Palestinians to flee, including dropping leaflets in Arabic informing them of the upcoming military action, and promising them safe passage south if they waved white flags showing their desire to leave peacefully. Hamas allegedly prevented Gazans from evacuating by shooting them or hitting roads with mortar fire so they could not leave. The IDF also accused Hamas several times of using civilians as human shields.
A recent image circulating on social media showed members of the IDF’s Golani Brigade sitting in armchairs inside Hamas’ parliament building in Gaza City, after its capture. This marked a strategic victory.
The Shin Bet believes that Hamas members are hiding in tunnels and are using hospitals and ambulances to store and transport weapons, explosives, and rockets. These actions by Hamas have been heavily criticized. Captured militants told the Israeli intelligence that this strategy was employed to prevent them from being targeted by Israeli strikes.
Thousands of people fled al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Israel claims the hospital is built over a Hamas command center. The U.S. says its intelligence backs this claim, but Hamas vehemently denies it.
Health officials have claimed that the remaining patients inside the hospital would die due to energy shortages and cuts.
However, Israel’s Channel 12 News have noted that if the IDF’s claims hold correct, Hamas had been hoarding enough fuel to keep all of the hospitals in the strip operating over a span of several days. The IDF on October 24th claimed that photos show Hamas holds half a million liters of fuel stored in Gaza. Clearly, local Gazans are not a priority for Hamas.
Tunnel warfare first made headlines in 2006, when Hamas abducted and kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. He was captured in a cross-border raid via tunnels near the Israeli border at the Kerem Shalom crossing. He was released five long years later in a controversial prisoner exchange. Shalit was freed after the release of 1,027 Israeli-held security prisoners, 280 of whom were serving life sentences for planning and perpetrating terror attacks against Israeli targets. In this exchange, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was released, who Netanya described as a “little Hitler in his bunker” with “no care for his people.”
Many have compared the war with Hamas with the Vietnam War. The major difference is that Gaza is urban rather than jungle, and Hamas has had more time to expand its reach than did the Viet Cong.
Israel controls the skies over the Gaza Strip, and has the edge on land, with troop numbers and tanks. They have controlled the seas and maritime boundaries long before the siege began. The IDF can destroy any building with a well-placed missile. But as the IDF forces advance through the urban jungle, they are uncovering another battleground: the vast network of concrete, reinforced tunnels built by Hamas as well as booby traps.
The soil in Gaza is geologically softer than the soil in New York or Lebanon, where Hezbollah also uses tunnels. The soft soil is easy to dig and to build vast networks with. The tunnels network is comparable to the New York subway system, but rather than being built for commuter transport for daily work and activity, it is custom built for guerilla warfare and to hide militants.
The IDF has a sub-unit dedicated to fighting in these quarters that is a part of Yahalom, the special forces unit of the Combat Engineering Corps. The tunnel sub-unit is called Samur or “weasel” in Hebrew.
The tunnels stretch 15 feet to 200 feet in length and can descend approximately 20-30 stories below the ground. Inside the tunnels there is no GPS availability. Communications are very inconsistent in this type of environment, so the troops cannot communicate with the outside world.
Before the IDF can go into a tunnel, an autonomous robot scouts the terrain, using lasers to navigate and operate on its own. This data is evaluated before they can send in humans to push forward.
Influx of Israelis Return from Abroad
Thousands of Israelis rushed back to Israel after October 7th. Reservists, many who were on vacation or had moved abroad for an extended period of time, dropped everything to rush home. In one day over 100 Israelis headed home from Katmandu.
Israel’s army relies on an extensive reserve contingent, comprised of civilians who have completed their compulsory national service but can be mobilized again for duty until the age of forty or even older in times of emergency.
Within the ranks of the reservists called up were many well-known figures including ex-prime ministers (Naftali Bennet), former Knesset members, actors, models, and pop stars. Many posted pictures of themselves in uniform on Instagram.
Among those answering the call were many of the hit TV show Fauda’s cast and crew. Both Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff were deployed. Raz stars as Officer Doron Kabilio and also produces Fauda along with series co-creator Issacharoff. Prior to the show, Raz was a soldier in a special forces unit.
Master Sgt Matan Meir, a longtime member of the Fauda production team, was one of four soldiers of the 697th Battalion who was killed November 11 by a booby-trapped tunnel shaft next to a mosque. The troops were not inside the tunnel.
Also, prominent Israeli social media influencer and Netanyahu aide, Hananya Naftali was drafted.
Israel’s oldest active soldier, Ezra Yakhine, whose father was from Aleppo, Syria, volunteered despite his being 95. Having fought in the Lehi militia (whose mission was the violent eviction of the British authorities in the 1940s) Yakhine returned to the front to give motivational talks to young soldiers before they headed off to fight.
Outside of Israel
Amid rising death tolls and an international outcry over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, however, the Biden administration has been warning Israel that its support may be waning.
Diaspora Jewry has seen a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism, especially on university campuses. Security has been beefed up in synagogues and Jewish buildings around the world.
Pro-Palestinian marches have attracted thousands in Europe and the West. Israel’s supporters have held rallies of our own, with the most dramatic and well attended occurring in Washington, D.C. Over 300 000 attended the Washington DC rally for Israel on Tuesday, November 14th.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also issued a warning to cabinet ministers to choose their words more carefully and not stoke controversy. “Every word has meaning when it comes to diplomacy. If you don’t know – don’t speak,” the prime minister said during a cabinet meeting after facing criticism about racist rhetoric including “nuking” Gaza (Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu claimed his comment about nuking Gaza was only “metaphorical” after it sparked controversy.) and a new “Nakba.” Nakba literally means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and refers to the 1948 War of Independence, when many Palestinians were displaced.
Violence on Other Fronts
While the IDF has been preoccupied in Gaza, other fronts have become volatile. Soldiers were deployed in the West Bank to battle insurgents – notably in Jenin, which has been a hub of instability and terrorism in the last few years. The Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been fighting Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004, is an Iranian proxy in Yemen. The Houthis also claimed responsibility for a drone attack on the southern city of Eilat on November 9th, making it the southernmost enemy to have directly engaged in war.
Hezbollah in Lebanon have also attacked from the north using a “tit for tat” strategy. Hezbollah are believed to be the most powerful of the Iranian proxies, with an arsenal said to rival that of certain small nations. While their goal might be to keep the IDF distracted and spread their manpower and resources thin, all-out war has only been hinted at for now.
Noone can predict how long this war will continue or what will happen if Israel destroys Hamas completely. Gaza will never be the same. Hamas’ control and morale is shattered even if they survive politically and militarily. Hamas does not have the capability to destroy Israel, but they have already done great harm to Israel economically and psychologically.
President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who have been allies of Israel, have spoken in favor of a “two state solution” after the war is over. However, even leftist Israelis are now more skeptical of the wisdom of a Palestinian state within Israel’s borders. Netanyahu has spoken against granting Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO in the West Bank power in Gaza in the future.
Certainly, a post-Hamas Gaza would require significant international attention and assistance to rebuild. The UN has a long history of anti-Israel sentiment, and its role post-war is not clear.
Israelis are weary of war. Yet, the general consensus is that after the atrocities of October 7th, Israel is duty-bound to fight Hamas, to prevent a repeat of unspeakable brutal cruelty. Israelis mourn the loss of every single soldier, from every community. The Druze community, for example, lost Lieutenant-Colonel Salman Habaka, who is believed to be the most senior Israeli officer killed in action.
But Israelis are also looking at the positive. The country has united and Israelis from all walks of life have extended their hands to their brothers and sisters, hosting families who have fled their homes, cooking and preparing treats and sending essential items for soldiers, and holding vigils for the hostages. So far, four Israeli hostages have been released. And miracle stories abound about soldiers who miraculously escaped certain death.
Israelis from around the world have returned to their homeland to fight. They and their comrades repeat and believe: Am Yisrael Chai.