October 11, 2023
IntelBrief: Israel Struggles to Contain the Conflict as Adversaries Seek to Open New Fronts
As the war between Israel and Hamas stretches into its fifth consecutive day, Israel is attempting to keep the conflict contained in an effort to prevent further escalation. So far, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have held off on launching a full-on ground invasion of Gaza, instead launching airstrikes against a number of targets in the densely populated territory. Still, many believe that a large-scale ground invasion is imminent, and Israel has blatantly described its next step as a “complete siege” of Gaza. Israel has asked the United States for more weapons while simultaneously mobilizing a record number of reserves - as many as 360,0000 troops. There is growing concern over Iran’s “unity of fronts” strategy and the possibility that Hezbollah will also get involved in the conflict. In a show of support, and to make Tehran and Hezbollah think twice about becoming more deeply involved in the conflict, Washington deployed the USS Gerald R. Ford to the eastern Mediterranean, a carrier strike group (CSG) with a cruiser and four destroyers. Speaking about the carrier, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “Let me be clear, we did not move the carrier for Hamas. We moved the carrier to send a clear message of deterrence to other states or nonstate actors that might seek to widen this war.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III added that the aircraft carrier is intended to “strengthen [the] Department of Defense['s] posture in the region to bolster regional deterrence efforts.” The message is aimed at Iran and Hezbollah to remain on the sidelines of this conflict or risk being attacked. Yet Iran’s proxies refused to flinch, with Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthi movement in Yemen both threatening to target U.S. interests with missiles and drones if the United States intervenes. The so-called “axis of resistance,” led by Iran, remains intent on setting its own red lines, which, if crossed, would trigger escalation that would almost certainly drag the entire region into conflict.
Beyond the kinetic aspect, a carrier strike group brings with it top-notch intelligence and communications capabilities that can assist the Israelis with analytic and collection support. Sending a CSG to the Middle East, at a strategic level, serves as an unequivocal message that the U.S. is firmly behind Israel, which U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated during his speech yesterday. During the address, Biden condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization and stated that the U.S. would be sending additional military assistance to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and that the U.S. Congress would be asked to take “urgent action” to fund the national security interests of partners. Such moves could serve to complicate diplomatic efforts that are taking place behind the scenes, as Washington could struggle to be perceived as an honest broker in quelling the fighting. U.S. State Department officials have posted calls for a ceasefire online before subsequently deleting them, indicating internal U.S. government disagreement about how to respond to Israeli retaliation. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States issued a joint statement on Monday recognizing the “legitimate aspirations” of the Palestinians and supporting justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also attempted to be even-handed in his comments, calling for Israel to immediately cease attacks against civilians and urging Hamas to do the same, suggesting that actions on both sides should be guided by the “ethics” of war.
The risks of escalation in the conflict are severe, with Israel concerned that Lebanese Hezbollah could join the fray. Over the weekend, Hamas militants fired rockets from Lebanon toward eastern Galilee, an act that it would not be able to do without coordinating with Hezbollah who have full control of the area. The Golan Heights remains a major point of tension, and the IDF announced yesterday that it was investigating reports of an aerial infiltration in the area. The day prior, three Hezbollah fighters were killed after an Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon. In addition to limited skirmishes with Hezbollah, Israel responded to a cross-border raid by Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with soldiers and helicopters, killing two PIJ militants. With the goal of bogging down the Israelis from all sides, Hamas has called for Palestinians in the West Bank to confront Israeli soldiers deployed there directly. Hamas also took to Telegram to call for a broad mobilization of Palestinians. “We are announcing the general mobilisation on Friday in order to support Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa, and the struggling Gaza,” read the statement. Israel has reinforced troops at the border with Gaza as Hamas has rained rockets down on the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, located on the coast north of the border with Gaza. Hamas had given local residents a deadline of 5 pm Israel time to depart the city before it began its rocket salvo. The energy company Chevron has halted gas exports via the East Mediterranean Gas (EMG) pipeline as the fighting has intensified near Ashkelon. Hamas also fired rockets at Tel Aviv and targeted Ben Gurion International Airport, though no damage was reported. In addition, rockets were fired from southern Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border, likely emanating from the city of Tyre.
Along with increased airstrikes on Gaza, Israel has blocked electricity, food, water, and fuel from going into the territory, compounding the difficulty of humanitarian efforts for civilians and making an already dire humanitarian situation worse. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, while also condemning the killing and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, expressed that he was “deeply distressed” by Israel’s announcement of the full blockade. The spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that the siege may amount to a war crime. Humanitarian aid groups and UN agencies are concerned over how they will continue to deliver aid to civilians in Gaza, particularly as finite medical and fuel supplies in the territory are at severe risk of depletion without new shipments, according to Doctors Without Borders. Reportedly, UN agencies and aid organizations have spoken with Egypt about sending humanitarian aid between a crossing point between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza. Yet, such shipments could be under threat. The Rafah crossing, which is the territory’s main exit point, was bombed again Tuesday on the Palestinian side - the third attack in 24 hours. An earlier recommendation by an Israeli military spokesperson for Palestinian civilians attempting to escape raids in Gaza to flee to Egypt - presumably through the Rafah crossing - was later revised and stated that the crossing is now closed. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is attempting to take a more hands on role as an interlocutor, perhaps concerned about domestic instability after an Egyptian policeman killed two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian tour guide in Alexandria. Meanwhile, in Jordan large protests took over the streets in the capital of Amman, where demonstrators called on the government to open the border to help Palestinians fleeing the conflict.