October 16, 2023
IntelBrief: Past as Prologue: The Challenge of Urban Warfare in Gaza
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has extensive experience fighting in Gaza, but even with prior experience, the challenges of urban warfare are still monumental. It has been fifteen years since Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza that saw extensive street-to-street fighting and the type of urban warfare that is likely to take place in Gaza over the coming days and weeks. There are some similarities between that operation and what the IDF could be gearing up for this week, with extensive planning for a ground campaign and calling up reservists in a show of force. During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF used artillery strikes and an aggressive air campaign that set the stage for brigade combat teams conducting ground maneuvers. These teams targeted insurgent positions and destroyed Hamas mines and caches of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Combat engineers bulldozed paths for IDF armored units, with tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) providing cover for dismounted soldiers and employing precision firepower to suppress Hamas snipers operating from the rubble of destroyed buildings.
But in that decade and a half, Hamas has become a more lethal organization, incorporated lessons learned from previous conflicts into its tactics and strategy, and benefited from Iranian largesse that includes financing, weapons provision, and hands-on training across a range of emerging technologies, including drones. In its initial attack against Israel on October 7, Hamas used drones to knock out Israeli communications networks, a key component of the militants’ ability to seize the initiative and go on the offensive. Given the methodical planning involved in the attack, it seems likely that Hamas will have devoted significant time planning for the next phase, conducting extensive preparation of the battlefield in Gaza that will complicate IDF operations. The use of hostages as human shields will add an additional layer of complexity to the fight. Hamas will use IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and other asymmetric means in an effort to blunt Israel’s superior conventional military capabilities.
Urban warfare is among the most challenging types of fights that militaries can engage in. With Hamas in Gaza, the IDF will be facing an adversary that is able to rely upon a subterranean network of tunnels. Hamas will have been preparing for an IDF ground assault and knows these tunnels inside and out—some of them are likely booby-trapped. Preparing to fight in such terrain is incredibly difficult and would require extensive intelligence on what the network of tunnels looks like, which the Israelis may not have. The US Army only released its first doctrinal publication on subterranean warfare in 2017, "Small Unit Training in Subterranean Environments," so the military doctrine on the topic itself is still relatively nascent. Clearing tunnels is a nightmare scenario for the soldiers doing it, and like the urban warfare taking place on the surface, it’s a slow, methodical process. Ground mobile drones, uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs), and other intelligence assets may be used to map the tunnels and identify booby traps before sending soldiers to clear them. Some air-delivered munitions, referred to as ‘bunker busters,’ may be used; however, these are primarily used to target key command and control nodes. Also, the dense urban terrain in Gaza may limit their use due to the anticipated collateral damage.
Urban warfare in Gaza is just one of Israel's current problems. Hezbollah and Israel continue to engage in tit-for-tat reprisals. On Sunday, Hezbollah militants fired a volley of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) into Israel, destroying a Merkava tank. Israel responded with artillery and air strikes against Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. Tensions have grown daily, with analysts closely looking for signs of whether Hezbollah will become fully engaged in the conflict, opening up a second front. If this does occur, it will inevitably draw Israeli resources away from Gaza. Of the two, Hezbollah is a greater threat than Hamas and can draw on an impressive arsenal of weapons to attack Israel. There has been disagreement among terrorism experts about whether Hezbollah will fully jump into the fray. Some have suggested that if Hezbollah intended to fight, it would have joined the initial Hamas attack on October 7. However, the chances of miscommunication or misperception could also lead to an escalation. As things stand, Hezbollah can tie up IDF resources without having to fully commit to the fight, instead relying on occasional rocket or missile strikes to prevent the Israelis from growing complacent and forcing the IDF to commit manpower and materiel along the northern border. While the urban warfare element in Gaza will remain the focus of the conflict at this phase, there are a number of other developments that suggest the war is already spilling over into other theatres. Israeli strikes were reported against the Aleppo airport in Syria, likely an attempt to prevent Iran from transferring weapons to Hezbollah. Some reports suggested that there were assassination attempts targeting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel in Iran over the weekend. More likely than not, this is simply the early stages of a conflict that could grow and spread, destabilizing the entire Middle East in the process.