Avi Melamed, who is also an expert in Arab affairs, said balancing hostage rescue and avoiding civilian casualties in Gaza will be a tough task for Israeli forces
It is a ‘Catch-22’ situation for Israel if it sends troops into Gaza, which is densely populated and where dozens of Israeli citizens are believed to be held hostage by Hamas militants, a former Israeli intelligence officer said.
A ground offensive will increase the risks to the hostages while also giving Israeli forces the location of those citizens and soldiers kidnapped by Hamas, Avi Melamed, who has served in intelligence field positions for Israel, told The National.
Israel has ordered more than a million people from northern Gaza to flee to the south ahead of an imminent ground offensive into the Hamas territory, which the UN said “defies the rules of war and basic humanity.”
It follows a surprise October 7 attack by Hamas into Israel, killing about 1,300 people, mostly civilians. Israel responded with a ferocious bombardment of the heavily populated Gaza enclave, home to 2.3 million people, killing at least 2,200 people, also mostly civilians.
“When Israel is present on the ground, it will have accurate information and intelligence to find where the hostages are and in what condition,” said Mr Melamed, who is the author of the book Inside the Middle East.
“But we are also aware that the ground operation also could increase the chances of jeopardy for hostages.”
In the past if Israel avoided ground invasion because of concerns about casualties among Israeli soldiers, he said, but this time, the story is “totally different.”
Israel lost 67 soldiers and suffered hundreds wounded during the last major ground incursion into Gaza, in 2014.
“It is no longer relevant because the Israeli army has already lost hundreds of soldiers and civilians,” he said of the attack by Hamas, which killed 264 soldiers.
Israel said more than 1,000 Hamas fighters were killed in the fighting.
“Israel is determined to destroy Hamas’s and (Palestinian) Islamic Jihad’s military and organisational capacities. And wipe it out completely from Gaza so that they will not play a disruptive role in Gaza and in the wider region.”
Gaza tunnels will aid Hamas
Military analysts think a ground offensive would mean maximum casualties on both sides, but the extensive network of tunnels dug by Hamas will come to their aid.
Riyadh Kahwaji, a UAE-based security and defence analyst, told The National that a ground offensive is “very risky” for Israelis.
“Gaza is known to have a lot of tunnels which they (Israelis) don’t know the details about. This will enable Hamas fighters to move without Israeli soldiers spotting them, and strike.
“Invading a city means, street-to-street and door-to-door fighting where Hamas is strongly entrenched. They are experienced guerrilla fighters and have shown sophistication in their use of weapons, anti-tank, rockets and drones,” said Mr Kahwaji.
To reduce the casualties, he said its is likely Israelis will be “pounding everything”.
“They will be using a scorched earth tactic. So, it will be horrendous and utter destruction of Gaza, and civilians in the area will pay a heavy price. It is going to be really ugly for both sides.”
Civilian casualties the biggest challenge
While going ahead with a ground offensive, Israel will have to try to minimise as much as possible death and injury to civilians, according to Mr Melamed.
“And we know that Hamas is using civilians in Gaza as a human shield, so that will make the ground offensive a complex task,” he said.
Hence, a significant component of Israel’s military planning before a ground invasion, he said, will include how to take care of people of the Gaza Strip.
“So, I would expect for example, that Israel will very quickly ensure a humanitarian corridor that will enable the civilians that are not involved in the fight to move to safer areas.”
If the Iran-backed Hezbollah becomes directly involved in the Gaza conflict, Mr Melamed said it can cause “severe damage to Israel.”
“Hezbollah’s military capabilities have doubled or even quadrupled in the last few years. All these rockets, missiles and drones and special units they have, that can storm into Israeli territories, this is a significant threat.”
Hezbollah is thought to possess about 150,000 rockets and missiles, around 10 times what they possessed in the last Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006 – if estimates are correct.
But considering the stern warning from the US and the severe economic and political situation in Lebanon, he said Hezbollah may not decide on full-scale war.
“In the current conditions, I think that the Hezbollah will be hesitant.”
After the complete elimination of Hamas and dismantling of its military infrastructure and organisational capacity, Mr Melamed said Israel will not be interested in staying in the enclave, from where it pulled out its forces in 2005.
“Of course, Israel does not want to stay in Gaza forever. Hamas has to be made irrelevant in the sense that it will not be any more able to dictate the agenda of Gaza Strip, the agenda of Israel, and the agenda of the region. That is the main objective.”
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