Israeli Army Expands Ground Operations as U.S. Continues to Push for Pause | WJS WALL STREET JOURNAL

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Avi Melamed’s insights quoted in “Israeli Army Expands Ground Operations as U.S. Continues to Push for Pause”, an article by By Dov Lieber, Dion Nissenbaum and Chao Deng for the WALL STREET JOURNAL. | Article was Updated on Oct. 27, 2023 7:41 pm ET

“The message to Hamas is that you don’t have limitless space to maneuver or limitless time to maneuver,” said Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official who said Friday night’s operation didn’t look like a full-scale invasion “to the best of my impression.”

TEL AVIV—The Israeli army expanded its ground raids and intensified airstrikes in Gaza during a communications blackout in the strip Friday night, its most significant operation yet ahead of an expected invasion intended to end 16 years of Hamas rule.

With tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of troops massed on the Palestinian enclave’s border, Israeli officials said Friday they were moving closer to starting a major ground invasion in response to the Oct. 7 attacks that could take months, expose soldiers to dangerous urban warfare and raise the already mounting civilian death toll.

Israeli officials declined to say if Friday night’s incursions amounted to the beginning of the invasion, which could unfold in stages.

The Israeli military on Friday again urged Palestinians to leave the northern Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, and head south. Israel said warplanes targeted the network of underground tunnels used by the militants, while tanks barreled beyond the enclave’s borders for the third straight day, and artillery rounds boomed from Israeli territory.

How deeply into Gaza the Israeli forces intended to move was unclear. Israeli military spokesman Maj. Nir Dinar declined to say how long the operation would last.

Israel launched Friday night’s offensive during intensifying indirect talks with Hamas brokered by Qatar and Egypt to free a large number of the more than 200 hostages that the Palestinian militant group took captive during its devastating attack on Israeli soil. Hamas is demanding a cease-fire and deliveries of humanitarian aid to Gaza, including fuel, in return for the release of some civilian hostages, according to officials familiar with the talks.

Egyptian officials said Israel’s expanded operation Friday could be intended to pressure Hamas to compromise in the hostage negotiations. A previous round of negotiations broke down after Israel refused to approve the entry of fuel into Gaza over concerns that it would be used by Hamas.

The U.S. was still pushing for a pause in the fighting Friday night to allow for the release of all hostages and to ensure that more humanitarian aid can be pushed into Gaza, said John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. So far some humanitarian deliveries have been made but it isn’t enough, he said.

“The message to Hamas is that you don’t have limitless space to maneuver or limitless time to maneuver,” said Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official who said Friday night’s operation didn’t look like a full-scale invasion “to the best of my impression.”

American Zaena Shaath was huddling with her father, brother and sister, all U.S. citizens, at a friend’s home in Rafah on Friday night. She said the downed internet service across Gaza was severing connection to family and friends elsewhere in the territory. She found inconsistent service through a signal from nearby Egypt.

“Bombs everywhere right now, we don’t know where they are bombing, a lot of martyrs on the streets. We might be next martyrs,” she wrote to The Wall Street Journal in a WhatsApp message. “This needs to end now.”

Later she added: “I’m in the south and it’s dark outside I can’t see anything, there’s airplanes fighter noise but again the raids are in the north. We don’t hear any sound of the bombs around us now. Everybody is awake and intense.”

Israel is intensifying its ground raids amid a growing debate over what the next step in the war should be. On one side are advocates for allowing more time for talks to free hostages, while on the other are officials who say the atrocities of Oct. 7 can’t be allowed to stand and that Hamas’s rule in Gaza must be destroyed. Meanwhile, worries grow over troop morale as hundreds of thousands of reservists—many of whom left jobs and families—sit on the front lines waiting to invade.Over the last couple of weeks, U.S. military officials have emphasized the perils that sit inside Gaza and the extreme challenges of targeting Hamas leaders and militants while protecting innocent civilians. As the reality of a ground incursion grows near, the U.S. has sent more, direct messages to the Israelis that they must be careful and be as surgical as possible to avoid the loss of innocent life.

These conversations have had an effect, said senior U.S. officials. The assault the Israelis first envisioned isn’t the one the Israel Defense Forces will likely embark upon, those officials said, and aren’t expected to resemble a full scale ground invasion with Israel’s more than 300,000 forces.

“They have every right to defend themselves,” Kirby said on Friday. “At the same time…since the very beginning we have had and will continue to have conversations with them about the manner in which they are doing this, and we have not been shy about expressing our concerns about civilian casualties, collateral damage, and the approach they may choose to take.”

Inside Gaza there is a mood of fear. The besieged enclave has been under near-total siege and suffering electricity blackouts for almost three weeks. Friday there was a shutdown of communications and internet services, said Paltel, the main telecom provider in Gaza. “The intense bombing in the last hour caused the destruction of all remaining international routes linking Gaza to the outside world,” it said.

Terrified Palestinians, including hundreds of Americans still trapped in the strip, said they were increasingly cut off from the world and appealed for world leaders to help. The World Health Organization said that it had lost touch with its staff, health facilities and other aid groups on the ground in Gaza.

“This siege makes me gravely concerned for their safety and the immediate health risks of vulnerable patients,” said director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We urge immediate protection of all civilians and full humanitarian access.”

Before Friday night’s operation began, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday the eventual invasion would include destroying hundreds of kilometers of Hamas’s elaborate tunnel network. He said the goal is to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities and its ability to govern.

“I don’t think they understand how strong and determined we are,” he said.

Israel said earlier it is working closely with Washington. Gallant has spoken near-daily with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, saying Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi is in constant contact with top U.S. commanders, who have shared with the Israelis their experience fighting insurgents in Fallujah and Mosul.

On Thursday night the U.S. launched strikes on two bases in eastern Syria it believed were used by Iranian groups. The strikes, authorized by President Biden, were the first American response to what Austin said were a number of attacks against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militias since Hamas launched its attacks against Israel.

The Pentagon said the bases hit were used by such militias and described the strikes as narrow, self-defense measures separate from its military support for Israel and instead were intended to ward off any further attacks on American assets. The overnight strikes were done without consultation with Israel, the Pentagon said.

U.S. officials say that the strikes, which took place Friday morning local time, were carefully tailored to signal to Iran that Washington holds it responsible for the militia attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria in recent days—and that the U.S. is prepared to do more.

Analysts say the Biden administration has stayed clear of striking targets in Iraq for fear of inflaming the political situation in the country, where the U.S. still has 2,500 troops.

“Since U.S. forces ended their combat mission in Iraq in 2021, the Biden administration has been hesitant to use kinetic force there in case we get evicted from the country,” said Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “There seems to be an implicit deal: If we don’t target militias inside Iraq, they won’t go attack our embassy.”

The U.S. strikes came as Israel is facing growing international criticism for blocking fuel supplies to Gaza, which are badly needed for the generators that keep hospitals, bakeries and other critical infrastructure operating, but which Israel says Hamas militants also use to ventilate their underground tunnel networks.

“For air, they need fuel. For fuel, they need us,” Gallant said.

He said that many of Hamas’s tunnels originate in civilian zones, including areas around Gaza’s hospitals and that fuel provided for their generators would be diverted to pump air into the tunnel network, describing the hospitals and clinics as “human camouflage.”

A Red Cross spokesperson said hospitals must be protected under international humanitarian law by all the parties to the conflict. “Hospitals should be sanctuaries for the sick and ill, not scenes of death and destruction,” the official said.

Hamas-controlled health authorities in Gaza said 7,028 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave since Israeli airstrikes began. They didn’t give a breakdown of combatants and civilians. The U.S. government says the Hamas figures can’t be trusted, while some U.N. experts say the true toll could be higher because the numbers don’t account for unrecovered bodies under the rubble.

The Israeli military Friday said the latest incursion saw its forces enter the central region of the Gaza Strip and strike Hamas targets before leaving. It also said soldiers from its marine commando unit targeted Hamas militants from the sea off the southern Gaza Strip overnight, hitting a compound used by Hamas’s commando naval forces. It said that both Israeli Navy vessels and aircraft took part in the raid and that the soldiers left the area after the activity.

Hamas said its militants thwarted an attempt by Israeli soldiers to land. 

A full ground invasion into Gaza, Gallant said, would involve large numbers of troops backed by airstrikes, and he cautioned that it would take a long time. The third phase, he said, would involve lower-intensity combat to eliminate the last pockets of Hamas resistance, vowing that the war would be remembered not for the Oct. 7 attacks, but for Israel’s destruction of the militant group. 

“The symbol will be, this is the end of Hamas,” Gallant said.

Iran appears to weigh heavily in Israeli calculations, as it does with those of the U.S.

Tehran hasn’t laid open its relationships with its proxies in the region but has condemned the U.S.’s support for Israel. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that the U.S. was orchestrating Israel’s bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. has shifted troops, warships, missile batteries, jet fighters and other resources to the Middle East to deter Iran and its allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, from widening the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

In the past 10 days, U.S. forces have come under fire at least 19 times in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon officials said Thursday. In addition, a U.S. warship intercepted missiles in the Red Sea fired from Yemen last week. Troops have suffered minor injuries, and a contractor died of a heart attack.

Some Biden administration critics say, however, that its response is too restrained.

“The administration knows that it cannot inflict serious enough pain on the Iranians in eastern Syria to affect the Supreme Leader’s calculus,” said Joel Rayburn, who was U.S. special envoy for Syria during the Trump administration. “It is not acting forcefully in Iraq, where it might make a difference, because it fears escalation there.”

David S. Cloud, Omar Abdel-Baqui, Nancy A. Youssef, Stephen Kalin, Gordon Lubold and Michael R. Gordon contributed to this article.

Avi Melamed’s insights quoted in “Israeli Army Expands Ground Operations as U.S. Continues to Push for Pause”, an article by By Dov Lieber, Dion Nissenbaum and Chao Deng for the WALL STREET JOURNAL. | Article was Updated on Oct. 27, 2023 7:41 pm ET

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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