Three weeks into Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas, most IDF ground forces continue to sit on the Gaza border, making do with relatively limited overnight raids.
There are several theories explaining the delay to the major invasion that Israel’s leaders promise will happen. Many point to American pressure, especially US President Joe Biden’s desire to see the IDF pursue something other than a major ground offensive.
In the event that Israel does finally push into Gaza with tanks and infantry, US officers — including a three-star Marine general — are in Israel to share lessons from their combat against the Islamic State in dense cities like Mosul and Raqqa.
Urban combat in the Gaza Strip, if it happens, is sure to be bloody, slow and complex. It will pose some unique challenges, and some that are common to all battles in crowded cities.
The nature of the environment will offer Hamas a number of meaningful advantages that the IDF will have to contend with as it moves through the remains of Gaza City and its environs.
Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to send Israeli forces into such a hostile domain, and whether the IDF can overcome the challenge at an acceptable cost, remain to be seen.
Urban warfare is often called “the great equalizer” — nullifying the advantages a modern army enjoys and forcing it into a relatively even fight against defenders with inferior numbers and capabilities.
A professional force like the IDF is not truly built for urban combat. It is designed to conduct combined arms maneuver warfare, overwhelming an enemy by concentrating speed and mass at critical points. It is built to be mobile, quickly transferring forces to areas the enemy doesn’t anticipate to break through defenses and cause resistance to collapse.
But in cities, a larger force has to break down into smaller units to move slowly through narrow streets, and cannot overwhelm defenders as they would in forests, fields or deserts.
“The urban environment pushes the battle into a small space,” said John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the West Point’s Modern War Institute. “A big force has to weed itself down to a small force.”
Defenders often seek to force attackers into prepared killing zones. In the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the 1994 Battle of Grozny and the 2008 Siege of Sadr City, the professional ground force was allowed in, then found themselves barricaded in by tires and and rubble behind them. They were funneled into ambush sites along roads packed with explosive devices.
It’s true that modern militaries developed another significant advantage — the ability to see the enemy from great distances and strike them with precision.
But the technological advantage a modern military enjoys over an organization like ISIS or Hamas are largely nullified in urban combat. Terrorists are hidden and protected by tunnels and buildings, and can only be engaged from up close.
“You can’t stand off with your weapon systems and engage people,” explained Liam Collins, a career special forces officer who directs MWI.
“Urban warfare is probably the most difficult terrain to fight on,” he continued, pointing at the “three-dimensional nature” of the threat.
Enemy forces are not only in front of attackers, but can also threaten them from above by utilizing surrounding buildings.
In the case of Hamas, they will also be beneath IDF forces, using their extensive tunnel network to emerge behind Israeli forces to strike, then disappear.
“Surprise is hard,” Collins continued. “You don’t know where he is, he knows where you are, he takes the first shot.”
Buildings, whether standing or destroyed, also constitute a defensive line of reinforced concrete that would take a Western military years to construct.
On top of those challenges, cities are by their very definition inhabited by civilians. Even though Israel has been trying to get Gazans to move southward out of harm’s way, Hamas is blocking roads out. And in similar cases, around 10 percent of civilians generally stay put.
In Gaza City, that would mean over 60,000 civilians in the battle space.
“If you’re talking about a nation that’s trying to minimize collateral damage and minimize civilian deaths, it doesn’t really offer you a heck of a lot of advantages,” said Collins.
Surprise is hard. You don’t know where he is, he knows where you are, he takes the first shot.
What’s more, the accessibility of mass communications technology in the hands of enemy forces and civilians make it easy for terrorists like Hamas to affect public perception of the battle, often with strategic effects.
In the 2004 First Battle of Fallujah, insurgents in the city prepared an extremely effective information campaign. They let sympathetic journalists into the city before the fighting started. Arab outlets like Al Jazeera “broadcasted constant stream of photos and videos of wounded civilians, including women and children,” according to a study by Spencer and Jayson Geroux.
“American military and civilian leaders had initiated the operation without a cohesive information operation plan to counter the enemy narrative,” they wrote. “As a result, the Iraqi population, government leaders and many in the international community strongly and publicly opposed the operation.”
US forces were forced to suspend the operation after only six days.
Israel, Spencer said, is “actually doing more than what everyone else had done in recent battles of the past — with the evacuation, with the flyers, with not targeting valid military targets because of collateral damage.”
But that isn’t necessarily what the world sees.
“The war criminal combatant can use the ‘democratization of technology’ to warp the perception of what’s going on,” Spencer told The Times of Israel.
Despite the overwhelming scale of the challenge, there are tools in the IDF kit to overcome them, some based on lessons from other Western forces.
The first rule is to isolate the battle, to control the flow of fighters and weapons in and out. In Sadr City, US forces embarked on Operation Gold Wall, quickly erecting a massive concrete barrier to keep enemy fighters isolated in their Baghdad stronghold.
This will be rendered extremely challenging by Hamas’s tunnel network, but with time, the IDF can cut off pockets of resistance and then pound them into rubble.
With its superior technology, the IDF enjoys an advantage at night. “That’s when they should be conducting most of their operations and their movements,” said Collins.
They will also depend heavily on small drones and other robots to let them know what awaits them around corners and in buildings.
“Don’t go into a room without knowing what’s in there,” Collins exhorted. “Don’t go into a room if you can send some asset in there without you going in there, an airborne asset, typically. Those are going to be a lot faster and easier to move.”
If they encounter Hamas fighters holed up in a building, Spencer said, there is no reason to try to clear it by sending soldiers in.
“If you know there’s an enemy in the building, you use all your resources to reduce that building. And that’s in line with international humanitarian law.”
Up to 90 percent of buildings in urban battles are typically destroyed, he explained. “There’s no type of surgical operation in this type of contested urban warfare.
“That is perfectly lawful despite the destruction that it caused and the risk for civilians,” concurred Collins. “If the enemy is putting themselves in a position and using human shields, unfortunately, that’s a brutal part of war.”
Throughout, the IDF will have to find ways to continue to use combined arms maneuver — effectively utilizing infantry, armor, artillery, and especially engineering in concert — to fight a sequence of close-quarter battles.
In 1973, at the end of the Yom Kippur War, the IDF learned the price of using its combat arms sequentially — and not in a close coordination — in the bloody urban Battle of Suez, which cost Israel 80 dead and 40 tanks destroyed.
Lessons from Ukraine
Fighting in cities like Bakhmut, Sumy, Kherson, Mariupol and Kyiv, Ukrainian forces have developed expertise in urban combat since Russia invaded in February 2022.
Colonel Victor Kevlyuk, a fellow at Kyiv’s Centre for Defence Strategies, told The Times of Israel that many of Ukraine’s lessons are applicable to the IDF.
There should be two echelons storming a city, he said: a heavily armed assault force, and an isolation force to take control of areas cleared by the initial attack.
The force should be prepared for bitter combat. “The assault echelon carries with it a double supply of hand grenades, disposable grenade launchers, jet flamethrowers, anti-tank missiles, MANPADS,” said Kevlyuk. “Combat medics in armored evacuation vehicles -wait at a distance of visual communication.”
Never walk along streets — “yards, private buildings, holes in fences and walls are the way to victory” — and logistics and medical units must be close by, he explained.
UAV operators are crucial, he said, and should always be with the commander of the assault force.
Personal responsibility, always crucial in battle, is even more pressing here, Kelyuk insisted.
‘If you don’t have something in battle, it’s your fault,” he said. “Ballistic protection, a first-aid kit, a tourniquet, preferably two, are must-haves. When packing a backpack, an extra pack of cartridges is always better than a can of food. Everyone should clearly clarify their combat task, know who is acting to the right and left of you, how to contact the commander, combat medic and sapper.”
Is time on Israel’s side?
If Netanyahu and his war cabinet give the IDF the green light, the battle is sure to be difficult. And beyond all the tactical and informational challenges, Israeli leaders will have to contend with another confounding issue — time.
“Time in the urban environment can lead to success or failure,” explained Spencer.
Hamas’s goal will be to delay the IDF’s progress, dragging out the battle until international pressure, domestic politics, and or military necessity force Israel to call off the campaign while Hamas is still kicking.
But moving too quickly will open IDF forces up to enemy ambushes; urban warfare is by its nature a slow grind.
Hamas has prepared for this fight for years, but so has Israel. It will be a test of skill, technology, tactics and leadership, but like all wars, it will be primarily a test of willpower.