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Hamas is playing for time - by Edward Luttwak for UnHerd - 26.10.23

The Israeli offensive won't be held up long.

Hamas leaders know that once the Israeli counter-offensive starts, they will lose their greatest asset: their inter-connected tunnels. This vast warren conceals the vital operations for the manufacture, storage and launch of their rockets, and shieldsheadquarters and rest areas from detection and air strikes. So big is the network, it has been nicknamed the Underground, after London’s.

The discovery that Hamas was going all out to build these tunnels marked the start of the Israeli army’s education in the arcane art of finding, conquering (“clearing” is reductive) and quickly demolishing them. But tunnel warfare, it swiftly discovered, is not for amateurs. Nor is it even for highly accomplished but generic “commandos” including its top echelon Sayeret Matkal. It requires specific detection and monitoring skills, ultra close-combat skills and weapons (even compact assault rifles are too long), specialised shields and respirators, as well as the very quick reactions that all first-rate soldiers must have.

Hamas knows from previous experience that the closer the range, the greater the qualitative gap between their men and first-line Israeli infantry; Arik Sharon, who ended up as Prime Minister after a brilliant military career, discovered back in the Fifties that Israelis had the edge in close combat. Even in Hamas’s hyper-successful surprise raids, that took full advantage of Israel’s grossly over-confident reliance on high-tech observation towers and absurdly few troops, they lost more than a thousand to civilian home guards with their pistols and submachine guns and a handful of soldiers.

Knowing these odds, Hamas is now doing all it can to delay Israel’s tunnel offensive by releasing hostages in pairs after lengthy talks for each batch. At two at a time, with more than 200 to go, assuming they are still alive, this approach could delay the offensive until next year, if then.

In human terms, the waiting is excruciating. And with 360,000 reservists recalled to duty alongside the additional 160,000 on active duty (the entire British army numbers 80,360 including the Ghurkas; the US Army, 452,689), there is also the very practical consideration of what happens when you keep a great part of the labour force away from its jobs, and parents away from their families. But the solution here can been found in the very thing that makes Israel so vulnerable: its size.

It is small enough that batches of troops can be released from their unit deployments facing Gaza and allowed to go home to live and work, but still be back in a matter of hours if called to launch the offensive. They are certainly not needed to defend now that the defences are wide awake; today there are guard units all along the perimeter, where they should have been all along. (Overconfidence is also an Israeli trait: on October 6 1973, when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal with tens of thousands of troops, there was a paltry 411 Israeli reservists holding 17 Canal-side forts).

But the intensely frustrating delay in launching the offensive doesn’t preclude all offensive action. Both the Israeli Army and the Shin Bet security service have units of skilled individual fighters who speak perfect Palestinian-accented Arabic and who can look the part. With all the confusion caused by the bombing, they have been able to walk into the Gaza strip to blend in and look for Hamas leaders. So far, the names and photos of 28 Hamas commanders and political chiefs successfully found and killed have been published—and the mini-campaign is continuing.

Meanwhile, the Hezbollah Shia army is also waiting across the Lebanese border, with an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles. This is such an enormous number — the total launched so far from the Gaza Strip is under 8,000 — that in order to cope, Israel’s Iron Dome batteries would have to engage them very selectively to protect only the most exposed human lives. But so far, Hezbollah has done nothing to back up its loudly vehement support for Hamas, with two exceptions. One was a brief bout of machine gun fire, which killed a young reservist who had just arrived in Israel from his American family home, and the other was the launch of some rockets by Palestinians it harbors, “Hamas in Lebanon”.

Hezbollah’s vehement leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and his Iranian paymasters keep calling for Israel’s destruction, along with “death to the USA”, but for now, neither has reacted to Israel’s destruction of the freight terminals in Aleppo and Damascus airports which Iran uses to deliver weapons to Hezbollah. Nasrallah has met with Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri and Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhala at which “an assessment was made of the international positions being taken and what the parties of the Axis of Resistance must do … to realise a real victory for the resistance in Gaza and Palestinian and to halt the brutal aggression.” But thus far, Hezbollah hasn’t unleashed its barrage.

At this point, then, is still impossible to say what Nasrallah’s plan might be. Will he start the rocket barrages when Israel kicks off its offensive into Gaza? Or will he have another starting point in mind? Equally, he may be deterred from action by the vulnerability of his Shia supporters in Southern Lebanon to Israel’s artillery and mortars, as well as its airpower. He learned this by hard example: during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, Shia southern Beirut was left in ruins along with Hezbollah headquarters and barracks — and dozens of Shia villages all the way to the border. After that conflict, Nasrallah, with commendable honesty, declared that he would never have started the war had he known what the Israeli force would do to the houses of his followers.

To mitigate their fury, Hezbollah officials were sent around with bags of US dollars supplied by Iran to pay for some of the damage. It is not unreasonable, then, to think that the only Arab leader in the region who does care for his supporters might be reluctant to expose them to another devastating bombing campaign simply to launch rockets against Israel — especially since Israel’s bombing capacity has tripled since 2006. There is also the large question of asking Shia to sacrifice their homes for ultra-Sunni Hamas that views them as heretics deserving of death. There’s also the small matter of Nasrallah’s personal vulnerability: he too becomes a target if he enters the war.

Middle East Experts will immediately point out the fallacy of holding out any reasonable hope of rationality in the region, but as of writing the war has not expanded. Nonetheless, Israel’s declared intent of destroying the Hamas tunnel network and defeating its defenders has not changed, nor will it. Held up till now by promises to liberate the hostages, the Israeli offensive will not wait for very long.

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Hamas is playing for time - by Edward Luttwak for UnHerd – 26_10_23
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Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations. His most recent book is The Art of Military Innovation: Lessons from the Israel Defense Forces.

The wait is taking its toll. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times

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Ian Heath
Ian Heath
27 окт. 2023 г.

Excellent article. Most informative

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