Who’s afraid of boots on the ground in Gaza?

Experts may wring their hands about the high cost of a land incursion, but history shows Hamas is awful at killing IDF troops on the move

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli soldiers stand next to Merkava tanks positioned on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip on July 7, 2014. ( photo credit: AFP/JACK GUEZ)
Israeli soldiers stand next to Merkava tanks positioned on the Israeli side of the border with the Gaza Strip on July 7, 2014. ( photo credit: AFP/JACK GUEZ)

An IDF ground incursion into the Gaza Strip is growing increasingly likely. Hamas has rejected an Egypt-backed ceasefire, and rockets continue to fall on Israel despite intense airstrikes. Some Israeli commentators say that the air campaign has reached its culmination point, and is not likely to achieve much more than it already has.

The problem with a ground invasion, say experts both in Israel and abroad, is that it will cost Israel dearly in the lives of its soldiers.

“A limited ground incursion is more likely than ever. And if that happens, Netanyahu knows the IDF is likely to suffer casualties,” read an article in the National Review. “A threatened ground invasion of Gaza would cause heavy casualties on both sides,” wrote the Washington Post editors. A ground operation “could exact a heavy toll in blood,” predicted Brig.-Gen. (res.) Tzvika Fogel in Israel Hayom.

Recent history shows the exact opposite.

Military operations should never be undertaken lightly, but the preponderance of evidence shows that when Israel embarks on major ground operations in the Gaza Strip, IDF deaths are remarkably low.

Looking at the past decade of Israeli incursions into the coastal region, the pattern is clear: Hamas struggles mightily to exact even moderate casualties among Israeli forces, while losing dozens, even hundreds, of its own fighters.

After losing 11 soldiers in APC explosions on the Philadelphi Route near Rafah in May 2004, Israel sent in ground forces from the Golani and Givati infantry brigades, supported by combat engineers, the Shimshon infantry battalion, and a tank brigade. Israel killed around 40 terrorists in and around Rafah, and lost a grand total of zero soldiers in the week-long operation.

When Kassam rocket fire killed two children in Sderot in September of that year, Israel launched Operation Days of Penitence. Again, Givati and Golani infantrymen, alongside tanks and combat engineers, entered the northern Gaza neighborhoods of Beit Hanun, Beit Lahiya, and Jabaliya. In more than two weeks, Israel killed some 87 Hamas and affiliated fighters, while losing 2 soldiers (one of whom was killed in a terrorist attack near a settlement in the northern Gaza Strip, not in the operation itself).

Gilad Shalit wears his army uniform on the day of his release from Gaza (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry /Flash90)
Gilad Shalit on the day of his release from Gaza (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

The next major ground incursion into Gaza took place after Israel had removed all of its soldiers and civilians from settlements in the Strip in the 2005 disengagement. Gilad Shalit was snatched from his tank on the Gaza border on June 25, 2006, followed by Kassam fire on Israel. Operation Summer Rains kicked off on June 28, and continued until November 26, by which time it had become Operation Autumn Clouds.

The pattern of low Israeli losses and heavy Palestinian casualties continued in the operations. Two IDF soldiers were lost and 28 injured, while Israeli forces killed around 270 Palestinian militants.

The next year and a half were relatively quiet, as a temporary peace, or hudna, held between Israel and Hamas. In addition, Hamas focused its energies on expelling Fatah forces from Gaza (or just killing them), while consolidating its rule over the Strip’s residents.

But when a Kassam rocket killed an Israeli at Sapir College in late February 2008, Israel decided to reenter in Operation Hot Winter, focusing on the northern Gaza neighborhoods from which rockets were being launched. In five days of fighting, Israel killed more than one hundred armed Palestinians, losing only two of its own men.

In November of that year, after a series of rocket barrages from Gaza, Israel embarked on Operation Cast Lead. This was a major operation, with the aggressive ground maneuver that was missing during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Israel lost 10 soldiers, in addition to 317 wounded, but four of them were killed in a friendly fire incident. In all, Hamas managed to kill six soldiers after spending significant time and effort preparing traps and explosives in anticipation of the invasion. Hamas and other terrorist groups, for their part, lost around 800 fighters.

Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)
Israeli tanks at a staging ground outside Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, December 29, 2008 (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)

Every soldier killed is an indescribable loss for Israel, not to mention their families, but the major ground operations over the last decade have averaged around three dead per operation — not exactly the mass losses being described by commentators this week.

What about the 2006 war against Hezbollah, in which 121 soldiers lost their lives? There are a number of key differences between an operation in Gaza and the Second Lebanon War. Hamas is no Hezbollah, and Gaza is no Lebanon: the flat Gaza terrain is much more conducive to offensive operations than Lebanon’s mountains and canyons. In addition, the IDF in 2006 was a military caught in a transition that wasn’t sure what doctrine it was supposed to follow, and the tentative campaign in southern Lebanon showed this confusion. By Cast Lead in 2008, the IDF proved to be a dominant, capable, and confident force, slicing through Hamas with impressive coordination and skill.

IDF forces during ground maneuvers in the Gaza Strip. January 06, 2009. (photo credit: Matan Hakimi / IDF Spokesperson / Flash 90)
IDF forces during ground maneuvers in the Gaza Strip. January 06, 2009. (photo credit: Matan Hakimi / IDF Spokesperson / Flash 90)

Why are the numbers so lopsided in Israel’s favor, and why is it so hard for Hamas to kill IDF soldiers when they’re on the offensive?

When Israel is playing defense, Hamas militants can plan operations, and grasp the initiative. They control the streets, and while the risk of airstrikes is a serious one, it is only one threat to counter.

Multiple brigades moving quickly through Gaza’s neighborhoods is a different story entirely for Hamas. Taking one step out onto the street means the threat of lethal fire from snipers hidden on rooftops throughout the city. An IDF ambush could be waiting for them in any house. Tanks could have their sights zeroed in on gunmen moving through fields hundreds of meters away. An invading Israeli ground force presents a series of difficult dilemmas for Hamas fighters, most of which result in a violent death if they choose wrong.

It may be somewhat surprising for those who know IDF soldiers up close as brash teens just out of high school, and reservists as self-deprecating and eternally disheveled family men — but for a Hamas fighter trying to halt their advance, Israeli soldiers can be nothing less than terrifying. Fed on stories of Israeli cruelty, and likely holding some belief about Jews’ legendary skill and cunning, Gaza militants know they are facing thousands of soldiers who are better-trained, -equipped, and -supported than they are. The sound of tank treads creaking through the night, each vehicle boasting the firepower of nearly a hundred men, is the stuff of nightmares. On top of the enemy advancing all around them, Hamas militants have to worry about what’s flying around above, as drones, helicopters, and jets can all strike without warning.

It’s enough to make someone give up thoughts of heroic resistance and hurry back to the nearest underground bunker, as Hamas gunmen did in Cast Lead.

But past success shouldn’t lead to complacency about the dangers of modern urban warfare. IDF soldiers can stumble onto booby traps, and small terrorist squads could sneak through the lines undetected. What’s more, with tanks and fighter planes operating in close concert with infantry forces, fatal friendly-fire incidents are always a possibility.

And, of course, more Palestinian civilian casualties are inevitable in a ground operation. Pilots enjoy a wealth of real-time intelligence on their targets before they engage, and are never forced to open fire to silence an immediate threat on themselves. Ground forces, who fire unguided bullets and shells, often have to respond within seconds to incoming fire on their own positions, with no time to verify whether or not there are civilians near the gunmen threatening them. War becomes a lot uglier on the ground.

Still, with its stunning past successes, a ground invasion of Gaza is well within the capabilities of the IDF. Israelis should not be overconfident, but precedent suggests they have no reason to scare themselves away from one either.

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