Amir Rapaport’s Weekly Column: The War Is Reaching a Dangerous Phase. Is Khayn Yunis next?

Hamas has lost control over what is happening in the northern Gaza Strip from a civilian point of view, but is far from surrender. The combats are only expected to intensify

Amir Rapaport’s Weekly Column: The War Is Reaching a Dangerous Phase.
Is Khayn Yunis next?

Currently, the IDF's operation in the Gaza Strip is unfolding as if a hostage deal is not on the agenda. Of the three main objectives of the war – dismantling Hamas' control in Gaza, undermining its military capabilities, and returning the hostages – the first goal is progressing the fastest. Hamas has indeed lost control over civilian affairs in the Gaza Strip, mainly in the north, but is far from surrendering. The fighting has not diminished, and it is expected to intensify further.

Let's start with the dilemma of the hostages. This is the third time that Yahya Sinwar has faced Benjamin Netanyahu with a difficult and fateful decision. In October 2011, Netanyahu asked the government secretary, Zvika Hauser, to convene a cabinet meeting to approve the deal to release 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Sinwar, who entered prison as a "Khan Yunis Butcher" in 1989, was then the undisputed leader of the prisoners, and he was the one who conducted the negotiations with Israel.

Before calling the ministers, Hauser phoned the political advisor, Ron Dermer, who was home, sick. "Did you know?!" he asked him, and received a resounding negative answer. A few days later, Sinwar was released from prison, although he was unwilling to sign a commitment not to engage in terrorism again.

During the second dilemma, in November 2018, Netanyahu was required to choose between Yahya Sinwar and the Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, who vehemently opposed any "arrangement" with Hamas, including the transfer of the infamous suitcases of cash from Qatar. In retrospect, we know that Sinwar, who was already the official leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, made a concerted effort to persuade Netanyahu with a handwritten letter, in Hebrew, urging him to take a "calculated risk." Netanyahu chose Sinwar, and Liberman resigned.

Regarding the November 2023 dilemma, with all due respect to the cabinet discussing the hostage issue, the cruel weight of the decision, perhaps the most morally challenging dilemma ever – whether to release only some of the hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a few days of ceasing fire – once again falls mostly on the shoulders of Netanyahu.

What exactly does the proposed deal include? How will it be implemented? The emotional roller coaster that each of us experiences in light of the publications about the progress (and setbacks) in the talks leads to the conclusion that it is preferable to wait in suspense for developments.

In the words of the IDF spokesperson: "When there is something, we will update the families first and then the public." Those abovementioned publications contain a lot of disinformation from all sides, aiming to influence the negotiation process.

Either way, the question of whether a deal will take place or not will have immediate implications for the IDF's operations deep in the Gaza Strip. A temporary ceasefire of a few days would allow Hamas to evacuate wounded individuals from the tunnels and, more importantly, gain intelligence on the IDF's deployment above ground – enabling them to launch attacks immediately when the fire resumes. This could potentially result in casualties for our forces, but the IDF believes it can renew the pressure on Hamas with the same success as in the first three weeks of the ground maneuver, more or less.

The "bug" in assessing the chances of a deal primarily exists when looking at the situation from Yahya Sinwar's perspective: If the Defense Minister repeatedly says that even after a partial deal, Israel will continue to fight until the complete destruction of Hamas and the killing of its leaders, then what is the real purpose of such a deal in Sinwar’s view?

Perhaps he believes he can prolong the ceasefire that will be achieved and bring about the end of the war? Or maybe he thinks that the dozens of children and foreign citizens currently held in the Gaza Strip are now more of a burden than an asset to Hamas (as President Joe Biden stated this week)?

Is Sinwar serious about the negotiations for a deal, or is he just conducting a cruel psychological war, as in the horrific video of the captured soldier Adi Marciano, who died in captivity? Is he rational in his decisions at all, or determined to fight from the bunker to the last bullet? How many of the hostages are still alive?

This is one of Israel's biggest challenges: understanding what the leader of Hamas thinks and plans. According to intelligence sources, there is some truth to the claims of the Iranians and Hezbollah, that Hamas did not inform them in advance about the specific details of the October 7th attack.

Sinwar's close associates can be counted on one hand, and even with them, he mainly communicates through written notes, much like in his prison days. His main associate is Mohammad Deif, the Hamas "chief of staff.” The pressure on Sinwar and Mohammad Deif comes from Qatar (with negotiations facilitated by the head of the Mossad, David Barnea) and Egypt (with the involvement of the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar). Unfortunately, even if some of the kidnapped hostages are released soon, this affair as a whole is far from resolution.

Facing Southern Gaza

Meanwhile, the IDF's operation in the northern Gaza Strip is reaching its dangerous phase. Both sides are studying each other. Sometimes, fatigue is already showing its signs. However, all military personnel I've spoken with are united in the opinion that despite the heavy losses, overall, the IDF's performance on the ground surpasses expectations and has alleviated the serious concerns in the cabinet, especially for the Prime Minister.

It is primarily the determination and the firepower that continue to make a significant impact on Hamas forces. Hamas terrorists persistently emerge from the tunnels, attempt to launch drones to locate our forces, and then carry out anti-tank attacks. They also deploy numerous explosives. Usually, they are neutralized beforehand, but not always.

The IDF decided to initiate the ground operation in the northern part of the Gaza Strip and focus on the city of Gaza itself. Like any organization, the assumption is that if you strike at the head, it will be easier to deal with the rest of the body.

However, even after focusing on the strategic targets in Gaza City, and taking half out half of Hamas’ commanders, it's not easy. The major challenge still lies in the underground warfare.

Broadly speaking, Hamas has two types of tunnels – offensive and defensive. Regarding the offensive tunnels, the IDF has dealt with them since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Therefore, the tunnels that are part of the defense structures pose a greater challenge now. They are also deeper.

This week, two IDF divisions, the 162nd from the north and the 36th from the south of the city of Gaza, continued to play a central role. The IDF continues to carry out raids by combat teams at the brigade level. The two divisions include the four regular army infantry brigades – Givati, Nahal, Paratroopers, and Golani, along with the regular army’s armored brigades. They cooperate with each other in the heart of the city of Gaza.

Every IDF raid is intended either to target symbols of authority for the purpose of achieving a psychological impact (such as the takeover of the Palestinian Parliament building by Golani, which has become iconic since the widely circulated photograph); to continue smashing the military capabilities of Hamas – one position after another, one tunnel opening after another; or to work towards returning the kidnapped. The takeover of the Shifa Hospital compound is intended to advance all three objectives simultaneously.

It is still unclear what exactly was discovered on the computers seized in the Hamas command headquarters in the Shifa underground bunkers (the IDF Spokesperson for foreign media said on Thursday that there were photos of hostages taken after their abduction).

However, by the end of the week, it was already evident that the takeover of the hospital – with minimal public diplomacy damage to Israel – was a significant achievement. There will likely be more hospitals that the IDF will reach.

The practice of searching for hostages, or at least findings related to the kidnappings, within well-known hospitals dates back to the daring operation carried out by the Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and Shaldag units in a hospital in the heart of Hezbollah's stronghold in Baalbek, Lebanon, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

It is important to note that the minister of defense stated in a briefing this week that the IDF will not conclude the fighting in Gaza without acting in the southern part of the strip, beyond the Gaza River line. He seems to be directing attention, first and foremost, to the most significant Hamas stronghold after the city of Gaza – the birthplace of Mohammed Deif and Yahya Sinwar – Khan Yunis, located in the center of the Gaza Strip.

It is possible that the top Hamas leaders are currently in Khan Yunis. The problem is that in the southern part of the Gaza Strip are also around two million Palestinians, given that over a million residents responded to the demand to evacuate the north.

So, what will be the next target? Towards the end of the week, leaflets were dropped calling for the evacuation of the eastern areas of Khan Yunis. This could be a telltale sign.

What pressure is applied on Israel’s "defense quartet"– Netanyahu, Gantz, Glantz, and Eisenkot? Contrary to common belief, even after six weeks of war, including three weeks of ground operations, the world is not entirely against us.

Israel is still enjoying unprecedented operational freedom in the Gaza Strip. Of course, considering the magnitude of the blow we suffered on October 7th, it makes sense. But kudos to the professionals at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who operate efficiently and adeptly around the globe with Israel's ultimate public diplomacy weapon in this war – a 47-minute-long film, produced by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, which displays some of the atrocities of October 7th.

Nevertheless, one can already feel that within a few weeks, the IDF will reduce its forces in the Gaza Strip and begin releasing reservists to their workplaces and campuses. If everything continues, more or less, as planned, it will happen after being able to conduct brigade operations against the Hamas infrastructure.

There will be no need for division-level operations. When talking about long months and maybe even years of continued fighting in Gaza until the area is cleared – that will be the pattern.

Meanwhile, amid the high intensity of the conflict, the IDF continues with the engineering preparation of the “Perimeter" - a destruction area adjacent to the Palestinian side of the Gaza Strip fence, where no Palestinian foot will tread even after the war ends. Its width will be about a kilometer.

Defense Minister Gallant hinted this week that residents of the city of Beit Hanoun, which will likely be within the “Perimeter," in the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip, may not be allowed to return to their homes after the war. Beit Hanoun is the city closest to the surrounding Israeli communities, from which residents left, some on foot and some by bicycle, for massacres, rape, and humiliation at the hands of the Nachba forces.

If this is indeed the case, Beit Hanoun will become another symbolic reminder of the Gaza War, the 2023 version of the devastated Syrian city of Quneitra in the center of the Golan Heights—or will simply be “flattened.”

Hezbollah, Yemen, Iran

Meanwhile, while most of the attention was focused on the drama in Shifa, warnings and attacks continued throughout the week in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and of course, tensions remained high in the north.

However, regarding Hezbollah, after Nasrallah's speech on Saturday and the firing of anti-tank missiles toward vehicles of the Israel Electric Corporation, resulting in the death of one civilian and injuries to five others earlier in the week, signs have emerged of a return to "the rules of the game" that may prevent an escalation into war in this arena as well.

Israel has shifted from a defensive to a proactive stance, attacking not only in response to Hezbollah's fire but also preemptively. However, this does not yet provide a solution that would allow residents of the northern border to return to their homes. Therefore, it still appears that a broader war in the north has been postponed, rather than canceled.

Given the high intensity of events this week, only minimal media attention was drawn to the historic event in which the 'Arrow 3' aerial defense missile intercepted a surface-to-surface missile launched by the Houthis from Yemen – outside the atmosphere. It is a historic achievement.

Generally, the Houthis receive little attention here, despite their threats this week against Israeli shipping heading to the Red Sea. Sooner or later, Israel and the United States will also need to 'deal with' the Houthis. If Israeli ships are attacked – it will happen very soon.

The attacks on Israel from Yemen once again raise the question of whether it is time for Israel to launch an attack within Iranian territory, rather than just retaliate against proxies. (The need to attack Iran in Iran in response to attacks by its proxies was a stated policy of Naftali Bennett during his short tenure as prime minister.)

In addition, the war raises the question of whether the IDF needs a missile force, something Avigdor Liberman began to promote when he served as the defense minister. His plan might still make a comeback. 

The Technology Division for the Ground Forces

Meanwhile, even though its end is not yet in sight, the Gaza war is already Israel’s longest war, excluding the War of Independence (Operation Protective Edge lasted 51 days but was officially labeled as an "operation").

In order to conduct such a prolonged and intensive warfare, the IDF (needs to utilize its technological and logistical capabilities to the fullest.

This gives us the chance to shed some light on the activities of the IDF’s Technology Division for the Ground Forces (abbreviated as HATAL in Hebrew), one of the largest units in the Israeli military, alongside Unit 8200 of Military Intelligence.

HATAL comprises thousands of personnel, many of whom are engineers, and it multiplies itself by recruiting reservists. The head of the Logistics Division, Brigadier General Rami Abudraham, rose through the ranks in the Artillery Corps and previously served as the Chief of Staff of the Central Command. He is also an engineer.

The war posed an immediate challenge for HATAL, requiring them to quickly renew their means along the Gaza border, which were mostly destroyed by Hamas in a surprise attack. This took about a week and a half. Then, under fire. alternative solutions were found along the northern border – a place that was also targeted by missiles, this time from Hezbollah.

Deep within the Gaza Strip, HATAL dealt, under fire with dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers that were hit by missiles, restoring most of them to operational status. It also accompanied the “Eitan” AVFs. Out of the tanks and armored fighting vehicles involved in battles, only 3-4 require extensive repairs.

No vehicle was completely destroyed, not even the "Merkava" tank that featured in photos released by Palestinians near the Gaza border on the morning of October 7th.

The primary effort of HATAL is focused on finding creative solutions (that will be recounted in the future) pertaining to how to deal with Hamas tunnels and how to supply essential resources like fuel and water to the formidable forces in the heart of the Gaza Strip, without exposing logistical convoys to Hamas fire.

In HATAL’s experimental baes, located along the coast between Rishon LeZion and Yavne, tests were conducted on no less than 60 different types of ceramic vests brought to Israel since the beginning of the war – and on various emergency kits collected from around the world.

Yes, after six weeks of fighting, the IDF continually replenishes its stockpiles, primarily with weapons arriving non-stop in ships and planes from the United States, but not only. Some of the explosives used for artillery shell firing were approved for use even though they are decades old. Artillery units even report on explosives that are 100 years old!

In order to improve accuracy and due to a shortage of explosives, long-range firing is carried out using a significant portion of the artillery fire in the Gaza war at very short distances of only a few kilometers.

Revolution

The IDF is already discussing, with astonishment, the initial investigations that reveal jaw-dropping failures preceding the October 7th attack.

This goes far beyond the intelligence failure. The way the IDF held the line facing the Gaza Strip raises serious questions about the army's level of professionalism. About its complacency, excessive reliance on technology, and chaos.

For example, in the initial hours after the line's collapse, there were countless tales of heroism, but the entire division did not function. In the field, the first IDF tank to fire a shell – aimed at another tank. This was the opening cue for a long series of failures that will still be discussed.

Even regarding the mostly successful ground maneuver, unusual questions have already arisen. For example, in the early days of the maneuver, fighters from the "Givati" and "Golani" brigades did not leave their armored personnel carriers, while fighters from the Nahal and Paratroopers entered the Gaza Strip on foot, like infantry. It is still unclear why the operational methods of the brigades were so different.

At the systemic level, it is already clear that whoever commands the IDF after the wave of resignations at the end of the war will need to significantly increase the size of the army and change everything from the extension of regular service to the training methods. The changes will be greater than what the IDF went through after the Yom Kippur War. But for now, the fighting continues. There will be time for investigations and lessons learned.

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