The Army is Too Small, the Battles are Too Many

The losses and injuries teach about the toughest week of battles since the beginning of the war, and on the way to achieving the war goals, the IDF will need to overcome several gaps in plans and force arrangements

The Army is Too Small, the Battles are Too Many

At an IDF base in southern Israel, Markeva-3 tanks in good condition are currently being removed from storage. These tanks have already been decommissioned from service and were slated for sale to a European country.

Fortunately, the Director-General of the Ministry of Defense, Major General Eyal Zamir, decided before the war to delay the sale because the IDF's force structure had fallen below the "red line" – the minimum number of tanks that the IDF must maintain, a threshold upheld for decades. So now, not only will the tanks not be sold, but a new division is being formed with these tanks during the war.

The expansion of the IDF during the war, along with significant acquisitions of weapons from around the world and the production of equipment in three shifts in Israel's defense industries, reflects a major failure that is not emphasized enough, while the intelligence failure captures most of the attention: the IDF is too small for the tasks it faces.

The IDF is struggling with conducting a high-intensity war across the entire Gaza Strip simultaneously with fighting against Hezbollah in the north – which again exacted a heavy toll on Friday – and engaging in warfare in the Persian Gulf, not to mention dealing with the incomprehensible threat to Israeli ships posed by the Houthis in Yemen.

It is already clear that in the years following the war, Israel will likely need to almost double its defense budget, just as it did in the decade after the Yom Kippur War. There is a reasonable chance that the service of the November 2023 conscription cycle, which began this week with the first-ever enlistment during wartime, will be extended. It certainly will not be shortened as originally planned. But first, the war must be won.

Yehya Sinwar
The challenge is immense, and the price is most painful. It has been the heaviest in the fighting so far. Unfortunately, the high number of losses among our forces and the numerous injuries also attest to the intensity of the battles.

At the focal point of the fighting this week was the ground operation that began in the central part of the Gaza Strip, from the south to the Gaza River line, focusing on the city of Khan Yunis. This target is closely linked to the birthplace of the two Hamas leaders who devised the provocative massacre plan on October 7 and executed it ruthlessly – Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Mohammed Deif, its military wing chief.

Both were born in the refugee camp located in the western part of Khan Yunis, towards the sea. The elimination of both is at the top of the target list for the IDF and the Shin Bet, along with Marwan Issa, Deif's deputy and the commander of the Azzah Brigade, and Mohammed Sinwar, the brother, who is a military figure in his own right.

The incursion into Khan Yunis began from the north and east, and one of its early targets was the house on "Street Number 5,” which belongs to Yahya Sinwar, and was encircled immediately by IDF forces.

Despite the Prime Minister's reference to this encirclement in a special announcement, there is no genuine expectation of finding the landlord on-site. He manages Hamas’ affairs from underground, and this week, via the firing at Israel, he demonstrated that he still controls the situation, more or less.

Why the encirclement? Israel may try to lay its hands on the families of Hamas leaders (Yahya Sinwar himself is a bachelor who declared that he is "married to Palestine only," as per Yasser Arafat’s well-known statements, before marrying in his old age). It is unclear what will be found inside his private home before it is detonated as another symbol of the war.

The operation in Khan Yunis is led by the IDF's 98th Paratroopers Division. This division includes elite forces from the reserve system and units from the Commando Brigade, such as "Duvdevan."

Close battles

The operation in Khan Yunis began with a heavy aerial and artillery bombardment, which took place shortly after the conclusion of the ceasefire, during which some of the captives were returned. The Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Defense were quick to emphasize that contrary to all concerns, the ceasefire did not prevent the IDF from continuing to fight at full throttle.

Simultaneously with the start of the operation in the south, fighting has also intensified in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Leading the charge there is the 162nd Division, with its main target being the Jabalia refugee camp, and the 36th Division, including the combat teams of the Golan Brigade, the Paratroopers, and the 188th Armored Brigade. The divisions are aiming to neutralize Hamas strongholds in Sajaiya, where the most significant Gaza resistance to the IDF operation has been recorded so far, including dozens of confrontations.

Most of the weapons used by the terrorists include RPGs and locally manufactured missiles and firearms. However, in the arena, there are also anti-tank missiles like the Kornet, produced by Russia, which caused severe losses to the IDF during the Second Lebanon War. This week, mortar fire claimed lives, including in an attack that targeted an engineering vehicle in the northern part of the strip.

In contrast to battles held before the truce, which were conducted without seeing the whites of the enemy’s eyes – which was reflected in the fact that all Israeli casualties were caused by anti-tank missiles or explosive devices and not direct enemy fire, this time in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, there were also several close-range encounters, such as in a house where two soldiers were killed during "cleansing" operations. This has sparked on social media the (incorrect) claim that the IDF has stopped remote house demolitions, thereby endangering the lives of soldiers.

The fighting is at its peak, and summaries are still far off, but one long-standing debate has already been settled in the Gaza conflict. It revolves around the question of whether the enemy can be defeated solely through remote fighting, or if a ground offensive is necessary.

Well, now there is no shadow of a doubt that without the presence of soldiers on the ground, meaning boots on the ground, it would be impossible to achieve the goal of neutralizing Hamas' military capabilities: rocket launchers, weapons caches, arms production workshops, and of course, the tunnels.

One of the achievements of the ongoing conflict is the innovation in human-based intelligence gathering by the General Security Service (Shin Bet), with its centers integrating with all forces on the ground, much like operations in the West Bank.

One of the achievements of the renewed fighting is the human-based intelligence gathering by the Shin Bet, whose operatives have been joining with all forces on the ground, much like during operations in the West Bank.

Tunnels, tunnels, and tunnels

The Shin Bet's headquarters in central Israel and its investigation facilities in the south have been operating for months with thousands of actual agents, supplemented by thousands of former agents who provide invaluable intelligence from the field. They are engaged in a race against time to extract objectives. Well-equipped with computers, images, personnel lists, and above all – battle plans and information on tunnel openings.

Most of the openings could not be discovered only through remote intelligence because they are hidden beneath the floors of seemingly innocent homes. In several cases, entrances were found within six different houses, covering an area of only one square kilometer. Hundreds of meters of openings were destroyed, during the process of discovering thousands more.

Generally speaking, the effort to handle Hamas tunnels emerges as the most difficult challenge facing the IDF, and it is the one that requires the most time, extending deep into 2024. As part of this enormous effort, plans by Israel to flood the tunnels using seawater made headlines this week, following a publication in the Wall Street Journal.

Not everything can be disclosed about this effort that has the potential to remove Hamas terrorists from their tunnels, but it will not be a miraculous solution to the problem. There is no expectation of that. The brightest brains of the IDF and the defense industries are currently working on additional solutions to this immense challenge.

The significant presence of the IDF and the Shin Bet in the area may also aid in locating the whereabouts of the 138 hostages who are still in the Gaza Strip (unfortunately, not all of them alive), but it does not necessarily mean that it will be possible to rescue them alive, even if their location is known.

It can be assumed that the IDF is developing operational plans for rescues, parallel to the option of returning them in another arrangement when Hamas is desperate enough to beg for another ceasefire (in the hope that such a moment will come).

Looking back at this past week, it seems that the IDF managed to make some tactical surprises for Hamas in Khan Yunis and caught them off guard with the quick entry, shortly after the end of the truce.

Wherever the IDF charges full steam ahead, Hamas has no chance of stopping it. However, this does not guarantee success in the main goal – shaking up Hamas to force its leaders, who may still be in the Khan Yunis area, to surrender or at least make some tactical mistake that would enable their elimination.

It is important, however, to acknowledge that there are still some internal contradictions in the IDF's war plan that may prevent absolute success.

The main issue is related to the hostages: it cannot be ignored that the fighting indeed endangers their lives, and the immense pressure from the families on the political echelon is only expected to increase.

If we reach another truce negotiation, Hamas will not settle for just a cessation of hostilities next time because its main goal will be to use the hostage card to achieve a prolonged ceasefire. Then, the full contradiction between the goals of "weakening Hamas" and "returning the hostages" will be revealed.

The battle over Rafah

Another gap in the plans is related to the fact that Israel is not operating in the Rafah area, at least for now. This is problematic because the tunnels from Khan Yunis lead to Rafah and probably also to Egypt. It cannot be ensured that there are no more active tunnels leading outside of Gaza.

The only way to truly ensure the separation of the Gaza Strip is by maintaining control over the Philadelphi Corridor, which separates the territory of the Gaza Strip from Egypt. However, there might be challenges in dealing with Egypt in this regard.

Our neighbors from the south wholeheartedly support (albeit not publicly) the demolition of Hamas. However, they are more disturbed by the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Gazans flooding their territory if Israel increases pressure at the southern edge of the Strip—a condition essential for controlling Philadelphi.

Another bug: While Israel has been reducing its military strength in recent years, former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi led an approach of using robots and also advocated for remote decision-making. Kochavi spoke extensively about the need for "rapid decision-making" and "transferring the fighting to enemy territory."

Indeed, the fighting has moved into the Gaza Strip (unlike the situation with Hezbollah in the north) – but a decisive resolution, if it happens, still does not seem imminent.

It is challenging to predict the exact duration of the conflict. It seems likely to continue at least until after the Christmas and New Year holidays, with high intensity. Following that, the IDF might start releasing some reserve forces through a gradual reduction of the combat forces or through rotation.

Indeed, the ground operation has been unfolding according to plans and has proven more successful than initial expectations. However, to sustain the overall strategic advantage, complementary moves will be required in this military operation as well.

One of Israel's challenges in the global public opinion battle is the perceived disproportion between the number of civilian casualties and the number of Hamas terrorists killed, maintaining a ratio of 3:1. This means that for every three civilians killed, for every one deservingly dead Hamas terrorist. This ratio is even more challenging in the fighting in the southern Gaza Strip due to the presence of two million civilians, with one million of them already evacuating from northern cities based on previous IDF instructions.

US Pressure

The US Secretaries of State and Defense already sent very clear signals that the diplomatic timeframe for the war is not unlimited. In the coming week, Israel will host the US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who will further explain from the American perspective what may still be unclear.

To prolong the diplomatic credit for the war, Israel’s security cabinet was forced to swallow on Wednesday the bitter pill of increasing the number of fuel tankers entering the Gaza Strip. This is despite the apparent lack of logic in taking humanitarian steps towards the Gaza Strip while our hostages do not even receive a visit from the Red Cross, and while we have no verified information concerning their situation.

On the other hand, the nterest in avoiding humanitarian crises in the Gaza Strip is also ours. The Americans will also increase pressure on Netanyahu regarding the “day after" issue. The one mainly addressing this issue is Minister Ron Dermer. Contacts with Egypt, Qatar, and other players are led by the Mossad and the Shin Bet.

Israel’s National Security Council has a team formulating various alternatives regarding the situation in Gaza after the war. Leading this team is the head of the Strategic Defense Policy Yoram Hamo, and it includes representatives from all organizations, from the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry to the IDF.

Israel’s National Security Advisor, Zachi Hanegbi, is the one presenting the alternatives in the Cabinet, but currently, there is no foreseeable scenario for civilian control over the Gaza Strip without any involvement from the Palestinian Authority, as stated by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

If there is a foothold for the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu will need to address the matter with the faction of Jewish Power and religious Zionism within his government.

A ray of light: Israel’s public diplomacy situation improved in the past two weeks in broad sections of the international media, following the images of the women and children freed from captivity, which demonstrated Hamas’ cruelty to the world, and also due to the UN discussion this week on the use of sexual violence as a terrorist weapon. Despite the pain associated with exposing stories of assault, it has brought attention to the issue.

The battle for Nirim

Two concluding remarks regarding new information on October 7th: The story of the Southern Division commander in the Gaza Brigade, Colonel Asaf Hamami, whose funeral was held this week while his body is still held in Gaza cannot be told in full without stating that in his death, he saved the lives of dozens, if not hundreds, of people.

Hamami fell in battle along with his soldiers near Kibbutz Nirim, where he rushed at the onset of a surprise attack.

What has not been published is that, following the intense battle involving a high-ranking officer, a helicopter was dispatched to the area. In contrast to many other kibbutzim where helicopters were not even seen in the vicinity (In Nir Oz, the massacre and kidnapping of a quarter of its residents ended without the IDF firing a single shot or even being seen in the area) – in Nirim, the helicopter sprayed dozens of Hamas terrorists who were outside the fences attempting to infiltrate.

Thanks to this, as well as to the kibbutz’s emergency preparedness squad, a mass massacre was avoided in Nirim, and its number of hostages and casualties was relatively small.

Credit is also due to the Border Police’s special unit, the Gideonim: We have learned that the resourcefulness of the unit commander, who decided to deploy his teams quickly to all of the main junctions in the Negev and also those leading towards Tel Aviv and other central areas – is what prevented Hamas from realizing its plan of reaching sensitive military bases and facilities near Be’er Sheva, Kiryat Gat and Tel Aviv.

Another ray of light in that horrific morning of failure and heroism.

The bottom line: the intense battles will continue in the coming days, and might also expand in Israel’s north – where the solution to enable the residents to return safely to their homes has not yet been found.

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