Amir Rapaport’s Column: The Situation in the North is on the Verge of Escalation. This Time, for Real

The forces of the 98th Brigade are deep in Khan Yunis, the defense establishment is concerned with an operation to occupy Rafah, and Israel fails to deter Hezbollah | Amir Rapaport analyzes the situation in the Lebanon and Gaza arena

The recycled recording released by Hamas last week, featuring the call of Mohammed Deif to millions of Muslims worldwide to march up to Al Aqsa, is connected to the relentless Iran-led efforts of smuggling weapons from Jordan: not only rifles and ammunition but also anti-tank missiles and sophisticated and deadly roadside bombs, which could fundamentally alter the reality in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

Meanwhile, despite the increasingly frequent attacks, Hamas and Iran have yet to turn the West Bank and Jerusalem into a significant war front. They are very much interested in doing so. Thus, yesterday's attack near the Al-Auja junction in the Jordan Valley will, unfortunately, soon enter the chronicles of attacks that most of us will quickly forget.

The main fronts where the fate of the Swords of Iron War will be determined are still the Gaza Strip, Lebanon – and also in Washington, DC.

Here it is difficult to find a reasonable defense-related or diplomatic explanation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to butt heads with US President Joe Biden, by announcing the cancellation of the Chief of Staff's delegation to Washington, as a protest against the fact that the Americans did not veto a decision on a ceasefire in Gaza (and the return of the hostages) by the UN Security Council.

Lebanon on fire

From a combat perspective, the most explosive area right now is against Hezbollah: despite ongoing exchanges of fire on the northern border for several months, their intensity is not consistent.

This past week, it was particularly intense. The escalation is likely related to what is perceived as the failure of the negotiations between Israel and Hamas regarding the hostages as well as an unusual response to the killing of seven terrorists from Jamaah Islamiyah, who apparently planned to carry out an infiltration attack into Israel, with or without coordination with Hezbollah.

On a strategic level, Israel has not been successful in deterring Hezbollah and enabling the safe return of 60,000 displaced individuals from communities on the northern border. On the tactical level, the IDF consistently surprises with its ability to target and neutralize Hezbollah's precision-guided missile launchers, which launch the organization’s most potent weaponry – Kornet missiles that have a range of up to ten kilometers, as well as drones.

This is why Hezbollah has once again intensified its firing of “stupid” Katyusha rockets. In a barrage of dozens of rockets on Wednesday on Kiryat Shmona, Zahar Bashara was killed.

The IDF is preparing for the possibility that the Lebanese arena could escalate to full-scale war. This will happen if a series of events does not push Hezbollah's Radwan forces away from Israel's border, following a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

In the meantime, some of the IDF forces, having concluded combat operations in the Gaza Strip, are already training in preparation for a possible war in the Lebanese sector. Yet, none of IDF's target bank’s destinations in Lebanon and Syria are random: part of the airstrikes by the Air Force are aimed at pushing Hezbollah forces further and further northward from the border area. Others are handling the weapons smuggling network from Iran through Syria – especially the anti-aircraft array developed by Hezbollah in Lebanon in recent years, including attacks on missile targets in the Baalbek area – deep in the Bekaa Valley.

The IDF seeks to ensure absolute aerial superiority in preparation for the potential all-out war. Until then, even the numerous attacks from both sides of the border this week are considered "below the threshold of war."

Gaza: a double siege and a fear of treading water

Let us focus on the two main fronts that were active this week, above ground. In the northern part of the Gaza Strip, there has been a prolonged siege on the Shifa Hospital, led by the combined forces of Unit 162.

The Shifa operation was one of the IDF's greatest successes in the war so far, mainly because it caught by surprise hundreds of terrorists, including high-ranking ones.

When they tried to escape, as they typically do, through the tunnels, as they did in the previous IDF raid on Shifa, they found that the tunnels were already blocked.

the hundreds of detainees are being interrogated around the clock, providing intelligence that leads to more arrests and pinpoint operations, and the cycle repeats. Towards the end of the week, several dozen senior figures still remained within the confines of the hospital. The IDF has imposed a siege on them and checks every person attempting to leave the hospital compound. Eventually, they too will be captured.

Also inspired by the success in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, the IDF launched an operation in its southern part, targeting the refugee camp area and the neighborhood of Al-Amal in Khan Yunis, which were captured for the second time.

At the heart of the operation was an activity that began around the Amal hospital, hoping to achieve similar results to those as Shifa. Some of the people who were in the hospital had already left it, waving white flags, and were transferred for questioning. But this operation is still at its start. We will hear more about it this week.  

The fighting in the Khan Yunis sector has been ongoing for four months now, led by the 98th Division. Out of eight brigades that began the fighting as part of the brigade, special forces and combat teams from three brigades have remained in the area – led by Givati, the 7th Brigade of the Infantry Corps, and the Commando Brigade.

In the eastern sector, two paratrooper battalions are also operating. The fighting in this sector claimed the life of Staff Sergeant Nassim Kahlon from the Givati Brigade on Wednesday.

Last week, Major Eli, a commander in the Fire War Room of the 98th Division, told me about the nature of the fighting in the Khan Yunis area. He has already managed to forget about civilian life after nearly half a year in the reserves.

According to Major Eli, "With the decrease of forces, the intensity of the fighting has also decreased, but there are still many combatants in the field. Events erupt quickly, so the attack units of the division are always on high alert.

One of the division’s recent achievements was its ability to almost completely neutralize the threat of mortar shells and explosive drones, which are now discovered and destroyed quickly. However, those remaining from Hamas forces, scattered cells, are trying to learn IDF vulnerabilities and attack there. The commander of Hamas' Khan Yunis Brigade is still alive.

What greatly complicates matters for Hamas is the fact that the IDF has already taken care of 150 out of 400 tunnel shafts detected in the Khan Yunis sector, effectively severing the underground movement chain. The IDF’s main losses these past few weeks have been while entering trapped houses—a threat for which there is still no definitive solution.

Last week, the IDF finally officially announced the assassination of Marwan Issa, Hamas’ “Chief of Staff”, in a bombing that took place several weeks ago. This is a significant intelligence and operational achievement. In the list of most wanted in the Gaza Strip, there are now only three remaining: Yahya Sinwar, first and foremost, alongside his brother Mohammed, as well as Mohammed Deif, Hamas’ "Minister of Defense.”

On the flip side of the IDF's failures, one can still point to the inability to prevent Hamas from taking control of humanitarian aid shipments entering through the Egyptian border. In fact, the IDF isn't even attempting to do so. Hamas is the one seizing the trucks and managing the distribution of food and equipment after allocating itself a significant share.

What IDF fears more than anything else right now is treading water. The siege operations at Shifa and Amal hospitals have created a sense of continuous warfare, but it can also be said that the IDF is just buying time.

The 98th Division’s forces are stationed deep in Khan Yunis. They are prepared for one of two commands: to move north and deal with two Hamas battalions still in the area of the refugee camps in the central part of the Gaza Strip – or to carry out the major operation: occupying the Rafah area. That same operation the prime minister has not stopped talking about.

And here's the surprise: the defense establishment is worried about an operation to occupy Rafah no less than the Americans are. The IDF sees the same satellite images as those discussed this week by the US Vice President, Kamala Harris: in Rafah, there are no less than 1.5 million people, most of them refugees.

There is not a single square meter there without a tent or shack. The need to evacuate residents from there is an unprecedented operational challenge. But it is possible, and it will happen: Israel will not be able to end the war without eliminating the remaining Hamas forces in Rafah and, most importantly, blocking the smuggling of weapons through tunnels from Egypt. The Americans understand this as well.

Therefore, the delegation will eventually go to Washington, will present the Americans with the Israeli plan of how to evacuate the Palestinian population from the area and occupy Rafah. The agenda is also linked to Ramadan and the hostage negotiations.

Two things to keep in mind this coming week:

  1. A hostage deal could be back on the agenda.
  2. The situation in northern Israel is on the verge of an overall escalation. For real this time.

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