‘No Upper Limit to the Horror’: Israel Briefly Enters Gaza Strip Ahead of Expected Invasion

TEL AVIV—Israeli tanks briefly entered the Gaza Strip Wednesday night in the largest ground operation thus far after two weeks of war against the Hamas militant group ahead of a likely invasion of the tiny coastal strip that experts warn will likely be slow, brutal, and cause extensive casualties to civilians.

Israeli planes and artillery have been hammering Gaza with thousands of strikes since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas and aligned militants on Israeli bases and communities surrounding Gaza that killed over 1,400 Israelis and saw at least 200 kidnapped. The preliminary bombings have devastated large swaths of Gaza’s urban areas, killing thousands as an Israeli blockade of humanitarian supplies and fuel has crippled civilian relief efforts, leading a UN official to warn that, “nowhere is safe in Gaza.”

The IDF on Thursday said that a unit of tanks and military engineers crossed the border fence into Gaza overnight to target Hamas positions in what it described as an operation to prepare the way for a major ground operation. 

“Overnight, the IDF conducted a targeted raid using tanks in the northern Gaza Strip, as part of preparations for the next stages of combat,” said the IDF in a release accompanied by video of the operation.  “The activity was commanded by the Givati Brigade.

During the activity, soldiers located and struck numerous terrorists, terror infrastructure and anti-tank missile launch posts, and operated to prepare the battlefield.”

“[The IDF] is conducting ‘shaping operations’ now,” said a NATO military official, who is not authorised to speak on the record to the media. “This involves preparing and clearing the routes that will be used by the main force. This is a strong sign of an impending operation.”

People search through buildings that were destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on October 26, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Two weeks after a deadly Hamas attack in southern Israel that sparked a retaliatory siege of Gaza, in which thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, aid trucks have started entering the Palestinian territory via Egypt carrying food, water and medicines. The UN agency UNRWA, or the Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, says the initial aid is a "drop in the ocean" of what is needed. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

That sense was reinforced Wednesday night as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed his nation directly in a televised address and promised a massive military operation after more than a week of apparent delays that had confused many Israelis. 

“All Hamas members are dead men walking — above and below ground, inside and outside Gaza,” he says. “ We are working around the clock in order to achieve the war aims until victory, and doing so without political considerations,” he said. “We are preparing for a ground incursion. I won’t specify when, how, [or] how many.”

The IDF also said that overnight it had struck at least 250 targets by air and had conducted a naval operation targeting what it described as a Hamas rocket position. Hamas and its ally Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired thousands of rockets into Israel since the start of the war, including multiple waves fired at central Tel Aviv Thursday afternoon. Gaza health officials estimate at least 7,000 people have died inside Gaza, including more than 400 in the last 24 hours, claims that could not be verified although visual evidence has confirmed huge amounts of dead and wounded, including the immediate family of an Al Jazeera reporter Wednesday evening. 

“It’s by far the highest level of civilian deaths we have ever seen in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said the NATO official. “The specific numbers can’t be known at this stage but there appears to be no upper limit to the horror inside Gaza over the past two weeks.”

On Thursday Hamas claimed that at least 50 of the estimated 220 hostages it took on Oct. 7 have been killed in Israeli airstrikes. Only four hostages have been released via mediation by Qatar and the International Committee of the Red Cross, but one regional diplomat briefed on the effort said Israel’s escalation of air strikes in the past week and the apparently imminent ground invasion indicated negotiators could be running out of time.

“It certainly hasn’t gotten any easier,” said the diplomat, who requested not to be identified for political sensitivity concerns.

“Hamas seems eager to delay the [ground] operation and talk… but the chaos inside Gaza and that so many of the commanders with authority to negotiate are literally hiding underground complicates that side of the effort,” they said. “The Israelis do not seem inclined to wait for more talks, they have expressed concern that Hamas will slowly release a trickle of hostages in a bid for more time to prepare and the hope that outrage over civilian deaths will force the international community to pressure Israel. There feels like a limit to diplomacy at this stage.”

A member of the public looks at a wall displaying pictures of people still held hostage in Gaza, on October 26, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. In the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas that left 1,400 dead and 200 kidnapped, Israel launched a sustained bombardment of the Gaza Strip and threatened a ground invasion to vanquish the militant group that governs the Palestinian territory. But the fate of the hostages, Israelis and foreign nationals who are being held by Hamas in Gaza, as well as international pressure over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, have complicated Israel's military response to the attacks. A timeline for a proposed ground invasion remains unclear. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

With over 300,000 reservists mobilised for the Gaza operation as well as reinforcement of IDF positions on the northern border with Lebanon, which has seen daily exchanges of fire between the IDF and close Hamas ally Hezbollah, the IDF has said it plans to move methodically throughout Gaza’s cities–among the densest populations in the world with over 6,000 residents per square kilometre–and the extensive tunnel network built by Hamas, which experts predict will lead to massive casualties.

“It looks like this could be a one-sided Stalingrad,” said the NATO official, referencing the 1942 battle between the Germans and Soviets for control of the city on the Volga River that turned into a month’s long bloodbath of urban fighting in the rubble of the demolished city. 

“But unlike Stalingrad, there’s nowhere for Hamas and civilians to retreat,” they said. “We have already seen the effect on civilians being unable to flee, but with their backs to the sea, Hamas and its allies will be forced to fight in place, probably to the death. The IDF will likely take massive casualties digging them out of the rubble. The situation will require more face to face urban combat than the IDF has ever experienced and there’s few ways to limit casualties in such an environment.”

Anthony King, author of “Urban Warfare in the 21st Century”, said in an analysis on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter,  that even sending 100,000 IDF soldiers into the cramped, urban confines of Gaza might not be enough to quickly overwhelm the Hamas defences and predicted a difficult, bloody slog.

“Hamas force size is also difficult to determine: between 10,000 and 30,000 fighters?” he wrote. “Force ratios might be 10:1 in the IDF’s favour; more likely closer to 3:1. Urban ops usually require a force ratio of 10:1. Therefore, the fighting will be slow, hard, and bloody.”

The tunnel system that Hamas has built over the past two decades to protect its leaders, arms stockpiles, fighters and, as is widely believed, the Israeli hostages will be even more difficult to clear. 

According to Israeli security officials, based on previous operations that were able to map but not destroy parts of the tunnel system, the concrete reinforced tunnels are set between 25 to 50 metres underground, well out of range of most Israeli bombs.  Attempting to rescue any hostages requires elite special operations troops backed by large numbers of conventional troops as the complexes sprawl for multiple kilometres under the strip. 

“Subsurface: Hamas has a massive subterranean system. Reducing Hamas tunnels will be a gargantuan task,” wrote King. “Simply blocking tunnels is not enough. The IDF’s specialist tunnel units are adept but too small. A large infantry force – paratroops? – are required for this task.”

This will mean slow progress and heavy casualties for IDF troops, said the NATO official.

“The only thing worse than fighting in a tunnel complex is fighting in a massive, kilometres long series of tunnel complexes,” they said. “It will be unprecedented in modern military history.”


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