To smash Hamas’s headquarters, Israelis must go underground, former IDF conscript RICHARD PATER says

Street-to-street fighting, concealed explosives and Hamas terrorists hidden underground. This is the prospect awaiting Israeli forces as their tanks and infantry move into Gaza.

The limited nature of their incursions over the past few days suggests this is a far more carefully calibrated ground offensive than Hamas perhaps anticipated.

Following the horrific barbarism of October 7, Israel could well have sent thousands of troops streaming across the border in an all-out invasion. But the more soldiers you commit, the more there are for the terrorists to kill.

The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) knows that this campaign could go on for months.

A cautious approach on the ground leaves it flexible as to the pace that it moves forward.

Smoke rising following Israeli bombardment in the north of the Gaza Strip on Sunday

Smoke rising following Israeli bombardment in the north of the Gaza Strip on Sunday

Alongside the all-important aim of bringing back safely the innocent men, women and children captured by Hamas, this is why we have seen the IDF using far fewer infantry than expected in what appears to be a tactical pincer movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the latest operation as the ‘second phase of the war’.

The IDF has already crossed the first few hundred yards of the Gaza Strip — the open fields that favour its tanks and heavy artillery.

Hamas is likely to have prepared traps, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs), in this area.

But when I served in the IDF as a conscript in 2000-2001 – as is obligatory for Israeli citizens – we had the best mine-detecting technology available, so I doubt this will pose a strategic obstacle.

We also relied on Bedouin trackers, experts in spotting any disturbance on the desert floor that could be a buried IED.

Such expertise has allowed the IDF to enter Gaza at two points. One is at Beit Hanoun in the north-east of the Strip, the other further down at Bureij. By encouraging all civilians to flee for the safer areas in the south, the IDF aims to circle and trap Hamas forces – then draw them out. Not with the door-to-door, street-by-street fighting that Hamas terrorists – and indeed many military experts – might have expected, but with strategic cunning.

A huge fireball can be seen rising over Gaza City following intense Israeli strikes

A huge fireball can be seen rising over Gaza City following intense Israeli strikes

The Israeli Defence Force has employed its ‘best soldiers and commanders’ – the smartest recruits who can make their own decisions on the ground.

That may well take them underground – due to the estimated 300-mile tunnel network that Hamas has built under Gaza.

Tunnel warfare is unavoidable. According to some reports, the Israeli Air Force has deployed ‘bunker-buster’ ordnance to destroy Hamas’s tunnel network. These sophisticated missiles have two warheads – the first creates a hole, then a second penetrates deeper into the earth, destroying underground structures. Tunnel-mapping robots will also be used to plant explosives.

Yet at times it will be necessary for combat engineers to descend into the unknown.

At their disposal they have some of their world’s most sophisticated military technology. This includes ‘sponge bombs’ that use a chemical reaction to create a hardening foam that can seal off Hamas’s tunnel openings.

In the air above Gaza, while the IDF has the upper hand, it still faces the threat of drones.

Three weeks ago, Hamas’s breakthrough into Israel was supported by dozens of unmanned aerial vehicles — some spying for its terrorists on the ground, some carrying explosives. But we know that an air convoy from the United States has already delivered weapons thought to have included advanced Stinger missiles which are fired from shoulder launchers and have been used in Ukraine to combat Russian- controlled drones and other attacks from the sky.

Israel has also invested in the Merkava Barak tank, which has sensors that can detect when an enemy system has locked on so it can shoot down incoming missiles.

With the enemy below them, snipers and drones above, and tripwires and IEDs at their feet, one of the IDF’s objectives will be to reach Al-Shifa Hospital in the centre of Gaza City, believed to be standing on top of Hamas’s underground nerve centre.

The base is thought to consist of war rooms used as the main HQ for the terrorist group, as well as stockpiles of fuel.

This is the snake’s head, and if the IDF can cut it off it would be a huge stepping stone to victory in the region.

The discovery of Hamas’s underground lair would also be a propaganda coup for Israel, exposing the contempt that the terror group holds for human life, using the sick and injured as aerial cover.

For Hamas, victory will come out of endurance. It would have to last it out for longer than Israel’s politicians and people can bear, which could be years.

No matter how long it takes, a mass invasion of the Gaza Strip remains, in my view, an unlikely option. Israel has already called up 360,000 of its reservists, but they are needed elsewhere, not least in the north of the country where Hezbollah might escalate attacks along the border into all-out war.

So while those Israeli reservists may not be sent into the Strip any time soon, it would be unwise for Hamas to mistake Israel’s comparatively modest number of boots on the ground as a sign of weakness.

With strategic precision and the IDF’s formidable war chest, this mighty force could well strike successfully at Hamas’s heart.

Richard Pater is the Jerusalem-based director of Bicom, a British-Israeli think-tank, and served in Gaza with the IDF.

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