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US pressure leads Israel to abandon battle plan



Overtaking the headlines on 8 April, which stated that Israel had pulled all its ground troops out of southern Gaza for “tactical reasons”, was the report of a massive Iranian strike of more than 300 drones and missiles directed at Israel from Iranian territory.

Iran’s “retaliatory” bombardment signified a significant strategic departure for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead of using its proxies, Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Houthis, Iran attacked Israel directly for the first time in its history. In a similar fashion to the world’s initial reaction to 8 October, the attack garnered immediate condemnation from many quarters, thereby buying Israel a short respite from the constant media attacks surrounding the conduct of its war in Gaza.

In spite of Iran’s deadly intent, the missile attack leaves a massive credibility gap in the Iranian capability of inflicting harm on Israel via the air. All but a few of the 300 missiles were either shot down or crashed on their own accord, inflicting minimal damage. Israel can claim a massive victory for its Iron Dome system, and celebrate the fact that the Jordanians and Saudi Arabians accounted for several of the Iranian missile losses. However, it seems that the United States (US) has again restricted any Israeli counterattack, which squanders a rare opportunity to neutralise some Iranian military assets.

Quite simply, US President Joe Biden and his administration have put the brakes on Israeli military actions. Israel has lost the ability to deploy its military at the operational and strategic level of war without the US’s permission. Losing this independence of action poses a significant problem for Israel’s successful execution of the war in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza deployed 18 brigades in December 2023 – about 90 000 troops – and then trimmed it down to five brigades at the end of March. The IDF now fields a single brigade in Gaza, leaving Khan Younis and Gaza City unoccupied. Undoubtedly, the IDF’s hasty withdrawal isn’t for any sound military reason. Instead, the IDF has succumbed to European and belated pressure from the US to change its tactics drastically as world opinion has turned decidedly against the Israelis. The original IDF plan of occupying Gaza in its entirety and eliminating Hamas as a military and political force lies in tatters.

Initially, Israel adopted a persisting strategy, placing a large number of boots on the ground, deliberately advancing at a slow, careful pace into the heart of Gaza. The IDF skilfully concentrated its forces using combined arms teams down to the lowest tactical level. It carefully accumulated overwhelming firepower at the focal points, sometimes advancing only mere meters in a given day. With great tactical skill and impeccable doctrine, the IDF produced innovative tactics to overcome most of the attackers’ disadvantages in dense urban areas. The urban environment overwhelmingly favours Hamas. New IDF tactics are under tight wraps, but Israel’s allies are watching closely and will undoubtedly incorporate these combat innovations into their urban-warfare doctrine. At least up to December, the Israelis made slow but significant progress in defeating Hamas in the field as well as destroying vast tracts of the tunnel system. The IDF badly mauled Hamas at a relatively low casualty cost, inflicting an estimated 30% to 50% loss on its fighting power before forcing it to withdraw to Rafah to conduct what would have been its last stand before destruction.

In spite of registering significant gains at tactical and operational level, Israel is steadily losing the propaganda war. The world’s outrage at the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October began to recede almost immediately. If Israel ever had a chance to strike using a persisting strategy – occupying territory and putting boots on the ground – it would have had to execute with lightning speed. A cautious approach led to it being caught offside by the capricious support it had initially garnered on 7 October. Israel chose to minimise IDF and civilian casualties, and the sands of time have run out. The media’s constant barrage of civilian casualty figures, as reported by Hamas, has alienated many of Israel’s US and European backers. The breathtaking hypocrisy of mainstream media has drowned out lone voices of reason, such as Douglas Murray. A discredited Norman Finkelstein, sidelined even by the Palestinians and now comparing Gaza to a concentration camp, has found new vigour and appreciative audiences. Rochdale in the United Kingdom has elected George Galloway, long consigned to the looney left fringe, as member of Parliament on a pro-Hamas and virulently anti-Israel ticket. Friends, it would seem, are few.

Israel has to contend with an increasingly frayed relationship with the US. Support among younger Americans for Israel is rapidly fading. Biden has insinuated that if the Israelis don’t curtail operations in Gaza, then the supply of American arms will come under threat. There are lessons to be learned by those desirous of conducting an independent foreign policy free from American influence. A home-grown defence industry that supplies the lion’s share of one’s military needs is a fundamental prerequisite. Surely, Israel regrets abandoning the Israeli Air Force Industries Lavi Jet Fighter programme in favour of the US’s F-16? The US no doubt had a significant role in eliminating the Lavi as a possible competitor in the lucrative arms-trade industry.

Israel cannot independently conduct its operations in Gaza without the US’s implicit or explicit approval. That’s the price of dependence on the US for the supply of essential arms and munitions. Ukraine faces a similar dilemma of relying on the West to supply essential military equipment for survival. When the time comes, Ukraine will have little choice but to comply with the West’s version of a peace settlement. Israel has withdrawn from the south of Gaza, and significantly reduced its troop numbers there, not of its own choice, but on instruction from the US.

So where to from here? The IDF has abandoned a highly successful persisting strategy, in which it placed boots on the ground, occupied territory, and advanced methodically and innovatively by using combined arms warfare to eliminate Hamas’s fighting power in the north of Gaza. The military endgame was in sight. All that remained was to capture Rafah and remove Hamas in its entirety. Israel, succumbing to American pressure, now has no option but to resort to a raiding strategy. The IDF will attempt to remove Hamas targets through precision ground and air strikes surgically. The danger of this strategy can already be seen, with close to 2 000 Hamas fighters infiltrating their way back into Gaza City in the absence of Israeli ground forces.

History has shown that wars cannot be won using a raiding strategy exclusively. Targeting Iranian, Hezbollah, and Hamas operatives outside of Gaza to weaken the terrorist superstructure is also not a strategy which will eliminate Hamas. The hope of a more friendly future US government is uncertain and, at best, many months away. The release of hostages, if any are alive, seems remote. An emboldened Hamas continued to hold out for the best terms for a ceasefire. Retaliation for the latest Iranian attack is firmly off the cards. Israel faces tough months ahead.

  • Dr David Brock Katz is a research fellow at Stellenbosch University in the faculty of military science. He has published three books and numerous academic articles dealing with aspects of South African military history and military doctrine.

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