It’s been called “unprecedented.” As someone who as a reporter covered two Palestinian intifadas or uprisings in 1987 and 2000 and many turbulent events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since, Hamas’ recent attack on Israel has a very different feel about it.

To put this in some kind of context, more Israelis were killed in last weekend’s assault than in five years of the second intifada, a cycle of violence that included bus bombings, rocket attacks and shootings.

Just as Hamas’ attack was unprecedented, so too most likely will the chain of events that are about to unfold in its wake as tens of thousands of Israeli troops mass at the border preparing to undertake a ground operation that one Israeli defence official ominously declared will reduce Gaza to “a city of tents.”

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Daunting as the prospect of such a military onslaught is to most ordinary Gazans already bludgeoned by devastating Israeli missile and air strikes, so too must it be for those Israeli troops who will have to move into the coastal enclave.

To begin with, as most security and military analysts agree, it is inconceivable that Hamas would not have fully anticipated a full scale Israeli ground operation in response to its audacious and bloody incursion into Israel. That Hamas will have prepared sophisticated defences to match the tactical planning that was the hallmark of their recent assault into Israel is a given.

Already reports are surfacing from Western officials attributed to the intelligence services of Egypt and Jordan that Hamas has prepared improvised explosive devices, anti-tank weapons and other defences along the few approaches that exist into Gaza.

As one of the most densely populated places on the planet and crammed with a labyrinth of tightly packed cinder block houses in its eight refugee camps and multi-storey buildings at its heart, Gaza presents every infantryman’s nightmare scenario of urban fighting.


Beneath Gaza too lie miles of tunnels through which Hamas and other militant groups, like the smaller Islamic Jihad, have in the past ferried weapons and munitions. Now the tunnels will be used to hide their fighters and the estimated 150 Israel hostages. This will further compound the challenges faced by Israeli forces.

Adding also to the problem of hostage recovery are intelligence indications that some of the hostages were likely taken by criminal looters rather than Hamas fighters.

In this incredibly complex physical and human landscape at every turn Israeli troops will be moving through a devastated cityscape laced with hidden fighters and booby-trapped passageways.

Even with the technological advantages the Israelis have in the way of detailed computer images of Gaza and extensive drone surveillance in what is already one of the most surveilled places on earth, this remains an urban-war nightmare.

As someone who witnessed the Israelis “disengage” from Gaza back in 2005, I well recall military officials saying that from then on the strategy would be one of “containment.”

But since that disengagement Israel has carried out no fewer than 15 military operations in the Gaza Strip and there have been four wars between Israel and Hamas since the group took over the territory in 2007.

From operations like Summer Rains to Guardians of the Walls to Cast Lead and most recently Operation Shield and Arrow, Israel has time and again sought to punish or neuter Hamas only to find that on every occasion such offensives only ended in a return to the untenable status quo. In other words, even if in some of these cases Israel had no choice other than a military operation most of these campaigns achieved little.

Veteran Middle East watchers will also recognise that the latest impending move on Gaza has the potential to repeat the blunders of the past such as in 1982 when then Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon vowed to purge the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) from southern Lebanon and Beirut.

Here was a sobering example of how such military operations can go awry: rather than pack up and leave – as some Israeli military chiefs expected – the PLO stood their ground and Israel was left laying siege to Beirut shelling it with artillery and bombing from the air for months.

While the PLO did end up leaving Lebanon, Israel’s first large-scale ground war against a non-state entity was one of its worst strategic disasters. What followed resulted in Palestinian gunmen in West Beirut being replaced by the Lebanese Shiite militia that became Hezbollah which today is perhaps Israel’s most feared enemy.

It is Hezbollah after all that will now be watching closely, deciding whether to open a second front against Israel from the north as Israeli troops go into Gaza. Just like in 1982, when Sharon’s hubris resulted in a strategic blunder that left Israel arguably more vulnerable, so too could Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Gaza retaliation result in a strengthening of the axis of resistance to Israel.

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The lesson here is that it’s one thing to march into Gaza, but what then? Stay and occupy – again? How too would Israel seek to govern what was left of Gaza?

And, if it then decides to march out, is there not the danger of leaving a power vacuum that could be filled with groups even more radical and dangerous than Hamas – just as happened in Beirut post 1982?

Casting back to other lessons from that time, it’s worth remembering also that Israel’s Lebanon operation could not have gone ahead without a thumbs up from its key ally – the United States.

Just as then, US secretary of state Alexander Haig gave that signal, so too today does his counterpart, Antony Blinken, on the instructions of President Joe Biden.

Most Western nations have shied away from calling on Israel to slow its military response. But while shying away is one thing, actively encouraging Israel is something else again that might only make a bad situation worse.

As Israeli troops mass for what will be a protracted and bloody engagement the brunt of which will be largely borne by Gaza’s civilians, the danger is obvious – another strategic blunder that only deepens and perpetuates the violence for decades to come.

David Pratt is The Herald's Contributing Foreign Editor