Overview of a tunnel built underground by Hamas militants leading from the Gaza Strip into Southern Israel, seen on Aug. 4 near the Israeli Gaza border, Israel. As Operation Protective Edge enters its 28th day, the Israeli mission of demolishing Hamas tunnels comes to a close and ground forces returned from Gaza, while Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and Hamas rocket fire to Israeli continues. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — After 17 days of deadly ground maneuvers primarily devoted to the unexpected need to destroy Hamas’ underground tunnel network, Israel’s Protective Edge operation is reverting largely to stand-off strikes from air, sea and land forces.
Israel sent troops into Gaza on July 18, ten days after Protective Edge began, because initial strikes were not achieving the operation’s aims: to hurt Hamas and other militant groups, halt rocket salvos and restore quiet along its border with Gaza. But the troops soon found themselves under attack by militants who emerged from tunnels to fire anti-tank rockets and other weapons and attempt to seize Israeli soldiers.
Israeli leaders belatedly realized that the underground facilities were vital to Hamas’ strategic effectiveness. This underestimation of the tunnels’ importance turned the ground assault into an unplanned nearly-house-to-house maneuvering operation.
Now Israel official believe they have destroyed all the tunnels and access routes and shafts that they have detected.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to reporters Aug. 4 after receiving a security briefing at IDF Southern Command. He said that the overall military operation would continue.
“What is about to conclude is the IDF action to deal with the tunnels, but this operation will end only when quiet and security are restored to the citizens of Israel for a lengthy period,” said the Israeli premier.
Despite media reports that call this a unilateral withdrawal, Israel is retaining more than 80,000 reservists called up to support the thousands of active-duty infantry, armor, paratrooper and specialty forces still operating throughout the Gaza Strip.
“The IDF continues to use everything we have on hand,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. “These ground forces are available to give us maximum flexibility for action and intervention as we continue to address a very fluid situation.”
Costly Attrition War
After four weeks of punishing standoff strikes and high-intensity ground maneuvers, the two sides are slogging away in an increasingly costly war of attrition.
IDF attacks on more than 4,600 targets have killed more than 1,800 Palestinians. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to launch dozens of rockets at Israel each day, and Israeli officers concede that senior Hamas leaders still have command and control over most of their forces.
Meanwhile, Israel has lost 64 soldiers — many of them officers — and three civilians in the fight. That is five times the number of deaths suffered in its last incursion into Gaza, the 23-day Cast Lead operation in 2008-09.
Israel is also losing its international support as the toll of dead and displaced in Gaza rises. The government is trying to stop the erosion with claims that several hundred of the Gazan dead were armed combatants or other legitimate targets, while hundreds more fell victim to rockets, weaponry and tunnel shafts intentionally located in apartment houses and civilian facilities.
But while the Palestinian Ministry of Health releases daily updates of names, ages and residential locations of every Gazan who dies, the IDF declines to release estimates of death tolls or detailed assessments of enemy force strength. Nor has the military, which notes its ability to telephone or send text messages warning individual families of imminent attack, published a substantial list of names of enemy combatants killed in the fight.
“We don’t give a body count when we kill terrorists. We don’t line them up and count them,” said Lerner, the military spokesman.
The IDF has released voluminous photos, targeting video and other data to document the other side’s use of civilian areas for military purposes.
“We have no intention of attacking the residents of Gaza. But in practice, it is Hamas that is attacking them and denying them humanitarian aid,” Netanyahu said.
“We struck a very severe blow at Hamas and the other terrorist organizations.”
Expressing condolences for the fallen and a speedy recovery to the wounded, Netanyahu hailed soldiers and commanders “for their fighting spirit under difficult conditions, in urban areas with tunnels.”