July 13, 2024

The past week of Israel’s land incursions into Gaza can be called a “war on hospitals”. Most of Israel’s military activities in the last few days appear directed at or around the medical facilities in Gaza City.

On Wednesday morning, the Israeli army raided al-Shifa Hospital, the Gaza Strip’s largest, after surrounding it for several days, targeting its compounds and their immediate surroundings, and according to doctors inside, firing occasionally, using snipers. On Tuesday, the Gaza health ministry said at least 40 people had been killed at the hospital.

The Israeli side insists that the Qassam Brigades of Hamas have underground command centres or other facilities under some of Gaza’s hospitals. Hamas strongly refutes that claim.

Palestinian and international medical staff and aid organisations are desperately demanding a halt to the attacks and for medical supplies, water and fuel to be urgently delivered to the hospitals.

In modern warfare, there is usually some neutral body on the ground that can act as an intermediary between the warring parties. Even enemies need to talk, arrange local ceasefires to evacuate dead and wounded, exchange prisoners of war and let civilians out. Talks at higher levels, direct or through intermediaries, often happen at a neutral venue away from the battlefield. Qatar and other countries are playing key roles in hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas, but there is always a need to communicate on the ground as well.

Often that task is undertaken by the International Red Cross or Red Crescent, whose representatives, experienced and usually very tight-lipped, have helped alleviate much suffering in past conflicts. Yet, despite the presence of several trusted organisations there seems to have been no attempt made by Israel to have them confirm or deny the existence of such military facilities in those unfortunate hospitals.

I was able to examine commercial satellite images of the area of recent Israeli operations in northern Gaza and, despite their fairly low resolution — which often makes accurate identification of fine detail impossible — they reveal many interesting facts.

They clearly confirm that Israel attacked in three columns. Two of them, roughly of equal strength, each with 200-300 vehicles of all types, advanced along the main axes. One drove south from Israel along the coast, covering up to 2km (1.2 miles) in width to reach Jabalia. The head of that column has now reached the last open ground before the Shati refugee camp.

The second main column cut across the Strip south of Gaza City. When it reached the sea, it turned north along the coast and has now stopped and dug in just before the harbour. Elements of this column advanced into the area leading up to al-Shifa Hospital and have now entered the medical facility.

The third, smaller, column moved in from the Erez checkpoint towards Beit Hanoon. Unlike the two main forces whose basic job was to take ground and clear Hamas fighters from it, this group seems to have had two purposes: to deny Hamas the possibility to flank the main columns, move around them and attack from the sides, and also to draw fighters to an additional open-ground front. It has reached the first houses of Gaza City proper and is now positioned there.

Analysing satellite photos taken over the last five days, there appears to have been very little movement: Positioning within the areas taken rather than significant advances.

Most of the Israeli companies appear to have reached their current positions by last Friday and, except for those involved in action around the al-Shifa Hospital, now appear to be waiting for the next stage. They are dug in and encamped in a similar fashion: armed vehicles with their backs to buildings that have obviously been cleared of tenants and occupied by the Israeli army, with as much open area in front of them as possible to deter Hamas incursions.

In addition to these three attack columns, satellites show a large group of vehicles inside Israel, close to Nahal Oz, one of the sites of the Hamas attack on October 7.

The fact that this battle group has not moved at all since deploying confirms it to be the strategic reserve, a force that stays close to the battlefield ready to dash forward if needed. Usually, it races into battle when a major unit encounters difficulties and needs to be helped out, or when reconnaissance shows a sudden opportunity — a sector where enemy defences are weak so that a surprise decisive attack may be successful.

What about Hamas so far?

Hard as it is to determine the extent of its fighting and tactics, as evidence is scant, a number of videos released showed that Palestinian fighters chose tactics appropriate to the situation on the ground. They have avoided fighting in open terrain where they stood little chance, and tried to conserve strength for the next phase.

When Israelis move into the cobweb of narrow streets in dense urban areas, Hamas soldiers will be able to use the terrain to their advantage, using tunnels and the damaged and mostly empty buildings.

While obviously holding off their main attack, Hamas fighters have not just been sitting and waiting. Even in open ground, often using the cover of vegetation and farm buildings, they have taken every opportunity to fire their arsenal at the advancing Israelis.

Still, Hamas’s claims of the number of Israeli vehicles destroyed appear grossly exaggerated. On Saturday, November 11, a spokesman for the Qassam Brigades claimed 160 military vehicles from the two columns that advanced from the north border of Gaza had been destroyed “totally or partially,” including 25 in the 48 hours prior to the announcement.

As often happens with military statements, it’s largely a question of semantics.

While “totally destroyed vehicle” is self-explanatory, the term “partially destroyed” is vague and contradictory and befits propaganda rather than factual reporting. The devil is always in the detail: It is entirely possible that 160 Israeli military vehicles, armoured and soft-skinned, have been hit in the land invasion. The problem is how many of them were dead after the attacks.

“Destroyed” may be great for propaganda, but not for soldiers. They need a term to denote that something cannot continue to be used and cannot be (easily) repaired, especially not on the spot. For anything that cannot continue to be used as intended, with full operational capability, militaries use “incapacitated”.

Combat vehicles’ incapacitation can be temporary, a small malfunction that can be dealt with at the first opportunity and with local resources, repaired in the field within hours. More serious incapacitation would lead to the vehicle being driven or towed out of the battle theatre, to be treated at a repair depot inside Israel.

If a vehicle is beyond repair, it often gets destroyed by its own side, burned or blown up, so that the enemy cannot make use of it or remove any useful parts.

Satellite photography does not show many hulks, and the number of Israeli soldiers killed in battle so far, reported to be 48 as of Wednesday morning, suggests the number of truly destroyed vehicles is much lower than Hamas claims.

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