Why urban warfare in Gaza will be bloodier than in Iraq

An Israeli tank maneuvers inside the Gaza Strip, seen from Israel. October 31, 2023 (Reuters) (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/)

The war in Gaza It is taking a brutal toll on the civilian population. He Ministry of Healthdirected by Hamasstates that more than 8,000 people. The number of children among them, more than 3,000, exceeds the annual number of child deaths in all wars in each of the previous three years. The Economist calculates, from satellite images, that more than a tenth of the homes in Loop have been destroyed, leaving more than 280,000 people without homes to which they can return. In many ways, this fits the norm of urban warfare, which is unusually destructive. But the war Israel in Loop It is also peculiar.

War in urbanized areas is always bloody. The first American assault on Fallujah in 2004 it killed 600 civilians, 0.2% of the population, compared to 0.3% in the current war in Loop. A second assault at the end of the year killed about 800 more and left most of the city’s buildings damaged. It is believed that in the battle for Sadr Citya suburb of Baghdadalmost 1,000 people died in March and April 2008, out of a population of about 2 million inhabitants, a figure not very different from that of Loop.

The largest urban battle in recent years was the assault on the city of Mosultaken by the group Islamic State (ISIS), by a coalition led by USA which included Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces. At least 9,000 civilians died in Mosul during 2016-17, according to Airwars, a nonprofit organization that tracks harm caused to civilians. That is equivalent to 0.6% of the population at that time. Of the damaged buildings, more than 80% were homes.

These cases could suggest that the war of Loop, although destructive, is not unusual in historical terms, at least for the moment. However, there are also key differences. The first and most important is the situation of civilians. In Mosul, attempts were made to prevent civilians from fleeing, shooting at them and mining the exit corridors of the city. However, many left. Between October 2016 and June 2017, almost 900,000 left, almost half the pre-war population. Even Russiaduring his siege of Mariupol (Ukraine) between February and May 2022, negotiated humanitarian pauses in which some civilians were allowed to leave. So far, Israel has rejected calls from the European Union and other countries for such breaks to take place.

The geography of Loop is less permissive than either of these cases. Israel has ordered nearly 1.1 million civilians to evacuate northern Loop, but about a third of them have remained in place. Many residents are already refugees from elsewhere and fear that if they leave they will never be allowed to return to their homes. Those who want to escape cannot go south, to Egyptwhich does not want to take care of the refugees and has so far refused to open its border.

Israel continues attacking parts of southern Loop, although in a more limited way than in the north. “Locals cannot really escape, nor can fighting take place in open areas far from urban centers“, it states Amos Fox, urban warfare expert who has written extensively on Mosul. “The urban struggle [en Gaza] It is autonomous and probably much more expensive than anything we have seen in recent years”. Even civilians who have been displaced to the south face a growing humanitarian crisis. The health system of Loop It only has capacity for 3,500 beds, according to the humanitarian group Doctors without bordersfar below what is necessary.

In MosulOn the contrary, the World Health Organization was able to establish trauma stabilization points to provide urgent medical care 10-15 minutes from the front line, with larger field hospitals another hour away. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have a small number of “humanitarian affairs officers” integrated into their combat units whose function is to try to meet the needs of the local population, but they are far from being sufficient to face the needs and the magnitude of the misery resulting from a ground offensive. Israeli politicians have said they will not send aid to civilians until all hostages are freed.although officials acknowledge that this may change as the offensive develops.

A second difference is the degree to which civil and military infrastructures intermingle in Loop. In Iraqthe Islamists had been in power for just over two years Mosul when the battle to evict them began. Even in that short period of time, the group had established impressive multi-layered defenses, drawing inspiration from Western military doctrine, he claims. Rupert Jonesretired British major general who was deputy commander of the anti-terrorism coalition ISIS.

Hamason the contrary, was founded in Loop in 1987 and has much older roots, dating back to the founding of the charity Mujama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Center”) by Ahmed Yassin in 1973. For half a century it has been fully integrated into the social fabric of Loop and has run the strip for 16 years. Its defenses have been built around – and under – the territory’s civil infrastructure. Part of the ease with which Hamas rapture Loop to its Palestinian rivals in 2007 was because its fighters were recruited from the streets.

A third difference is the tactics. The Israeli military says it places great emphasis on protecting civilians. However, the Israeli bombing of Loop It has been intense in historical terms. It dropped 6,000 bombs on the territory in the first six days of the war, a rate of artillery much higher than that of American and Western anti-terrorist campaigns. In MosulFor example, the coalition led by USA It launched 7,000 in two months, in the most intense period of bombing. On October 30, a former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of the IDF declared to Financial Times: “When our soldiers maneuver, we do so with massive artillery, with 50 planes flying overhead and destroying everything that moves”.

Tactics are determined by how an army sees what is at stake in a war, the nature of the enemy and that of the surrounding civilian population. For Israelthe war in Loop is “existential in a way that not even Mosul or Marawi were“, says Anthony Kingof the University of Exeterreferring to a battle between the Philippine army and ISIS in 2017. Israeli officials increasingly describe Hamas as an enemy similar to ISIS, with which it is no longer possible to reach a compromise. He IDF Nor does it have the same affinity with Palestinian civilians that the Iraqi forces had with the compatriots they were liberating from the rule of the ISIS.

In Mosul, Iraqi political leaders, from the prime minister to the last, insisted that great emphasis be placed on the protection of civilians. The lieutenant general Basim al-Tai, a high-ranking Iraqi officer, was in charge of the humanitarian operation. “He carried the weight of the population of Mosul on his shoulders“says the general Jones. “He cared deeply about civilians.”. Caroline Baudotadvisor to the civilian protection unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Genevaagrees: “The commander’s intention in Mosul was extremely clear.”

Even so, the experience of the different parts of Mosul It is instructive. The east of the city, considered the most intellectual and urban part, suffered less damage. The old city in the west, where the ISIS made her last stand, was seen by Iraqi forces as more conservative and Islamist, and came out much worse off. “The mentality with which one fights affects planning, behavior and even reconstruction“, it states Baudot. “If you operate in your own territory [en lugar de] In another, you may not have the same attention for civilians”.

The role of medical facilities is especially controversial. In previous rounds of war, Palestinian hospitals and other aid centers for the civilian population were marked on Israeli military maps as no-attack zones. Some were hit in previous wars, but none intentionally, Israel says. In this war, Israel has ordered the evacuation of northern Loopincluding hospitals, which he claims are used as command posts for Hamas. Under the laws of war, hospitals lose their special protection if they are used for military purposes. But, even in that case, the armies can only attack them”after due warning” and “a reasonable period”.

Mosul, again, offers a point of comparison. es used the city hospital as a bastion. Commanders spent weeks deliberating whether to attack, General Jones says, considering other options such as the use of snipers. “Little by little, over time, it became clear that it was no longer a functional hospital”. In the end, it was only attacked with the approval of the then Iraqi prime minister. “I have never heard of any case where you have a few days to evacuate and dismantle an entire hospital“says a veteran expert on wartime harm to civilians, reflecting on the case of Loop. “It’s just not possible”.

A fourth and final difference is the nature of intelligence on the battlefield. At the beginning of this war, the IDF had considerable information on the infrastructure of Hamas in Loop, collected over years. But many of those targets would have been attacked in the first week of the campaign. Next, the air forces must move to “dynamic” targeting: finding and attacking targets that were not known at the beginning of the war and that must be developed in a relatively short time. This is where most cases of damage to civilians occur, says the expert.

In Mosullocal civilians, many of whom hated war, provided a great deal of human intelligence, or HUMINT– information transmitted by sources on the ground – to Iraqi forces, helping them select their fighters. On the contrary, during the battle for RaqqaSyrian city in the hands of ISISin 2017, commanders, with fewer infantry forces on the ground, were “hungry for local information” and relied on aerial surveillance, unable to see inside buildings, according to a report by the Rand Corporation, a think tank.

Israeli intelligence has already suffered a serious intelligence failure in Loophaving not detected sufficient signs of the preparations for Hamas for the October 7 attack. It will have good electronic intelligence over the Strip, aided by the phalanx of American planes that patrol in the Strip. Mediterranean Oriental. But it is likely that Hamas have an intelligence advantage on the ground, says Foxas the local population offers a constant flow of intelligence to the group as the IDF. “This turns the intelligence situation we saw in Mosul on its head.“, it states. “The IDF will have to fight methodically through better planned and prepared defenses… than they would otherwise”. The result will be more civilian deaths. The last three weeks have been tough for civilians in Gaza. The next few weeks could be even tougher.

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