After seven days without clashes, the return of intense Israeli aerial bombardment? This is one of the most feared scenarios in Washington. The United States has stepped up contacts with Israel since Sunday, November 26, to ensure that the Israeli army has "learned the lessons of operations in the north [of the Gaza Strip]," the Washington Post reported on Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what he meant by that. He reportedly told her that "the way Israel acted in northern Gaza – by carrying out a vast offensive with three armored and infantry divisions – could not be repeated in the southern part of the enclave," according to the American news site Axios, which cited "several US administration officials" who preferred to remain anonymous.
Protecting the civilian population?
"It's a way of saying that we will have to pay more attention to possible civilian casualties from the military operation," said Omri Brinner, an Israeli analyst and specialist in Middle East geopolitics at the International Team for the Study of Security Verona (ITSS), an international collective of experts on international security issues.
Since the beginning of Israeli military operations, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have fled the north of the enclave to seek refuge in the south, where nearly two million people now reside. The U.S. has no desire to see the Palestinian civilian casualty toll — which Hamas says already stands at more than 14,000 — soar as soon as the current ceasefire ends. "Washington does not want to appear complicit in such actions," the Washington Post summed up.
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Will this call for restraint be heeded in Israel, as the ceasefire with Hamas is set to expire this Friday, after a seven-day lull? Israel's war rhetoric does not give this impression. "When we resume fighting, the power will be greater and will extend over the entire Gaza Strip," Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant promised.
Israel has also "ordered the Palestinian civilian population on the ground to go to an area west of the enclave," notes Omri Brinner. A way to prepare the ground for a future aerial bombing campaign to protect the advance of ground troops?
But these calls for civilians to leave future combat sites can only have a very limited impact. First, because the southern Gaza Strip is already too small for the two million Palestinians who have found refuge there. "So they certainly won't all be able to take refuge in an even narrower area," Brinner said.
Secondly, Hamas fighters "have perfected the art of blending in with the civilian population and using it as a shield against Israeli soldiers," said Amnon Aran, an expert on conflicts between Israel and the Arab world at City University of London. "They're going to do everything they can to dissuade them from leaving," Brinner said.
U.S. demands inconsistent with Israeli objectives
"We now realize that Israel made a major tactical mistake by choosing to advance slowly but surely from north to south, rather than attack simultaneously in the north, center and south of the Gaza Strip," said Ahron Bregman, a political scientist and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at King's College London. In doing so, the army has "ironically contributed to strengthening the human shield formed by the civilian population around Hamas in the south, when that is where the army should inflict the most damage on them," the expert said.
Added to this already complicated humanitarian context is the fact that "Hamas' main fighting forces are in the south," Aran said. "Of the 14 battalions engaged in the war against Israel, <> are based in this area of the enclave," he said.
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In other words, Israel didn't need the U.S. to come and put extra sticks in the tracks of its tanks. Especially since some of the requirements are very specific. Washington has called for the creation of "conflict zones". These would be specific buildings – such as UN facilities, hospitals or schools – where Israeli soldiers would not be able to open fire, in order to ensure the safety of the civilian populations there.
However, "Hamas is notorious for using buildings such as hospitals and schools to house weapons and fighters. I don't see how this American request would be compatible with Israel's stated military objectives," said Veronika Poniscjakova, an expert on the military aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Portsmouth in Britain. Omri Brinner wants to believe that "if the intelligence makes it possible to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that Hamas is hiding in this or that building, the Americans should let it happen."
The U.S. has also called on Israel to "use smaller, more accurate munitions," the Washington Post notes. In other words, the IDF should refrain from dropping large explosive charges as was the case in the north.
An impossible Israeli victory?
The goal is not only laudable – to avoid collateral civilian casualties as much as possible – it is also in line with Washington's major concern: to prevent a bombing that kills too many civilians, which could have serious geopolitical repercussions. "The population density will be such that the possibilities of a miscalculation during a bombing will be multiplied. This also increases the risk of having a major incident that could set the region ablaze, forcing the United States to intervene militarily," Aran said.
Politically, however, the Israeli government can hardly show much restraint in its air campaign. For part of the Israeli public, "this would be tantamount to placing the security of Palestinian civilians above that of Israeli soldiers [who need air support to ensure the safety of their advance, editor's note]," Brinner said. This is not the kind of message Benjamin Netanyahu wants to convey.
But can Israel defy American warnings? If Israel antagonizes Washington, "it risks losing its main support in the UN Security Council, and the Americans could start to rethink their policy of delivering weapons to Israel," Poniscjakova said.
With the U.S. presidential election looming, Israel's leaders will have to pay attention to "the repercussions of what is happening in Gaza on the U.S. campaign," Aran said. Joe Biden is likely to be much less patient with Benjamin Netanyahu if the Israeli army's modus operandi makes him look like an accomplice in what part of the American electorate might perceive as abuses against Palestinian civilians.
In this context, it is difficult to imagine that Israel will be able to achieve its stated military goal in the Gaza Strip, namely the eradication of Hamas and its military capabilities. "The IDF can reduce [the] military capabilities, destroy some weapons factories and tunnels, but certainly not wipe Hamas off the map permanently," Bregman said.
"At some point, Benjamin Netanyahu will surely say that Israel won, but that will be an empty statement," he said. In the meantime, "Hamas has already won a victory the first time on October 7 by striking Israel, and a second time by securing the release of prisoners, which has earned them some admiration from all Palestinians." concludes Ahron Bregman.
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