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Follow the tunnels: Understanding Israel’s ground offensive

The Israeli military put its boots on the ground in the Gaza Strip for the first time since early 2009

Brooklyn Middleton

Published: Updated:

The Israeli military put its boots on the ground in the Gaza Strip for the first time since early 2009 during evening hours on July 17, launching a ground invasion after ten days of conducting upwards of 2,000 air strikes across the coastal enclave. Thus far in the latest Israel-Gaza escalation, at least 260 Palestinians have been killed and at least another 2,000 have been injured while one Israeli was killed by mortar fire in southern Israel near the Erez border crossing and an Israeli soldier has been killed.

Despite some bellicose statements indicating otherwise, the offensive is likely to be limited to the primary objective of destroying would-be attack tunnels.

The offensive is likely to be limited to the primary objective of destroying would-be attack tunnels

Brooklyn Middleton

Since the beginning of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Hamas militants executed multiple infiltration attempts via underground tunnels connecting Gaza to Israel with reports indicating the latest incident took place only hours before the U.N.-requested humanitarian ceasefire went into effect. Reportedly, Israeli military personnel shot dead eight out of the thirteen militants as they emerged above ground near Kibbutz Sufa.

In what the IDF assessed was a successful thwarting of an imminent terrorist attack targeting Israeli civilians, it also triggered an impetus to expand the military operation to include the destruction of militants’ tunnels by deploying troops to the Strip.

Gaza-based smuggling tunnels

Importantly, while there are thousands of Gaza-based smuggling tunnels - and more which Egyptian security forces have themselves destroyed post-Mursi - the total amount of attack tunnels the IDF is targeting only ranges from 10-20, according to Daniel Nisman, president of the Levantine Group - a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Tel Aviv. Despite that, as Nisman noted, the tunnels are large and can take “some years to build.” It should not be ruled out that Israeli ground troops can successfully destroy these and return to ceasefire negotiations with Hamas.

With that said, tactically, it was critical for ground troops to be deployed. “You need to target the openings, which are usually inside houses at least one kilometer inside Gaza and ground forces allow special demolition teams that ensure the tunnel is destroyed,” said Nisman.

Meanwhile, what I believe to be Egypt's quiet support for a broader offensive - largely in part to shared security concerns - is likely to have also played a pivotal role in the deployment of ground troops.

Hamas lambasts ceasefire

Hamas lambasted the first attempt at a comprehensive ceasefire - days prior to the invasion - accusing Israel and Egypt of failing to actually inform and include them in any of the negotiations. During the designated truce time, Israel did not conduct airstrikes, despite that Hamas fired at least 47 rockets at Israeli cities. Despite some reports indicating Hamas learned about the truce via media reports - a dubious claim given the militant group tweeted hours prior that they explicitly rejected the conditions - its apparent violation of the ceasefire greatly boosted legitimacy for an IDF ground offensive, with Cairo’s reported approval. The second ceasefire, a five-hour humanitarian truce called for by the U.N., went slightly better with militants only firing several mortars at southern Israel.

To the international community and domestically in Israel, both ceasefires epically failed with the IDF as well as Cairo officials reportedly fully blaming Hamas for yet another missed opportunity for a drawing down of the crisis.

Ultimately though, even with the intentionally nebulous time frame indicated by the IDF for its newly launched ground operation - PM Netanayahu stated it will continue “until its goals are reached” - it remains highly unlikely the offensive will extend beyond achieving the defined goal that notably excludes any efforts at regime change.

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Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.