Fears of a Gaza Quagmire: Is Israel in Another Long War of Attrition?

The political and military echelons fantasize about a long war without any plans to end it, ignore the hostages, and believe the public is getting used to military losses

As the war in the Gaza Strip drags on, concern is rising among the public and the military (especially amongst reservists) that the campaign, which has continued for 69 days, could see stagnation and become a war of attrition. Israel has some experience with this. There are, in fact, three events in its history that have been labeled wars or campaigns of attrition.

The first, which is officially called the War of Attrition, was between Israel and Egypt (as well as, in the Jordan Valley, the Jordanian army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization). It began immediately after the end of the Six-Day War in June 1967 and lasted until August 1970, when, with American mediation and pressure, a cease-fire was reached between Egypt and Israel. It was, in fact, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser who first named it the War of Attrition.

Israel's second war of attrition occurred in "the Syrian Enclave" (aka the Bashan salient) located on the path to Damascus immediately after the end of the Yom Kippur War in October of 1973. It continued for half a year, ending when Israel and Syria signed their Disengagement Agreement in May of 1974. The deal saw an exchange of prisoners and the withdrawal of the IDF from the enclave to the borders of the Golan Heights.

The third and longest war of attrition began in October of 1982 upon the Israeli army's exit from Beirut at the end of the First Lebanon War, which had started in June of that year. It stretched on until Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in June of 2000.

These three wars were characterized by entrenchment along fixed lines, limited movement and raids, mutual attrition, high casualties, and increasing alienation between the battlefront and the home front, between the military and the public, which became indifferent.

Since October 7, over 1,570 people have died, been taken hostage, or gone missing on the Israeli side. Around 880 of these are civilians, during the first two days of the fighting. There were also 323 IDF troops and 60 police officers killed in the first days of the war (including six on the northern border) and another 111 who have died since the ground operation began. On Tuesday night alone, 10 were killed in one of the bloodiest battles with Hamas combatants.

In addition, six civilians have been killed by Hezbollah fire. The remaining are captive or missing and include non-Israelis. Of the hostages, 133 have been freed, while 135 are still in Hamas captivity and five are still missing. More than 6,000 civilians and soldiers have been wounded.

The Gaza mud

There is a clear sense that the public has become accustomed to these tidings, which rain down like something out of the Book of Job. Perhaps the law of large numbers is at work. It's hard to accept the death or abduction of a single person or a few people, but 10 weeks after a disaster of the scale of October 7, the threshold for shock is higher.

This is apparent in the attitude of the government and the security establishment regarding the hostages. During the first weeks of the war, releasing the hostages was extremely low on their agenda – if it was on it at all. Under pressure from the families and the public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government then woke up and bumped the issue up to the top of the list alongside the continuation of the combat.

However, after the week-long "pause" in fighting ended at the beginning of the month, the government took advantage of the Hamas violations of the exchange deal and went back to its old ways. Apparently, the hostages are again not a top priority.

This feeling has grown stronger in the wake of certain remarks by National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. The first of these, made at the start of the war, gave rise to the impression that the hostage issue was unimportant to the government. On Saturday, Hanegbi was asked a hypothetical question. What would Israel do if Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' leader in Gaza, were to surround himself with hostages?

Hanegbi replied: "That would be a heart-rending dilemma." The answer provoked anger, especially among the captives' families. Speaking with Haaretz, Hanegbi expressed regret for his remark and said: "My conclusion is that I will no longer answer hypothetical questions. I really think the captives are a supreme moral question."

The danger of sinking into the mud of Gaza's winter, both literally and figuratively, becomes even more salient when it's not at all clear what the true and realistic aims of the war are – and whether it's even possible to achieve them. The government has defined two overall aims: causing the collapse of Hamas' infrastructure, especially its military capabilities, and removing Hamas from power. Other goals have been defined alongside these, like assassinating the leaders of Hamas in Gaza: Sinwar, Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif, and Marwan Issa, Deif's deputy.

Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Shin Bet security service chief Ronen Bar have added that Hamas' leaders outside Gaza, including those in Turkey and Qatar, are also legitimate targets for assassination. These are statements that they might regret and which they know are not realistic, certainly while the fighting continues.

The IDF has managed to make some significant achievements. The rocket fire is diminishing from day to day. About 10 senior Hamas members at the level of battalion commanders and a brigade commander have been eliminated in intelligence operations and IDF fire. About 7,000 Hamas fighters have been killed, among the 19,000 people killed in the Gaza Strip. Several thousand more have been wounded. The killed and the wounded constitute about 1 percent of the total inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, a great many of them children.

The military proudly uses and has become enamored with the term "maneuver." This can be understood in the context of the criticism against it in recent years, whose harbinger of wrath – if not the herald messiah – was Maj. Gen. (res.) Itzhak Brik. He argued that the IDF ground forces were not prepared or ready for any war. But the tables have turned.

Brik, who believed his own wrathful prophecies, called for refraining from a ground entry into Gaza. He even became a pawn in the hands of Netanyahu, who summoned him for a meeting ostensibly to ask for his advice but actually to serve himself. Brik cast the blame for the failure to stop the events of October 7 on Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva and Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman. Brik was right – they are to blame. But in casting the blame, he omitted – until he later corrected himself – Netanyahu, Gallant, and every other member of the government.

All the time in the world

Maneuver warfare is a tactical or strategic element that serves as a means of achieving a military advantage and especially victory in a war. The idea of using rapid movement through the massive use of tanks and armored vehicles to disrupt the enemy's equilibrium is not new.

Despite the IDF's successful combat maneuvers and although the morale in Hamas is low and it's suffering serious blows, it still has at least another several thousand fighters and units that are fairly functional, whose members continue to pop out from the underground tunnels. Hamas is able to use hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, that impede IDF soldiers and to continue to fire rockets over long distances, even to the center of the country, as we saw and heard on Monday. Itzhak Brik. Called for refraining from a ground operation.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Even though Netanyahu, Gallant, and the security establishment are publicly speaking as though they have all the time in the world, it's clear even to them that the time Israel has to continue the war is running out. This is because of pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration (the most pro-Israel administration ever), the cost to the economy, and the fear of stagnation.

Indeed, a month ago, Netanyahu instructed Hanegbi to establish a forum to discuss "the day after Hamas." The forum includes representatives of several branches of the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet. Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer has also joined it, primarily because of his familiarity with the United States.

The forum is supposed to discuss all possible scenarios for rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and establishing a civilian government there that doesn't have a military capability, as residents of communities near the border won't return to their homes if a threat against them remains. The most reasonable candidate to replace Hamas is the Palestinian Authority, but it's setting tough conditions for agreeing to accept the reins of governance – not only to Israel but also to the United States.

Netanyahu is causing even bigger problems. He declared that he wouldn't allow the PA to take responsibility for Gaza and that Israel would maintain security control there. Gallant has also created difficulties by talking about fighting continuing for as long as another year. Soldiers on their way to the Gaza Strip border. The IDF has fallen in love with the word 'maneuver.'Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

They are also demanding the establishment of a security buffer zone inside the Gaza Strip. So far, the only security zones that have been inadvertently created are inside Israel, along the border with Gaza, and along the border with Lebanon, where residents have been evacuated from their communities.

Such talk means that the IDF will remain in most of the Gaza Strip, or at least large parts of it. The meaning of this, as the veterans like myself of the now-disbanded Sayeret Shaked special forces unit learned when we were put in charge of routine security in Gaza from 1967 to 1971, is incessant friction with the population and guerilla fighters – in essence, a war of attrition varying in intensity. And this is all without even beginning to discuss the question of how quiet will be restored on the northern border, given that Hezbollah is constantly establishing new facts on the ground.

Yossi Melman Ha'aretz Dec 14, 2023