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What would it take to win a counterinsurgency war in Gaza?

Scripps News hears from lawmakers, former Israeli officials and combat experts about the difficulties and costs of fighting an urban war.
What would it take to win a counterinsurgency war in Gaza?
Posted at 9:38 PM, Oct 26, 2023

Israel has needed time to prepare its ground forces, collect intelligence, and destroy Hamas infrastructure from the air as the war enters a new stage, says Israeli Ret. Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror. 

The ground invasion "will be more like elephants and not like wolves. It will be strong," says Amidror, a former National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is still said to have the leader's ear. He says Hamas has been preparing for years, and the Israel Defense Forces will close off the main exits to the tunnels to destroy Hamas. 

"Mercy is not what is needed here. These barbarians should be killed off. And we will, slowly but surely. We will kill them."

While Israel wants to make an example out of Hamas for their enemies in the Middle East, Palestinians fear that lesson will be deadly to too many.

"They are hitting everywhere. They are hitting the houses. They are hitting the schools," says Shadi, a Gazan who now lives in California. He still has family in Gaza. "I don't stop thinking about my family in Gaza. There is no way even to communicate with them to know how their situation is."

He says Israel's air strikes, which have killed civilians, are no way to prepare a battlefield. "This is not the way to end Hamas, by killing more civilians, hundreds more civilians than Hamas."

Some are turning to the past, to U.S. battles in Iraq.

"The closest analogy I can give is it's almost like being in a knife fight in a phone booth. That's how close the quarters are. That's how, you know, you're maneuvering against each other," says Former Special Operations Officer Eliot Ackerman. He led a Marine rifle platoon in the city of Fallujah, earning a Silver Star and Purple Heart. 

He says it's a challenge to know the difference between a terrorist and a civilian. 

"When you're fighting a counterinsurgency, by definition, it is messy and the insurgents want it to be messy, like they want you to kill civilians," Ackerman said. "They set up scenarios so you will have a high likelihood of killing civilians. And they do that because they understand that the war is also being fought in the realm of popular opinion." 

SEE MORE: An Israeli-American major talks about the imminent invasion in Gaza

Another American veteran, Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton, says counterinsurgencies require a political strategy for peace.

"We went into Iraq and Afghanistan without a plan for the day after," Moulton said. "We didn't think about the political dynamics of a conflict. We thought we could just solve a military problem, just like Israel has said, they want to take out Hamas. But the question is what comes next? We learned that the idea in counterinsurgency that you not only have to defeat the enemy, but also win over the population is central to being able to win that fight." 

He says he is concerned the Israelis don't have an endgame. 

"If they just go into Gaza and leave it a smoldering mess, then we're going to be right back where we started, with a terrorist hotbed right on Israel's border. And they might even recruit more terrorists in the process. General Stanley McChrystal referred to what he called insurgent math. For every one innocent civilian you kill, you recruit about 10 terrorists in the process." 

Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has vowed to create a "new security reality" after the ground invasion.

"It means that Israel will have to make around the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, no-man's-land that no one can enter without being shot," Gen. Amidror, a Distinguished Fellow at The Jewish Institute for National Security of America, tells Scripps News. "It means that Israel will keep the freedom to act whenever we have information about someone that might renew the old military capabilities — either by air, or by ground forces. That is totally new."

National security correspondent Sasha Ingber asked him who Israel would support to govern Gaza. "It's not Israel's decision," he said. "It should be the people of Gaza's decision." 

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