May 22, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Uprooting Hamas: How the IDF is dislodging Hamas from Jabalya

How the IDF's 98th Division faces the challenges of clearing terrorists from this key north Gaza neighborhood, and what it has learned from seven months of war.
May 22, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Uprooting Hamas: How the IDF is dislodging Hamas from Jabalya

How the IDF's 98th Division faces the challenges of clearing terrorists from this key north Gaza neighborhood, and what it has learned from seven months of war.

When the IDF decided to go back into Jabalya in early May, it was facing a known challenge. Jabalya is a densely populated urban area northeast of Gaza City’s center. It includes a refugee camp that is a key center for Hamas members.

The suburbs of Jabalya spill out over low hills and can be seen from Israeli communities, such as Mefalsim and Kfar Aza, near the border. Terrorists came from Jabalya to attack Israel on October 7.

Jabalya had supposedly been cleared of terrorists last December, during the first phase of operations in Gaza that stretched from October 27 to January. But it turns out that there were areas the IDF didn’t reach, and Hamas has returned to Jabalya and other places. Many civilians also returned, and Hamas members mixed in with them.

The IDF’s 98th Division has been operating in Jabalya for about 10 days. This is the same division that cleared Khan Yunis of terrorists. On May 21, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi went to Jabalya to meet with the commander of the 98th Division, Brig.-Gen. Dan Goldfus, to conduct a situational assessment.

This puts a spotlight on the importance of this mission. The 98th Division has brought the skills it learned in Khan Yunis to Jabalya. This is important because Khan Yunis was an example of the IDF’s new way of fighting in Gaza, following the transition to a slightly less-intensive form of combat after the initial operations last November.

This means the raids are carried out with more precision and an understanding of the need to clear Hamas from areas both underground and aboveground. Goldfus has characterized this type of fighting as a “720 degrees” war, where you fight above and below ground. The 98th Division is operating in Jabalya with the 7th Armored Brigade, the 460th Armored Brigade, paratroopers, and other units.

The 98th Division left Khan Yunis in early April and was sent into Jabalya about a month later. This is symbolic of the IDF’s tactic in Gaza: clearing areas but not remaining in them. The tactic has been critiqued because it lets Hamas return. But leaving soldiers to control civilian areas is not currently seen as an ideal use of them. They are likely to be targeted by enemy snipers, and they could lose their fighting effectiveness.

What has been learned in Jabalya? There were areas the IDF never reached in November and December. This is not only true of Jabalya; it is true of other areas of northern Gaza. The initial phase of the war concentrated on defeating a dozen Hamas battalions in northern Gaza. Once these fighting formations, about 1,000 men each, were degraded, the IDF believed it had control and reduced forces.

But Hamas remained. Some areas never had IDF tank treads roll over them, and tunnels remained. While Hamas commanders were eliminated, they were also replaced. The infrastructure of Hamas is intact above and below the ground.

The goal of the 98th Division is basically to complete the job. It’s like sandpaper on wood. You start with the rough grade, and you have to grind the enemy down with a more precise grade at the end. Using intelligence and through detaining suspected terrorists, the IDF is working to systematically uproot the terrorists. The bodies of four hostages – Shani Louk, Amit Buskila, Itzik Gelenter, and Ron Binyamin – recently were found in operations in Jabalya.

The fighting continues every day, and about 10 to 20 terrorists are eliminated each day, according to the IDF. In the first 10 days of the current operation, about 200 terrorists were killed. It turned out that Hamas was still intact in parts of Jabalya. In Khan Yunis, the 98th Division found that the terrorists had dispersed quickly, so they were confronting small terrorist cells of two to five terrorists. In Jabalya, the enemy is still organized. To defeat the enemy, it’s not just about eliminating individuals; it’s about breaking their will and ability to fight.

IDF repetition is effective 

The repetition of the tactic the IDF is using in Gaza — going into an area and clearing it, leaving it, and clearing it again – is having an effect. For instance, in the beginning, when the IDF went into areas such as Jabalya, it required more forces than it does today. This is because even though the enemy returns, they return in fewer numbers.

In some ways, this tactic is designed to force Hamas to operate the way terrorists behave in places such as Jenin or Tulkarm in the West Bank. The terrorists are still there, but they have fewer weapons and less strength and capabilities. In essence, if 10 to 20 terrorists are eliminated every day in Jabalya, there is attrition. The enemy cannot recruit 10 to 20 replacements a day in Jabalya. The IDF doesn’t distinguish between the terrorist groups it is fighting. When it estimates that it eliminated about 20,000 terrorists in Gaza, for instance, it doesn’t try to determine whether they are affiliated with Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The terrorists do make that distinction, however, and Hamas has told pro-Iranian media that it is working more closely with other terrorist groups in northern Gaza, likely because it has absorbed such heavy losses.

The IDF is learning from seven months of war. Officers at the company and battalion level are gaining unique skills from their experience in Khan Yunis, Jabalya, and other areas. Troops are learning how to recognize areas where there might be improvised explosive devices (IEDs), for instance. They also learn to sense where tunnel shafts may be located. The ability to find the underground terrorist city that exists is important for clearing out the infrastructure. If you just clear aboveground, the enemy goes underground and returns.

As the commanders of platoons and companies become more sensitive to threats and understand the terrain, the need for precision firepower is more important. The IDF continues to carry out airstrikes in Gaza, with about 70 to 80 a day recently. But in Jabalya, there is less need for heavy airstrikes, and that means reducing damage to civilian areas. It also means close coordination between the units on the ground and the air and naval forces that provide precision firepower.

As in Khan Yunis, the IDF continues to find weapons in many civilian homes. Hamas festooned civilian areas with terrorist infrastructure, such as entrances to tunnels, placing observation posts in buildings, or hiding ammunition so their fighters can easily grab it on the go. Almost every house has been used by terrorists in some form or another.

The soldiers fighting in Gaza believer they will defeat Hamas over the long run. They are focused on that mission and on bringing the hostages home.

They are also focused on reducing collateral damage to civilian areas and using the latest technology to evaluate targets to minimize the damage. They have also helped Gazan civilians they came across. Most civilians left the areas on May 11, when the IDF told them to evacuate. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Israel Israel at War Military and Political Power