~ Johnathan Spyer. Originally published in The Australian on 13 January, 2024.

‘We’ve been on the mission from the first day. We were mobilised on October 8,” Col. Tal Kuritzky, commander of the Israel Defence Forces’ 5th Infantry Brigade, tells me. “Our task is to make it possible for the residents of the Gaza envelope to return to their homes. We’re creating a safe area along the border to enable their return. And we’ve struck hard at Hamas’s infrastructure.”

We are sitting, a group of journalists and soldiers, in a house in Khirbet Khuzaia, Khan Yunis Governorate, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. It is midday but the house is dark, its electricity long ago cut off. Its prior function seems to have been as a religious centre of some kind. Islamic texts and, improbably, a poster of Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat are strewn around one of the rooms, amid broken glass.

Kuritzky is outlining the aims and methods of his brigade’s mission in Gaza. We have entered from Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the communities hardest hit in the massacres of October 7. Forty-six of its 400 residents were killed and another 71 taken to Gaza as hos­tages.

“This is where the terrorists came to Nir Oz from,” Kuritzky says. “And our job here is to dismantle the infrastructure of terror. We find here everyday items looted from the kibbutzim. And (clear signs of) the use of civilian facilities by Hamas.

“In every second house we find war material, weapons. We’ve killed tens of terrorists and we’re pushing forward.”

Kuritzky, 38, from a farming community in the western Galilee, is a full-time soldier. The 5th Brigade, though, otherwise consists almost entirely of civilians mobilised for the war that began on October 7.

Speaking to Inquirer at their positions amid the ruins of Khirbet Khuzaia and at Nir Oz before we set out, they describe an unpredictable, constantly shifting and confusing battlescape.

“You see something happening 200m in front of you,” says Shai, an infantry company commander in the 5th, “and you don’t know if it’s an attempt to draw you in. There’s danger all around you. There’s no safe path there. Someone is there making every effort to hit at you.

“We’re used to the situation of ‘contact front – charge forward’, but here the contact can come from a 360-degree radius. It’s a change we need to get used to.”

Third phase

Israel’s war in Gaza has been under way for three months and is at a hinge point. The Hebrew media is filled with discussion of a “phase three” of the war that is about to begin. The first phase consisted of force preparation on the border, intelligence-gathering operations, and artillery and air bombardment of targets in Gaza, along with instructions to the residents of northern Gaza to head south. The second phase, which began on October 27, involved a manoeuvre centred on two armoured divisions, the 162nd and the 36th, to conquer northern Gaza.

In northern Gaza, the Hamas command and control structure effectively has ceased to function, and there have been heavy losses among the organisation’s fighters.

Sporadic neighbourhood-level resistance remains and still can exact a toll from the Israeli forces. But the main task has been achieved. Hamas’s organised military capacity and the political authority deriving from that no longer exist in that area.

Israeli forces have deployed along the borderline (the safe area mentioned by Kuritzky). The major military task remaining is the destruction of Hamas capacities in the very different environment of Khan Yunis Governorate and then farther south in Rafah. Fighting also is still under way in central Gaza.

The phase now beginning is set to differ from the first in several ways, and the type of forces that will play the central role reflects this. The city of Khan Yunis is the nerve centre of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Israeli authorities assume the key leaders of the organisation in the Strip – brothers Yahya and Mohammed Sinwar, Marwan Issa and Mohammed Deif – are somewhere in the extensive tunnel system beneath the city.

The remaining 129 Israeli hostages also are considered by Israeli authorities to be probably in this area. Recent Israeli media reports suggest the Hamas leaders have surrounded themselves with hostages in their underground lair to prevent action against them.

With the north and the border area secured, the IDF’s 98th Division, a commando and airborne formation, is set to play the key role in the upcoming operations in this complex and difficult urban environment. Having established its area of control, the division is conducting ongoing, focused, intelligence-led raids into Khan Yunis.

This phase of the war is set to be drawn out, taking several months. However, the nature of it will require the continued mobilisation of a smaller number of troops. As a result, a significant proportion of reservists mobilised on October 7 are set to be released in the weeks ahead.

Long war

The goal of the Israeli operation in Gaza is clear. It is the destruction and replacement of the Islamist Hamas authority that has ruled Gaza since 2007 and that ordered and carried out the massacres of October 7 last year.

Precedent exists for the successful conduct of operations of this kind. The US-led coalition’s destruction of the Islamic State caliphate in 2014-19 is the most recent example and the most notable. Such operations – which combine elements of counterinsurgency with aspects of conventional warfare against a force that is somewhere between a guerrilla organisation and a conventional army – take time and are costly.

Hamas has had longer to dig in and prepare itself than did ISIS, which controlled its caliphate for just a few months before the war to destroy it began. The US-led coalition’s effort to expel ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul, a place of comparable size to Gaza, took nine months. Israeli planners are viewing the current campaign as proceeding along a similar timeline. As of now, the Israeli focus appears to be on the military campaign rather than on negotiations for the freeing of the hostages taken on October 7.

The Israel-Gaza war differs from the coalition war against ISIS and similar campaigns in an additional significant way. Whereas ISIS was isolated even within the milieu of Sunni jihadi militancy, Hamas is part of a regional bloc.

The events in Gaza have brought the region to the brink of a much larger conflict – between Israel and the regional alliance led by Iran, of which Hamas is a component. In the north of Israel, civilians on both sides of the border have left their homes, and clashes between the IDF and Iranian proxy Hezbollah forces are taking place daily.

In Iraq, Iran-aligned militias are carrying out attacks on US facilities in the country. On at least one occasion, the Iraqi Shia militias have fired at Israel from the western edge of the uninterrupted area of Iranian control that stretches from the Iraq-Iran border to the border between Syria and Israel. In the south the attacks by the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah (Defenders of God), on shipping passing from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea constitute an additional front in the mobilisation of Iranian assets in support of Hamas.

Iran still appears to be holding back from a complete entry into the war on behalf of its proxy. This may well relate to the apparent fact the October 7 attacks were not taken in co-ordination with or at the instruction of Tehran. Iran may not wish to bet everything on an open conflict with Israel that may draw in the West at a time before its own choosing. Nevertheless, Hamas is not alone. It is part of an alliance.

On the strategic level, Israel’s war is with this alliance. The Hamas military capacity that made October 7 possible derives, after all, from its membership in this group. This Iran-led regional bloc is engaged in a long war strategy against Israel that is intended to result in the eventual collapse and obliteration of the Jewish state. This strategy is based on what Iran regards as the low capacity for attrition and endurance possessed by small, Western-oriented Israel. The intention is to surround Israel with proxy military assets and then to subject it to an endless campaign of attrition, intended to make normal life impossible, to isolate Israel and slowly sap its will to continue.

This alliance is not a random collection of regional forces. Rather, it represents a meeting point of various representatives of political Islam, aligned with a state representing and advancing this ideology. Hatred of Israel and the desire to destroy it form part of the more general anti-Western orientation shared by these forces. The adherents of this idea refer to it as Muqawama, an Arabic word usually translated as resistance. The term is an oddly defensive one for a project concerned in fact with conquest and politicide.

New Israeli strategy

October 7 marked the collapse of the strategy that Israel had hitherto maintained against this project. According to that strategy, Israel focused its diplomatic and covert efforts on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, while relying mainly on defensive technical means and air power to deter the irregular Islamist forces gathering on its borders.

This approach emerged over time and was never formally declared. In time (again without formal discussion or decision), a working idea emerged according to which Hamas had become corrupted by the exercise of power and so its commitment to ideas of jihad did not need to be taken entirely seriously or at face value any longer. The governing outlook became that as long as the fences were good, Israel need not be unduly concerned about the thinking, planning and mode of governance on the other side of them. In this way, the religious and ideological fervour on the other side could be treated with indifference. Israelis, thanks to the skills of a relatively small number of those professionally engaged in providing security, would be able to live entirely Western lives within the confines of their fenced-off area.

In time, it appears that this outlook led to complacency and corner-cutting even in the area of maintaining the defensive measures in place. This was the road to October 7. As it turned out, Hamas, like the other organisations and the state with which it is allied, had not been corrupted or softened by power. Rather, it remained entirely committed to the project of jihad until victory and the destruction of Israel.

As a result the strategy of fence-off-and-ignore has collapsed. In its place, Israel is moving ahead with the goal of dismantling the Islamist enclaves that have emerged with Iranian assistance on its northern and southwestern borders. Hamas governance is to be destroyed. Hezbollah in Lebanon is to be pushed back north of the Litani river. Something resembling a full national mobilisation is under way to enable these ambitious aims.

Kuritzky’s fighters, making their way cautiously through the rubble and the ruins of Khirbet Khuzaia in southern Gaza, are the physical manifestation of this. The 5th Infantry Brigade, like other IDF reserve formations, is a varied and eclectic gathering. There are male and female fighters, Jewish and Druze, people from the centre of the country and its periphery, Israelis from families with recent European roots and those who came to Israel from neighbouring Middle Eastern countries, religious and secular.

The commander of the engineering element in the brigade, Eastman, is from the northern West Bank and dryly notes to me that his settler public seems to be over-represented among the fighting troops. But Gilad, a battalion commander who says he has come to “close the circle” for the people in Nir Oz, is a corporate lawyer from Tel Aviv, and a former activist with a left-of-centre party.

So they are in Gaza as part of a general societal mobilisation in Israel. The immediate goal is to end the 17-year rule of the Islamists in Gaza. More broadly, and no less important, they intend to demonstrate to the region that Israel possesses the capacity to recover from the blows inflicted on October 7, hit back, keep going and prevail.

The long-term viability of the one non-Muslim state in the Middle East may depend on the successful fulfilment of this aim. Israel finds itself at a historic crossroads.