Israel is preparing for an all-out offensive by land, air and sea on Hamas militants which will risk “massive civilian casualties”, as a deadline for evacuation from the city passes.
A week after the Hamas militant group killed hundreds of Israelis in their homes – as well as 260 others at a music festival – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands with military reservists stood on Israel’s border with Gaza, telling them: “The next stage is coming.”
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have amassed thousands of troops at the border while tanks and armoured personnel carriers moved into position ahead of an offensive by Israeli land, air and sea forces.
Mark Regev, the former Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, said the offensive was “justified self-defence” to target the “gruesome killers” from Hamas who launched terror attacks last week.
“We want to kill the terrorists, that is our goal to destroy Hamas military capabilities,” he said. “We want to come out of this in a different situation where Hamas no longer has military and political control over the Gaza strip.”
But a former intelligence official who now works on contract with the Government told i that Israel is faced with a dilemma. They are expected to react to last week’s Hamas attacks, but the nature of the terrain will force “scorched-earth tactics” which will lead to “massive civilian casualties”.
“The Israelis have no really good options for a response,” they said. “Clearly their intelligence picture isn’t good enough to pursue a targeted approach, which in any case would take a long time to have any effect at a moment when early action is expected. They can’t do nothing, so that leaves a conventional military response.”
They added: “Almost any tactic which involves the use of overwhelming force will not stop terrorist attacks on Israeli territory and runs the risk of trashing Israel’s international reputation and bogging the IDF down in a horrible block-by-block campaign which could end up looking a bit like Stalingrad.”
A second former intelligence official said the Hamas terror attack has left Israel “no choice but to try and destroy Hamas”.
They told i: “Hamas have integrated their military structures into civilian infrastructure across Gaza – Israel only has to do what it can to minimise civilian casualties.”
The IDF has reportedly loosened its rules of engagement ahead of the ground invasion. The measures are expected to allow Israeli soldiers to make fewer checks on targets before shooting at suspected enemies, leading to fears over increasing numbers of civilian casualties.
Troops would usually need to be 100 per cent certain of a military target to avoid civilian casualties but under the new rules, IDF soldiers might act under the assumption that any fighting-aged male is a Palestinian militant target.
Former British Army Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said the lowering of rules could lead to more civilian casualties if the city isn’t properly evacuated.
“If the majority of civilians leave North Gaza, this change could lead to fewer (civilian casualties), as Hamas will be overwhelmed much quicker and hence fewer civilian and IDF casualties – if the IDF has to fight Hamas through the civilian population, it could lead to more,” he told i. “This is the most difficult and worse type of fighting and Israel knows the world is watching in forensic detail.”
Up to 1.1 million citizens in Gaza were given until 4pm local time on Saturday (2pm BST) by Israel’s military to leave the city.
As the deadline approached, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has urged Israel to show “restraint” in Gaza ahead of the expected ground offensive.
The Foreign Secretary said it was in “Israel’s interest to avoid civilian casualties and Palestinian casualties” as he claimed Hamas hoped to turn the conflict into “a war between the Muslim world and the wider world”.
“None of us, including Israel, want that to be the case and so that’s why we do give that strong advice from a position of friendship,” he said.
United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated the US support for Israel in the fight against Hamas but said “the way Israel does this matters.”
Speaking from Cairo, Egypt he said: “It needs to do it in a way that affirms the shared values that we have for human life and human dignity, taking every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Latest figures from the Israeli government raised the death toll of those killed in Hamas’s attacks to more than 1,400 while the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Sunday that 2,450 people have been killed as a result of Israel’s strikes on the city.
Humanitarian organisations have lambasted Israel’s approach to the conflict, and the UN warned the forced evacuation will have devastating humanitarian consequences, with hospital patients and others unable to leave.
Medical officials say an estimated 35,000 have crammed into the grounds of Gaza City’s main hospital, hoping for refuge.
The IDF has already conducted raids into Gaza in the hunt for more than 120 civilians kidnapped after last weekend’s shock assault by Hamas militants on southern Israel.
The efforts were bolstered by support from UK Government intelligence agencies which are actively engaged in a widespread international search for information that could help pinpoint the location of missing people taken during the deadly attacks by Hamas on southern Israel, i recently revealed.
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said British people are “highly likely” to be among those held by Hamas in Gaza, revealing that the UK had also sent additional intelligence personnel to the region as part of efforts to release those captured or assist citizens trapped in the besieged enclave.