Israeli 'hammer' tactic destroys Hamas strongholds but increases civilian casualties

Commanders described the urban warfare approach that seeks to destroy militant positions in Gaza

Israeli specialist operatives on the ground in the Gaza Strip. The armed forces have developed a 'hammer' tactic in which they reduce Hamas strongholds to rubble to avoid solider casualties, but this has significantly increased civilian deaths. AFP
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Israel has adopted a new “hammer” tactic to destroy Hamas positions and avoid military casualties but the move has significantly increased civilian deaths.

The evolution in Gaza fighting has also seen mid-ranking commanders able to call in air strikes from several weapons in “seconds rather than in 12 hours”, a senior officer has said.

The tactic has reduced the danger of urban fighting against well-armed Hamas fighters leading to lower-than-expected Israeli casualties.

Hammer tactic

An Israeli military source said that they had been conducting “punchy urban warfare” using a “hammer tactic” to take out positions both above and below ground.

The army had replaced its “roof knock” tactic of dropping a dud bomb on a building giving the residents up to 15 minutes to leave, used alongside the mass evacuation of the Gaza population.

However, this has still caused a very high number of civilian deaths with more than 29,800 killed, although the Israeli military states a third of this figure is Hamas fighters.

Open source intelligence analyst Tal Hagin said that the tactic showed the military “has been a lot more flexible with its levels of proportionality in this war, allowing for a far greater amount of civilian causalities to be accepted in the pursuit of killing high-level Hamas commanders”.

Proportionality is a concept in international humanitarian law that says a military must carefully consider the risk to civilians when carrying out an attack and in some circumstances, civilian targets can be struck if an opposing force is using them as a fighting position. But even in that instance, civilian harm must be minimised, where possible.

“If there's any type of target that they're trying to kill, the proportionality is a lot greater now,” he said. “For example, when they attempted to assassinate a senior Hamas official in the middle of a refugee camp they killed dozens of civilians and that wasn't something that we would see happen in the past.”

Unload everything

In a tactic that was in part adapted from the urban fighting in Ukraine, only a third of the fighting force will be manoeuvring while the other two-thirds will provide what is called “baseline fire”. The normal doctrine would be the reverse.

“We use a lot of fire to the front of the fighting, not letting the enemy be in a position that he can go towards a window or can get out of a building,” former Israeli army officer Ilan Lavi said.

“It's not a quick fight. Sometimes it takes you two or even three days to cross 200 metres and you have to use special forces that know how to fight in towns.”

Soldiers have reported that when they identify a target “for an hour we unload everything” using firepower from small arms, tanks, artillery, air strikes, drones and attack helicopters.

Commanders also talk about full co-operation between all arms – from the air force, intelligence, army and navy – to be at “full readiness to shoot quickly acting on intelligence”, said Mr Lavi, who also served as the former chief of staff for Israel’s Northern Command.

Reduce casualties

Part of the hammer tactic is to reduce Israeli casualties. So far, 239 fatalities have been reported out of a deployed force of about 360,000.

In contrast, Russia with a similar sized operational force in Ukraine, has lost up to 120,000, according to US officials, albeit over two years.

Aside from using overwhelming firepower, Israel has put great emphasis on protecting crews in its armoured vehicles, with the use of the Merkava 4. At 72 tonnes, it is one of the heaviest tanks in the world.

A first aid policy of giving wounded soldiers direct blood plasmas if injured in combat zones has also halved the number of fatalities.

Two-minute strike

Israel has also given its brigade headquarters the equivalent power of a division – about three times more than normal – allowing them to draw on supporting arms such as the air force and artillery.

This has meant they can “avoid the bureaucratic way of fighting wars” giving officials the ability to call up drone strikes in “two minutes instead of 12 hours”, said Mr Lavi.

But this has meant that what the military “has seen as permissible has changed greatly in this war” which might be successful in the short term but could have significant ramifications, Mr Hagin said.

In urban combat “every single building becomes a stronghold for the enemy so the best way to deal with that is to destroy that building” but that would cause long-term problems, he said.

3,000 air strikes

Israeli forces are also basing their campaign on the tactical aspirations of former chief of staff Gen Aviv Kohavi who said that each day 3,000 air strikes should be carried out, 300 enemies should be killed and the military should only have to wait three minutes for air support and 30 seconds for ground fire.

In further tactics, rather than being separated from regular troops, special forces have now been sent into frontline brigades to be immediately used for tunnel clearances or building assaults.

Israel was also conducting “pre-emptive destruction” by clearing a kilometre-wide buffer zone on the border to prevent it from being used to launch missile attacks.

Israeli intelligence has also suggested that it was difficult to track Hamas commanders who are allegedly using ambulances to move between command posts or tunnels that were close to or under hospitals.

However, it is understood that the military has, under US pressure, curbed its hammer offensive to reduce civilian casualties in southern Gaza.

Updated: February 28, 2024, 6:04 AM