Strategic Encirclement: The IDF’s Calculated Approach in Gaza

Image Courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces

As the ground war in Gaza begins, the contours of the Israel Defense Force’s plan emerge. The strategy focuses on isolating Gaza City and the northern region – a deliberate approach influenced by U.S. pressure and Israel’s recognition of the complexities associated with a full-scale ground incursion against a dug-in defense. The coming weeks will focus on encirclement and attrition rather than a block-by-block assault similar to American forces during the first and second battles of Fallujah in 2004. The IDF concept is reflective of the nature of the kind of fighting required in Gaza: urban warfare in packed-in conditions against an underground force.


The IDF strategy is sequential, intricate, and thorough. It involves conducting raids, gathering and enhancing intelligence, and holding cleared pockets. From there, IDF troops will strike at Hamas leaders and then withdraw back to the cleared areas to request air support. This process allows a slow building-out of pockets removed from Hamas control.


The process will take time: IDF senior leaders I spoke with believe the ground war in Gaza City will stretch for months. The cycle of location, isolating, constricting, and then eliminating Hamas commanders will grind on slowly. The IDF will chip away at the top tier of the terror group. Meanwhile, these limited strikes will reduce Hamas’ capacity to manufacture and deploy missiles, rockets, and armed drones. Though more time-consuming than the approach used by the IDF during Protective Edge, the 50-day series of direct assaults on entrenched positions and tunnel networks in July and August of 2014, this approach introduces far less risk – both to IDF troops and to Palestinian civilians. Initiated in response to a relentless barrage of missiles, rockets, and mortars aimed at civilian areas in Israel, Operation Protective Edge commenced on July 7, 2014. Then, an intense IDF aerial bombardment during the initial week of the conflict failed to deter Hamas. What followed was a comprehensive ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. Now, Israel seeks regime change rather than deterrence. The current approach will take much longer.


Inside the vast Hamas tunnel networks, the IDF Yahalom Unit – a specialized engineering force – will conduct targeted raids to gather enhanced intelligence on the enemy. This intelligence will pinpoint Hamas’s leadership and command centers. Information and intelligence collected will build on itself: one piece of intel leads to a raid, which produces more intel and more attacks. At least, that’s the aspiration. All the while, Hamas losses pile up, and its leadership weakens in a sustained pressure campaign.


IDF leaders I’ve spoken with inform me they aim to kill as many leaders as possible without fully investing in fighting in the tunnels. The IDF solution to the tunnels is to develop enough intelligence to target the generators and ventilator systems, choking out the tunnel networks. While the IDF trains for both urban and subterranean warfare, entering Hamas’s extensive tunnel network or into the city with a large ground force would inherently put them and the hostages held there at a disadvantage. As part of this strategy, Israel halted fuel shipments into Gaza. The IDF knows Hamas appropriates fuel for generators to operate the tunnel network. The blockage of fuel also chokes out the civilians: hospitals in Gaza are desperately low on energy to run emergency generators crucial for powering incubators and other vital medical machinery.


There are tradeoffs: because the IDF does not intend to put large amounts of troops in the city, they have no practical way to prevent Hamas leaders from slipping away to the south. Further, leaving the tunnel systems largely intact may allow some elements of Hamas to live underground beyond the current fighting. A remnant of Hamas surviving the current battle is at odds with public vows by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to wipe out Hamas unequivocally.


Prime Minister Netanyahu has made several attempts to assure Israel his force can simultaneously kill Hamas leaders and secure the release of the hostages taken from Israel. The strategy relies on putting enough pressure on Hamas to force the release of hostages. Israeli forces are adopting a deliberate pace in their ground offensive in Gaza, partly to create an opportunity for negotiations with Hamas militants for the release of over 200 hostages.


The IDF leadership understands that engaging in combat within densely populated urban areas and venturing underground will strip the Israeli military of most of its technological advantages – advanced surveillance systems, sensors, and communications equipment – offering Hamas an edge both above and below ground.


Tunnel battles are among the most difficult for armies in the offense to wage. Every aspect favors the defense. A determined enemy entrenched within a tunnel or cave system gains the upper hand, dictating the commencement and often the battle’s outcome, given the abundance of opportunities for ambush. The tunnels will introduce an element of disorientation and surrealism, creating blind spots as Hamas gunmen seemingly materialize out of thin air to launch attacks. The fate of this underground struggle will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of this critical phase of the conflict.


While the IDF is sure to defeat Hamas militarily, Israel managing a post-conflict power vacuum is less certain. Israel withdrew troops from Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation and does not want responsibility for governing the city. However, once Hamas is out, Iran will look to insert a more radical structure to keep Israel bogged down. Once the ground war is over, Israel must permanently solve the problem.


In concert with the Pentagon, the IDF leadership is developing a plan colloquially referred to as The Day After Hamas. The idea, detailed to me by a senior IDF leader, involves determining a mechanism to facilitate temporary governance through an international coalition until establishing a sufficiently stable Palestinian government. Israel has no intention of governing Gaza after the fall of Hamas.


The IDF’s strategy in Gaza represents a nuanced and deliberate approach to a complex conflict engaged both beneath and above the earth. By prioritizing precision, intelligence, and a measured pace, the IDF navigates urban and tunnel warfare with a clear-eyed understanding of the risks and rewards. As the ground war unfolds, the world watches closely, bearing witness to a military campaign that seeks not only to defeat an adversary but to lay the groundwork for a more stable and secure future. The months ahead will determine how the world views Israel on The Day After Hamas.

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Joe Buccino is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as U.S. Central Command communications director from 2021 until September 2023. He deployed to combat in the Middle East five times during his military career. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or any other organization.

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