A campaign very similar, in fact almost identical to the Gaza war in the urban military problems it posed was the U.S. Operation Phantom Fury in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in November and December 2004. About 5,000 insurgents under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were embedded in the city of 300,000. An estimated 200,000 civilians heeded American warnings and fled before the fighting began. On November 7, the Americans launched a major air strike, followed by nine days of fierce ground fighting and another 37 of mopping up. Of the 200 mosques in the city, 66 used to cache arms were destroyed; about 30,000 buildings were demolished or significantly damaged; the estimated civilian death toll was 6,000.(h/t EBoZ)
In Gaza, with a population of 1.5 million (5 times that of Fallujah) and about 20,000 armed militiamen, 20 mosques were destroyed, 25,000 buildings demolished or damaged, and the estimated civilian death toll was 894 by the Palestinian count or 500-600 according to the Israelis, although they had nowhere to flee to, and some were hit in what had been designated as safe havens.
Indeed, the IDF's efforts to keep civilian casualties to a minimum despite the risks and complexities of urban warfare have been hailed by some foreign experts as setting new standards for other armies. "I don't think there's ever been a time in the history of warfare when an army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza," Col. Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC while operation "Cast Lead" was in full flow.
Still, the IDF acknowledges that it used heavy fire to protect its soldiers moving forward and that it made mistakes. The fact that four of the nine Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza were hit by friendly fire attests to the difficulty of accurately distinguishing between fighters and civilians in a fast moving urban battle situation.
So what was the IDF's modus operandi? How did it manage to move through the narrow streets and alleyways, the booby-trapped houses and tunnels, with so few casualties of its own? Maj.-Gen. (Res) Doron Almog, a former commander of the southern front responsible for Gaza, puts it down to a combination of high-grade intelligence and a battle plan that took Hamas by surprise at every stage: strategic surprise at the ferocity and duration of the operation; tactical surprise at the timing of the initial air-strike and at the way the IDF found counters to all aspects of a Hamas defense strategy based on human shields, booby-trapped buildings and secret tunnels, and at the modus operandi of the forces on the ground.
"After one swift pincer movement, Hamas fighters suddenly found themselves surrounded everywhere," Almog, now chairman of Aleh Negev, a live-in facility in the south for the mentally disabled, tells The Report. "The IDF soldiers then moved forward behind camera-carrying unmanned aircraft, which located Hamas forces and directed accurate fire from the air and heavy artillery barrages at them. So that even before they engaged in close combat, the Hamas lost dozens of fighters. Many of the dead were company and battalion field commanders. They weren't at the head of their troops, but were deliberately picked out and hit. Through these tactical, targeted assassinations, the chain of command was severely disrupted. If the army hadn't operated in this way, we would have sustained dozens of casualties."
There were other tactical surprises, too - for example, the way the IDF was able to drop a mysterious electronic screen over Gaza. Israelis in the immediate vicinity found they were unable to open their cars by remote control; Hamas militiamen were unable to detonate booby-trapped buildings and other remotely controlled explosive devices.
Had the IDF used less firepower, Almog says, it would have cost it more casualties and greatly undermined the operation's deterrent impact. "Everyone in the region was watching us: Hizballah, Syria and Iran. I think the show of force was very important in creating deterrence, not only vis a vis Hamas, but in the region as a whole," he says.
As they went forward, Israeli troops with cameras fixed to their helmets recorded the web of booby-trapped buildings and tunnels, the way Hamas used civilians as human shields and weapons stored in and being fired from civilian locations. The data will obviously be used by the IDF in analyzing the operation; but it could also be made available if ever legal proceedings are instituted against Israeli soldiers.
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