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Satellites and social media offer hints about Israel's ground war strategy in Gaza

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country's military leadership have been tight-lipped about Israel's push into the Gaza Strip. But one week into the ground operation, satellite imagery and social media posts are providing some clues about where Israeli forces are moving, and about the overall strategy of their campaign — whose goal, officials say, is destroying Hamas.

NPR examined available satellite images, as well as social media posts from both bystanders and the Israel Defense Forces. Based on those images and conversations with military experts, here's what can be gleaned about the operation so far.

Israeli forces have encircled Gaza City, probably in preparation for prolonged operations

Israeli ground forces have been in Gaza for a week. So far, their focus seems to be on Gaza City.
Israel Defense Forces / AP
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AP
Israeli ground forces have been in Gaza for a week. So far, their focus seems to be on Gaza City.

Israeli forces appear to be at the edge of Gaza City along three axes: two from the north, which are pushing down toward the city itself, and one from the southeast that has moved across the entire Gaza Strip.

It's that third axis south of Gaza City that appears to have covered the most ground in the first week. Eyewitness video posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Oct. 30 showed what appears to be an Israeli tank engaging a civilian vehicle on one of the main north-south roads between Gaza City and the southern parts of the strip.

High-resolution satellite imagery taken by the company Planet on Oct. 31 shows roughly two-dozen Israeli armored vehicles stationed near the road, presumably to control access.

A satellite image from October 31 shows around two dozen Israeli armored vehicles positioned near Salah Al Deen Road in the Gaza Strip. The road is a main artery between Gaza City and the south of the strip.
/ Planet Labs PBC
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Planet Labs PBC
A satellite image from Oct. 31 shows around two dozen Israeli armored vehicles positioned near Salah Al Din Road in the Gaza Strip. The road is a main artery between Gaza City and the south of the strip.

A second satellite image from a European Space Agency satellite taken on Nov. 1 showed evidence that Israeli armor had advanced to within three-quarters of a mile (a little over a kilometer) of the coast. Eyewitness videos also appeared to document heavy fighting in the neighborhood of Tal Al Hawa, on the southern end of Gaza City near the coast.

Late Thursday, the Israeli military said it had completely encircled Gaza City, cutting it off from the rest of the territory.

That's a standard tactic on any battlefield, says Gian Gentile, a senior historian at the Rand Corp, and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army.

"Isolating an objective is a basic approach to war-fighting," he says.

So far, there don't appear to be enough Israeli forces present for a full occupation of the city

An image from Planet taken Oct. 30 shows dozens of Israeli tanks and armored vehicles arrayed in staging areas along the northern edge of Gaza City. Film and still images released by the Israeli military show forces in the same area.

Based on the satellite imagery, the Israelis probably have a brigade consisting of several thousand troops operating in the northwest part of the city alone, says Sean MacFarland, a retired three-star general in the U.S. Army who conducted operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

A satellite image from the commercial company planet shows Israeli armored vehicles parked on the northern edge of Gaza City. Thousands of Israeli troops have entered the area, but the force is likely too small to occupy the whole city.
/ Planet Labs PBC
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Planet Labs PBC
A satellite image from the commercial company Planet shows Israeli armored vehicles parked on the northern edge of Gaza City. Thousands of Israeli troops have entered the area, but the force is likely too small to occupy the whole city.

"It looks like they're starting to push in to establish a presence on the outskirts that they can use to launch operations deeper into the city," he says. Iraqi forces employed a similar tactic when attempting to regain control of the city of Ramadi from ISIS forces in 2015.

But even if the other two axes also contain about a brigade, that wouldn't be nearly enough to fully occupy or even conduct a building-by-building sweep of a dense, urban environment like Gaza City, says Gentile.

"If you wanted to physically control Gaza City, with the population size, all the roads, all the angles and everything else, it would require multiple divisions to do that," Gentile says. (A division consists of multiple brigades.)

MacFarland says, going block by block to clear the city "would probably require more troops than the Israelis want to commit to that effort," in part because they need their forces in the north to protect the border with Lebanon.

Israeli armored vehicles move past destroyed buildings during the ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Experts say that Israel is unlikely to commit enough troops to fully secure Gaza City.
Israel Defense Forces / AP
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AP
Israeli armored vehicles move past destroyed buildings during the ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Experts say that Israel is unlikely to commit enough troops to fully secure Gaza City.

"What they may choose to do instead is control the city from the outskirts and conduct operations inside," he says. Such raids might allow them to destroy tunnels and other key parts of Hamas infrastructure without committing to a full occupation.

"They're pushing in with ground forces, but their objective does not appear to be holding territory and setting up checkpoints," agrees Seth Jones, who oversees the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He believes that Israel is more likely to use airstrikes, armor and dismounted infantry to strike at individual targets. "I think that is what they're doing, it's very specifically designed to go after infrastructure," Jones says.

Israeli troops appear to be operating under rules of engagement that allow significant civilian casualties

On Oct. 31, Israeli fighter jets conducted a massive airstrike on a section of the Jabalia refugee camp just north of Gaza City. According to the Israel Defense Forces, the strike was conducted with intelligence gathered by Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service.

Palestinians check the destruction in the aftermath of an Israeli strike the previous night in the Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees. The strike is believed to have killed many dozens.
Bashar Taleb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Palestinians check the destruction after an Israeli strike in the Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees. Palestinians say the strike killed scores of people and Israel says Hamas was operating there.

The Israeli military said dozens of Hamas fighters were killed, along with a senior Hamas commander. Photos from the site showed a massive crater, consistent with a collapsed tunnel beneath the site, and many injured civilians. Palestinians say the strike killed scores of people and Israel says Hamas was operating there.

The incident underscores a dangerous new phase in operations, says Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon intelligence officer who now works for Pax, a Dutch nonprofit working to protect civilians against acts of war. In the opening weeks of the war Israel conducted strikes on predetermined targets. Now they're striking quickly at "dynamic targets" with little warning or no warning for civilians in the area.

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Israel has tried to warn civilians in broad terms to leave northern Gaza, says Alex Plitsas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in the Middle East programs group. "They've attempted to clear the battlefield; they've asked people to leave," he says.

But Garlasco, who has also worked as a U.N. war crimes investigator, says that Israel's obligations don't end with telling civilians to get out.

"While Israel has a right to defend itself, that right is not unlimited," he says. They must target military objects and not civilians, he says, and they must also operate under the principle of proportionality. "Any attack they make, the military gain can not be outweighed by the civilian harm," he says.

In a statement Wednesday, the United Nations' human rights office appeared to echo those concerns, warning that strikes on the Jabalia camp "could amount to war crimes."

Despite these worries, Israel appears to be using a great deal of heavy weaponry in its fight, some of which appears to be older, non-precision bombs, Garlasco says. Unguided bombs and artillery run the risk of incurring greater civilian casualties in a densely populated area like Gaza City.

"I'd say Israel is playing pretty fast and loose with the laws of war right now," Garlasco says.

The fight ahead is likely to grow even more violent, and the situation for civilians inside Gaza more desperate

Israeli and Hamas forces are already involved in pitched fighting in different parts of the city. So far 24 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Gaza since the ground invasion began last week, according to Israeli officials, while Hamas has not released full casualty numbers for its fighters.

Those numbers will inevitably grow, says Gentile, who participated in urban warfare in Iraq in 2006. That's in part because both Israel and Hamas view this as an existential battle.

Gentile suspects that Israel may be able to achieve its stated objective of largely destroying Hamas, but that the civilian toll will be high.

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to a treatment room of Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al Balah on Tuesday. Basic medical supplies are running short.
Adel Hana / AP
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AP
Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to a treatment room of Al Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al Balah on Tuesday. Basic medical supplies are running short.

"Warfare in general is highly destructive against civilians, and it becomes even more so in a dense urban environment like Gaza City," he says.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza may be what limits Israel's ability to reach its goals, says Plitsas. Through another group, Special Operations Association of America, he just helped get a number of NGO workers out of Gaza and the stories they told him were harrowing:

"They were treating burns with saline and iodine only. There's no post-wound care, no antibiotics, hospitals were performing surgery without anesthesia because they had no choice," he says.

Ultimately, he says, it's difficult to imagine that Israel will be able to maintain broader international support unless it can show that it is trying to help civilians and minimize casualties.

"I think the humanitarian conditions on the ground are an Achilles heel for the operation," he says. "That needs to get addressed, and addressed very, very quickly."

NPR's Greg Myre contributed to this report from Tel Aviv. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
Daniel Wood
Daniel Wood is a visual journalist at NPR, where he brings data and analyses into complex topics by paired reporting with custom charts, maps and explainers. He focuses on data-rich topics like COVID-19 outcomes, climate change and politics. His interest in tracking a small outbreak of a novel coronavirus in January 2020 helped position NPR to be among the leading news organizations to provide daily updates on the growth and impact of COVID-19 around the country and globe.