Gaza battles show `nasty' face of urban combat
By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press Writer
Sat Jan 17, 5:19 pm ET

Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. Marines staged mock urban battles designed to test future tactics for fighting in streets and alleys. The war games featured an array of advanced military hardware, including aerial drones with the laser-sharp cameras and micro-robots to scout for mines and potential ambushes.

But the exercises in California and at the Marines' Quantico, Va., base also reinforced the inevitable realities of urban conflict: Troops are drawn into a confusing and difficult arena where hit-and-run guerrillas often have the upper hand and civilians are caught in the crossfire.

"Urban areas can be extraordinary in their level of complexity," said a summary of the 2000-1 maneuvers published by the Rand Corp.

Now, Israel's push into teeming Gaza City has highlighted these risks on a scale and intensity not witnessed since late 2004, when U.S.-led forces launched a grinding, block-by-block showdown against Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah that lasted for nearly three months.

Even as Israel declared Saturday it would halt the attacks opened in late December, the long-term lessons of the incursion are already being weighed by military experts around the world. It's a study in strategies for both sides — standing armed forces and militia groups such as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon — as urban centers increasingly become the modern battlefields.

For Hamas, which is chiefly supplied through tunnels under the Egyptian border, the fight is suddenly about holding territory and foiling Israel's advance after years of lobbing rockets from the relative safety of Gaza.

Military strategists are closely watching how Hamas uses its advantages: sniper positions, ability to plant roadside bombs and booby traps and efforts to funnel Israel forces deeper into narrow streets and crowded neighborhoods where they are more vulnerable to attacks.

"Hamas will seek to suck the (Israeli) forces as much into the urban terrain as possible," said retired British Col. Christopher Langton, a military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "They will attempt to shape the battlefield."

But this also runs the risk of even more civilian casualties — with more than 1,100 Palestinians already dead in the three-week conflict, about half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials.

"These are heavy human costs when fighting moves into cities," said Langton. "It's been true through history and it's true today."

Yet a significant difference is that the world has a ringside seat through round-the-clock television coverage and the Internet. That, coupled with the rising advocacy power of human rights groups, heightens the burdens on conventional armies with civilian casualties a near certainty in urban combat.

Israel has been through this type of fight before — entering Lebanon as far as Beirut in 1982 and more recently pushing into West Bank cities in 2002 and battling Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon in 2006.

The Gaza incursion, military experts say, displays some new tactics adapted from past urban battles such as expanded reconnaissance from unmanned drones, more use of explosive-sniffing dogs and adding armor on the underbelly of Israel's Merkava tanks to guard against bomb blasts.

Israel also has been fine-tuning its tactics at an elaborate mock Arab city built on an army base in the Negev Desert. The city has hundreds of structures, including mosques, apartment buildings and a simulated refugee camp. Maj. Avital Leibovich said training drills involve soldiers posing as militants, civilians and even foreign journalists.

But it also includes traditional assaults such as shelling and missile strikes from Apache helicopters that risk civilian casualties.

Israel has reportedly used — for the first time — bunker-buster bombs known as GBU-39, an American-developed weapon with precision targeting systems and a limited blast radius that intended to reduce the chance for widespread casualties.

Gaza has one fundamental similarity to major urban battlefields since World War II: The Vietnam War's Battle of Hue in 1968; Beirut's civil war in the 1980s; the U.S.-led force in Mogadishu in 1993; Russia's push into breakaway Grozny, the Chechnya capital, in the 1990s; and Fallujah, Najaf and other cities across Iraq.

"It's a nasty kind of war," said Jonathan Fighel, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

He described it as a "jumble of variables" that most military forces seek to avoid.

"It's dynamic, constantly changing," he said. "You have to identify your enemy in the midst of a civilian population — an enemy that is using that population as a human shield. Who is a combatant? Who is a noncombatant?"

There is also the risk of becoming mired for years.

Stephen Graham, a professor at Durham University in Britain, has called it the "black hole" for modern military forces — when militias coordinating on mobile phones and setting remote-detonated bombs can pin down armies that have far superior firepower and technology.

About two hours after Israeli ground troops entered Gaza on Jan. 3, the country's defense minister, Ehud Barak, said on national television: "This will not be easy and it will not be short."

"No commander wants to be in this position. No one likes being drawn into a fight in a city," said retired Gen. Donn Starry, who served in several commands involved in preparing U.S. Army combat strategies.

The Israeli government said its troops will stay in the Palestinian territory for now, despite the cease-fire. The longer the stay, Starry said, the greater the strain on maintaining the force.

Supply lines for food and fuel are notoriously difficult to keep intact in urban settings, where enemy forces can knock out roads or target transport vehicles. During the Cold War, Soviet generals often held war games specifically on ways to disrupt Allied supply routes into key European cities, said Starry.

"The whole city environment is a major problem from a military standpoint," he said. "You really have to move house by house, clearing it and holding it. That takes a lot of troops and coordination. There is really nothing easy about fighting in a city."


Murphy, based in Dubai, has reported from Baghdad, Jerusalem and Palestinian territories. AP writers Matti Friedman and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.