‘Three-dimensional’ Warfare Adds to Uniqueness, and Danger, of an Israeli Offensive in GazaOctober 23, 20233 min read
In the weeks following the attacks perpetrated by Hamas in Israel, all signs indicate that the Israeli Defense Force is planning a ground offensive within the Gaza strip. An incursion into the strip, where Hamas is headquartered, would be distinct by nature; Israel has engaged within Gaza only a handful of times since 2005, when it dismantled its own settlements there.
But according to Frank Galgano, PhD, an associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University and an expert in military geography, any ground offensive in Gaza would be unique –and dangerous – given the geography of the territory.
“It's not a traditional geography of a conflict,” Dr. Galgano said. “Gaza is basically the size of Philadelphia. When you go into it, you’re fighting in a city, or a densely populated urbanized area, and it becomes three-dimensional warfare.”
By “three-dimensional,” Dr. Galgano is referencing the ability of Hamas combatants to engage by ground, from high up inside or on top of buildings and from below, using the vast network of tunnels Hamas has constructed throughout Gaza. These dimensions complicate planning and add to the danger for Israeli soldiers. Conversely, they provide a serious advantage to Hamas militants.
“It's also a very confined area,” he said. “It's so densely populated and heavily urbanized. That's the operational environment… With all operations in urban environments, you’re dealing with cultural features, too. In Gaza, you’ve got mosques, schools, museums— you have civilian population integrated into the battlefield. That makes things very difficult. Hamas will take advantage of that urban geography.”
That population density, which is among the highest in the world with more than 2.2 million people on 140-square miles of land, significantly impacts the strategy and abilities of Israeli ground forces. Galgano contrasted it with other operational environments, such as the Palestinian-controlled West Bank.
“There are movement corridors, ridges, valleys, avenues of approach and communication— all this stuff that makes sense from moving units around the battlefield,” Dr. Galgano said. “It is not the same in Gaza. It’s highly condensed in that vein.”
There are other unique factors at play, too. Hamas reportedly has nearly 200 hostages from their October 7 attack. Dr. Galgano believes they are being strategically held throughout Gaza.
“[these hostages are] probably in subterranean areas and bunkers well underground,” he said. “That, or they will put them in their headquarters [as a deterrent to Israeli strikes]. Israel probably knows exactly where some of these hostages are, [but] what do they do?”
Dr. Galgano also considers the battle inexperience of IDF reservists as well. The IDF is “very well trained,” he said, and have many professional standing units, but in an offensive like this, “they need manpower and that’s going to be their reservists.
“In 1967, 1973 and 1983, when Israel called up their reservists, [many] were war veterans already. Now, it’s different. They haven’t fought a ‘big’ war since 1983, so there is an inexperience level at play too.”
Ultimately, Galgano thinks that if the IDF enters Gaza, they are going to “go up the middle and split the Gaza strip in half… They are going to take out Hamas infrastructure in [Gaza City and Khan Younis], their two centers of gravity.” He thinks they will be able to do so, barring something unforeseen, “fairly easily.”
Francis Galgano, PhD Associate Professor, Geography and the Environment | College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Francis A. Galgano, PhD, specializes in coastal geography and military geography.