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Israeli Ground Forces Enter Gaza

Aired January 03, 2009 - 13:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Fredricka Whitfield in Atlanta. It is day eight if the conflict with Gaza and Israel. Now we are hearing reports that a ground invasion is indeed under way in Gaza.
Our Paula Hancocks there is on the border. Bring us up-to-date, Paula.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, we are hearing from sources in Gaza. Witnesses on the Israeli side that ground troops are on the move into Gaza itself. Now we are hearing some witnesses on the Gaza side that they are heading into the Gaza strip, certainly this is something that was expected considering the amount of increased shelling and air strikes we have seen over the past couple of hours.

Now, the Israeli defense forces at this point are not commenting either way, saying -- just saying that they will not comment on any kind of operations. So certainly, this is the information we're getting from eyewitnesses who are watching troops moving into Gaza at this point. So, it could well be that this ground operation has started, and as I say, over the past couple of hours we have seen an increased amount of air strike.

There are still a lot of helicopters overhead and fighter jets and we can still hear the drones trying to get information about what is going on and the shelling has increased marketably over the past three hours, and flares being launched over Gaza City itself. We have seen certainly a marked increase in activity. Eyewitnesses on both sides of the border say it has started.

WHITFIELD: So, Paula, just over an hour ago we have been reporting and showing the new images of those flares under way. At the time it was unconfirmed exactly why that would be taking place, but safe to presume at this point that that did sort of initiate the ground troops giving them light to see exactly where to position themselves, how to move in, et cetera?

HANCOCKS: Fredricka, let me bring this to you first. Israeli defense forces have just confirmed that ground troops have gone into Gaza. This is day eight of this onslaught. There have been around about 500 air strikes and we have confirmation from the Israeli military that they are inside Gaza. The -- certainly, we're still hearing shelling from this side of the border going into Gaza. There's been a marked increase in shelling and in air strikes in the past three hours. And this is something that we know that the tanks and the troops on the border with Gaza have been ready for about three days. They've just been waiting for the order from the chief of staff, from the defense minister, and they do need to go into Gaza and they're in there now. Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Paula, while some have believed this to be imminent because of this conflict continuing, there were others who said no way. Israel was not going carry out a ground war particularly because of what happened just a couple of years ago involving Lebanon. Any way that you can kind of reveal to us how this decision may have been made? What the thinking from the Israeli defense fund -- Israeli defense forces just might have been?

HANCOCKS: Well, the whole point of this operation according to the Israeli military was to stop the rocket fire from Hamas and from other militant groups from Gaza into Israel. Certainly, we haven't seen that decrease up until today. We've seen a marked drop in the amount of rockets getting into Israel today, but over the past few days it's been here today.

So, this would have certainly been a consideration for the defense minister and the chief of staff, the fact that they weren't managing to cut back on these rockets as much as they could be, but I can only speculate on what was the deciding factor.

Certainly they would have seen how much they could target from the air. There's only so much they can do from the air and if the rockets were still coming, if they were, they maybe wanted to get in on the ground and be able to root out the remaining rocket launches, the remaining rocket caches and of course, an awful lot of the Hamas militant leaders that they will want to get a hold of are hiding underground.

So, obviously they've made the decision that they've done as much as they can solely from the air and now they have to take over from the ground.

WHITFIELD: And Paula the prelude to this moment, there have been leaflets dropped. People have been informed in Gaza, get out now. Give us an idea of what has taken place in the last couple of days leading up to this day.

HANCOCKS: Well, the leaflet it is, Fredricka, were for certain areas of Gaza is the idea for the Israeli air force and they decided they wanted to target a particular area. There was a mosque that they decided that there were weapons inside there or if there was a particular Hamas infrastructure they wanted to hit.

They would drop the leaflets to the residents of that area to say move away from that particular area, but certainly we have seen, as I say, over, well over 500 targets being hit and just before the ground forces went in, the Israeli air forces were still targeting those tunnels down in the site of the Gaza strip, the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza which Hamas militants have been meeting to transport all sorts of food, cigarettes and of course, weapons. So at this point, we are still hearing Israeli shelling from this side of the border going into Gaza, and certainly it will be a terrifying night for the residents of Gaza tonight.

WHITFIELD: So, for the most part, Paula, we have been under the impression that this assault or this conflict, part of the objective here has been that Israel was trying to target these tunnels where a lot of -- and locations of Hamas weaponry making was under way and tunnels where weapons were being funneled in from other places into Gaza. We are seeing now some of the first images now as you can try and make out through this night scope imagery, some of the moving images there, we are presuming that those are some of the soldiers, Israeli soldiers that are moving. There you go.

You can see a better image there right there of that ground troop movement now taking place as it enters Gaza there. This is now taking place on the eighth day since this conflict erupted between Gaza and Israel. There have been, as Paula has been describing, a number of rocket and missile attacks on both sides and now we are seeing what is proven to be imminent. This ground troop invasion there taking place there in Gaza.

That's where we find our Paula Hancocks. She is on the border there between Gaza and Israel and so, again, Paula, at the beginning, at the root of some of the targets was that Israel was trying to stop some of the weapons flow, trying to cripple Hamas, but clearly, this has grown into something much bigger.

HANCOCKS: Well, Israel still insists that it's the operational goal of these air strikes and now this ground invasion is so that they can stop these Hamas rocket attacks. Certainly, they would only be able to destroy so many of the rockets, caches and the places where the militants are hiding, there are stockpiles of rockets from the air and certainly they believe that some of this now has to come from the ground.

Now, the Israeli military has been telling us and the government that there have been some rockets being launched from densely populated residential areas, an area they can't access from the air. So this could well be why they're going in.

Certainly they want to cripple Hamas as much as they possibly can. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization as does the U.S., as does the European Union. So the main aim is to stop the rocket attacks on Israel by taking ground forces in. The military will believe that they can destroy the infrastructure of Hamas more than simply from the air.

WHITFIELD: Paula Hancocks there on the border between Gaza and Israel. For a moment, Paula, I'm going to allow you to take a break and General David Grange, familiar military analyst that we often use here on the air. He's joining us right now.

And General Grange, give us an idea right now as we're seeing evidence of this ground movement there, Israeli troops presumably moving there into Gaza. We're hearing that confirmation from the IDF as well as on the Palestinian side there from Gaza. Give me an idea of what precipitated this, all of the air assaults that we were seeing over the past eight days has brought us to this point how?

BRIG. GENERAL DAVID GRANGE, MILITARY ANALYST: Well, when the conflict starts usually you have intelligence that's accurate enough where an air strike, especially the surgical air strikes that Israeli air force is capable of performing, usually can hit your targets. Yes, there's collateral damage. There's no doubt about it, there usually is in a built-up area like this during air strikes, but after a few days and the enemy moves around there, in this case, the rockets, the infrared is hard to get for accurate targeting.

And so, really you almost have to go in to confirm that you have destroyed targets, to confirm that you have killed or captured militant leaders and -- because these things can be moved around in the back of cars. They're hidden in schools. They're hidden in mosques; they're everywhere so you really need to have people on the ground to do it properly.

WHITFIELD: You mentioned the objective here, destroying targets, killing or capturing Hamas leaders. Is an objective really to capture Hamas leaders or is it strictly to kill?

GRANGE: No. I mean, they'll capture just like most western armies, if the opportunity is there to capture, they will take captives and the reason being when you take a prisoner you can get information, obviously, about other targeting, and so just to kill to kill is not normally the norm under rules of engagement, but if the forces are endangered, of course, they will kill, but yes ...

WHITFIELD: Describe ...

GRANGE: Go ahead.

WHITFIELD: I was going to say describe for us exactly when we can expect to happen. We're seeing evidence now of these ground troops moving in. How will the ground troops and air assault work together or is this an issue of air assault will be suspended for quite a while as ground troops make their way in?

GRANGE: No. They'll continue to work together. There may not be a preponderance of air strikes, but they will always do air strike operations together. It is a doctrine. It is the same doctrine that the United States or France or Great Britain uses. And so, yeah, they'll use it in concert with their troops depending on how successful they are moving.

Remember, this is urban warfare. This is an advantage to those that are in defense and so it's a very tough set for the Israeli army to go in. There's a good chance of the excessive casualties, it just depends what they run into.

WHITFIELD: Except that it would seem a clear advantage would still be Israeli forces because Hamas does not have the kind of military force or manpower that they're now going to be facing in Gaza. GRANGE: In this kind of warfare, especially urban warfare, fire power is not always the advantage. The advantage is of those that know the neighborhood, that uses regular methods, for instance, booby traps in buildings, IEDs, RPGs in rooftops or in the middle of a crowd of kids, using regular techniques that again, western-type armies don't employ that type of fighting. They're trained to fight against it, but don't -- you can't take the Hamas' capabilities lightly. I mean, a regular warfare in an urban area is a tough set for any military to take on.

WHITFIELD: Talk to me about the obstacles that civilians would bring for Israeli troops, for example, as well. Since you talked about the clear court advantage. Not all of the civilians may have left Gaza. How difficult will it be for Israeli troops to discern, you know, who was part of Hamas military efforts or who are innocent civilians?

GRANGE: Well, if there's no information that there are a lot of civilians around the target, a very tough decision has to be made by a senior leader whether to engage that target or not if there's a -- if their people are there and you have the right to defend yourself, but they'll say look, we have a target and we know there is a Hamas leader in that particular building and we know there are rockets in there and there are 50 kids.

If that's the case, they may not take it down. They may secure it and try to work it out, but keep in mind some of these Hamas militants will use kids to their advantage to conceal themselves and to provide themselves with cover knowing that there are very strict rules of engagement to knowing how the Israeli defense forces can engage and Hamas will use that to their advantage.

WHITFIELD: Let's talk about the Hamas' forces side. This is exactly when perhaps they may have been banking on to lure these forces in on the ground level, as you said; they have the advantage in this urban warfare type setting. Might this be exactly what Hamas was expecting and actually hoping for?

GRANGE: I agree 100 percent with you. At the strategic level it's all about information warfare, perception management to influence others watching the broadcast of civilian casualties. They want that to happen to get a psychological edge. As you'll recall what happened against the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is the same thing. Ambulances are staged. You have the media crews alerted ahead of time when strikes come in and in fact children are placed around quite often very targets because they know they're going to get that type of image on the television.

So, yes, the strategic goal of the Hamas militants is information warfare. At the taxable level, it is to lure people into an urban fight, which is the most difficult fight there is, and to trick Israeli forces so they will lose the will to continue to fight. This has been their goal all along. The Hamas rockets, though there have been many fired, are actually very ineffective compared to the surgical weapons they have at their hands. It doesn't mean you should do something about it because if our people were fired on that way, I would hope we would do the same thing. But the point is this is to lure the Israeli forces in for a -- an attrition type warfare for a protracted period of time.

WHITFIELD: And when something like this is to happen is there a way in which or a formula you use to determine what kind of casualties we're talking about, or even the length of time that something like this, this kind of battle could be carried out?

GRANGE: You want to have any kind of conflict get over as fast as possible but what happens is you're clearing an area, and then you have to hold that area because, again, you're in these densely populated neighborhoods. You have to hold that neighborhood and then you have to figure out how you're going to take care of the civilian population and transition in some kind of peaceful means. It is man power intensive. It requires a lot of elements besides bat elements.

For instance, a civil affairs, engineers, medical, those type of forces in order to take on the holding and the rebuilding of any operation like this. So it's extremely costly. There are no formulas. There's no formula about casualties. It's just what the will of the people will accept. It may be ten people. It could be 1,000 people. There's no formulas. Just what people feel.

WHITFIELD: And when you say hold this area, Israeli troops making their way by ground into Gaza to hold this area, are we talking dozens of Israeli troops, hundreds of Israeli troops, thousands?

GRANGE: Thousands. What will happen is, it doesn't mean they have to clear the entire Gaza strip area. There may be certain key areas that they think are key terrain. Terrain that has weapons systems, that has command and control that has observation, which has the critical road networks, whatever the case may be.

But you keep in mind the Israeli forces also have to keep what they call their lines of communication open so they can evacuate casualties, so they can bring in food and medical supplies for not only their own soldiers but for the civilian casualties so you have to keep those routes open between where they launch the attack to where they end up at the target area and it's troop intensive to do that.

WHITFIELD: General David Grange, I'm going to ask you to take a pause for a quick moment. We're going to join our CNN international Paula Hancocks there who is right on the border between Gaza and Israel and listen into her reporting on what she is witnessing right now.

RALITSA VASSILEVA, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And she just said that nobody has given people any instructions. There were some leaflets that were dropped for people to stay away but people had nowhere to go. They are no shelters. They cannot leave. It is indeed a very, very difficult situation.

HANCOCKS: Absolutely. And the amount of air strikes and shelling that is going in without absolutely terrifying if you're inside Gaza. I have spoken to many residents in the past few days who have been trying to stay inside and trying to stay away from any obvious military targets. Certainly, there are some Hamas military installations or Hamas buildings that residents in Gaza knew would be targeted so they just had to try to stay clear of those particular installations.

But we're still hearing constant shelling go into Gaza. Certainly the Israeli military saying they were trying to clear the areas where the militants were actually firing these rocket bombs into Gaza saying they want to destroy the Hamas infrastructure, saying they want to stop the rockets coming into Israel, destroy more of the caches, and destroy the areas where they would be firing these rockets from.

Certainly today, this Saturday, we have seen far fewer rockets coming into Israel than we have seen over the past eight days.

VASSILEVA: Paula, can you tell us where exactly the ground troops are entering Gaza? Are they just in the northern part? When I was talking to el Kadari, she's in Gaza City and she hasn't seen troops there but she said she's hearing they are in the northern part of Gaza.

HANCOCKS: From here, I can't actually confirm exactly where these troops are going in. We certainly have eyewitnesses on both sides of the border who have confirmed, the Israeli military confirmed it publicly. But exactly where it is, it would be very difficult for us to tell from here because the Israeli government is not allowing us into Gaza.

VASSILEVA: Paula Hancocks between the border of Israel and Gaza. Thank you very much. I would like to cross to our Jerusalem Bureau where we have Major Avital Leibovich the IDF with the Israeli Defense Forces joining us now. Major, thank you for joining us. Tell us, what is the goal of this operation?

MAJ. AVITAL LEIBOVICH, ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES: Well, we have just a short while ago launched the second stage of the operation against Hamas infrastructure. In the second stage, we have a few forces participating such as infantry, engineering, artillery, all given support by the air force and the navy. The goal is to try to take over some of those launching areas that were responsible for the many launches, thousands of launches, in fact, towards Israeli civilians.

VASSILEVA: What exactly are you going to achieve by doing this? Will you be able to stop those rockets if we go back to years ago when Israel went into southern Lebanon, Hezbollah at that point, and the rocket launches were the target? Israel emerged from then as the perception was in the Arab world that Hezbollah won just by surviving this and basically there was nothing achieved to really stop them from having these rockets. What is going to be different this time around?

LEIBOVICH: I think that today the idea forces are totally in different place than two-and-a-half years ago. We have implemented many lessons from the second war in Lebanon and for the past two-and- a-half years we were busy training our forces with the emphasis on urban warfare. That's why I think the forces entering Gaza as we speak are in a much better condition, they're very much prepared, they are very well prepared, very well trained. So, I would say we're in totally different place today.

VASSILEVA: How are you going to avoid civilian casualties in such a highly, densely populated area where it is hard to say who is civilian and who is Hamas?

LEIBOVICH: Well, first of all, Hamas is not putting any effort to avoid targeting civilian dense areas here in Israel as well. However, we are trying to be as humane as possible. Namely trying to call up before targeting a house, the residents of the house. Trying to give leaflets and through our leaflets, our messaging. Civilians are not our target. We are looking only after militants, Hamas militants.

VASSILEVA: But it is inevitable that in guerrilla warfare, it will be very difficult to avoid that, and there will even be higher civilian casualties, some analyst's say, with a ground operation, with artillery being used which is less precise.

LEIBOVICH: Well, unfortunately, we did not choose to be in a situation like this, to be bombarded day after day, night after night, for eight consecutive years. Since we have reached this point in which Hamas refuses to stop the rocket fire, including during the calm period which Hamas launched dozens of rocket fire towards Israel, we find ourselves in a situation in which we exercise the basic right for defense.

VASSILEVA: How soon are you going to finish this operation?

LEIBOVICH: Since Hamas has invested a lot of time, money and effort in the past two years to build itself militarily, namely digging hundreds of tunnels, building bunkers, building training facilities, we have many, many targets as a result. Therefore, to my estimation, it's going to be a lengthy operation.

VASSILEVA: How long, weeks, months? Can you give us an idea?

LEIBOVICH: Well, unfortunately, I cannot share, you know, operational information and estimations, but we are having constant assessment on a daily basis. According to these assessments, we are proceeding.

VASSILEVA: Are you going to be going after the Hamas leadership, which is in hiding?