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MID: Israeli ground assault in Gaza to exact heavy toll: experts

By Ron Bousso
04 Jan 2009 8:42 AM

JERUSALEM, Jan 3 AFP - The ground offensive that Israel has launched in the Gaza Strip will meet stiff resistance and guerrilla tactics that will exact a heavy toll on both sides, experts say.

Israel's massive week-plus air and naval assault across the Gaza Strip has dealt a blow to its Islamist Hamas rulers and their military capabilities, wreaking destruction and killing more than 460 Palestinians.

But militants have defiantly continued firing dozens of rockets against southern Israel, striking deeper than ever. Four people have been killed by the rocket fire so far.

There is near unanimous agreement among military top brass and experts that a ground operation is the only way to reach the main goal presented for Operation Cast Lead - halting the rocket fire from Gaza.

But there is also acceptance the number of casualties may sharply rise on both sides as a ground assault unfolds in one of the world's most densely-populated places, where Hamas has built a formidable defensive line.

"Dozens of Israeli troops could be killed in a ground operation. The number of Palestinian fatalities could be three or four times bigger," said Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Saadat centre at Bar Ilan university.

The challenge the Israeli army faces in Gaza has been overshadowed by the 2006 war against the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, when the military struggled against a well-trained and dug-in guerilla forces.

"One of the lessons that we have learned from 2006 was that the air force - even when it excels in its military achievements - cannot do all the work alone," the former head of the Mossad spy agency Shabtai Shavit told AFP.

Over the past week, Israel has amassed tanks and personnel along the 60km border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and has mobilised more than 9,000 reservists to partake in any ground offensive.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak has repeatedly warned the Jewish state could launch a ground invasion if necessary.

The head of Israel's Shin Beth internal security services Yuval Diskin has warned that the army will face advanced anti-tank rockets, mine fields, ambushes, trenches and well-fortified positions commanded by well-trained militants.

The Israeli army's total superiority in equipment, numbers and expertise could be diminished by the 8,000 well-trained fighters that Israeli security estimates Hamas to have at its disposal - as was the case during the month-long war on Hezbollah in 2006, observers said.

According to Inbar, the army has to be present on the ground in order to halt rocket launchers.

But that will involve raiding Gaza's teeming neighbourhoods and refugee camps, where the Israeli forces are more vulnerable and where thousands of civilians could get caught up in the fighting.

"There is no choice but to use ground forces. It does not necessarily need to be a large-scale invasion, maybe just special units or localised incursions but the army needs boots on the ground," he said.

"Fighting in built-up areas is much more complex and one must expect drawbacks."

Israel's last massive offensive in Gaza, triggered after militants seized an Israeli soldier in a brazen cross-border raid near the territory in June 2006, killed more than 400 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers.

But the looming offensive on Hamas could exact a much higher toll on both sides, warned reserve major general Yaacov Amidror.

"The army will have to go in with much more force. The price will be paid by Gaza's local population because Israel is preparing for war against a growing force that has sophisticated weapons and is well entrenched," he told AFP.

"The Israel Defence Forces (army) will have to use more fire power and armoured vehicles that will cause much more casualties on the Palestinian side, but also on our side."