Israeli troops massed by Gaza ahead of an expected invasion of the Palestinian territory are likely to have honed the skills they need to take on Hamas militants in urban warfare at a replica city in the Negev Desert.
The site at the Tze’elim army base just east of the Gaza Strip is where Israeli soldiers involved in the operation have probably been preparing, The Independent reported. Spanning 7.4 square miles, the facility was built in 2005 with the help of the United States to train soldiers fighting guerrillas in often congested, urban settings.
Nicknamed “Baladia,” Arabic for “city,” the site was established as a response to the Second Intifada uprising by Palestinians in occupied territories.
The deployment of around 400,000 Israeli reservists ahead of the expected invasion into Gaza follows the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 which has killed at least 1,300 people. At least 2,750 people had been killed in Gaza, according to authorities there, Reuters reported, following Israel’s unprecedented bombardment of the strip.
Britain’s Sky News reported on Sunday that ahead of an expected move into Gaza, Israeli troops had been training in a replica city that the outlet did not name, but it had the same murals and graffiti on the walls as the site at the Tze’elim army base.
The site has around 600 structures including streets, storefronts, schools, houses, apartment blocks and mosques. Adding to the authenticity of the environment is the muezzin’s call which blares from minarets illuminated with green Islamic lights, The Jerusalem Post reported in August.
As well as Israel Defense Forces (IDF), this so-called “mini Gaza” has been used for U.S. Army soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers for training.
An Israeli ground offensive looms ever-nearer with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying on Monday that Israeli troops “are ready to act at any moment, to exterminate the bloody monsters that rose up against us.”
The ground invasion has been delayed due to bad weather preventing aerial cover, sources told The New York Times which reported that battle plans included capturing Gaza City, wiping out all of Hamas leadership, and a possible 18-month campaign to eradicate terrorists.
Complicating the operation is the quest to rescue the 199 hostages that the IDF said on Monday Hamas has taken. The captives are said to be being used by Hamas as human shields and are located in tunnels, apartment buildings and probably at military sites.
In an analysis published on Monday, Jack Watling, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute said that there are many difficulties for Israeli troops in such a densely populated urban terrain with a large proportion of children and non-combatants and very weak critical infrastructure.
“The challenge of how to take urban ground without destroying the city is insurmountable with the tools currently available,” Watling wrote, adding that “because sensor dominance quickly leads to an asymmetry in casualties, weaker forces will retreat into dense, urban terrain.