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As the Israel-Hamas war rages, the U.S. wants to offer Israel advice — and get advised

An Israeli soldier walks past a house damaged during the Hamas attack in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, Israel, on Friday. The Kibbutz was attacked on Oct. 7.
Maya Alleruzzo
An Israeli soldier walks past a house damaged during the Hamas attack in Kibbutz Kfar Azza, Israel, on Friday. The Kibbutz was attacked on Oct. 7.

U.S. military advisers recently dispatched to Israel in advance of a possible incursion into Gaza include a Marine special operations commanderwith experience in urban warfare, in places like Fallujah and the fight against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The two militaries have a history of collaboration.

"The relationship between the Israeli Special Operations Forces and U. S. Special Operations Command has been longstanding. It's very robust," said retired Marine Gen. Mark Schwartz, former deputy commander of U.S. joint special operations who served as U.S. Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority from 2019 to 2021.

Schwartz said the Israelis have long experience dealing with Gaza — there's even a mock city, over half-a-mile square, used for training in the Negev desert. But he's concerned that with the size of the force preparing to enter Gaza, most will be new at this.

"The vast majority of those forces that have been activated, they've never served in Lebanon, they didn't serve the last time an incursion happened in Gaza. And as they're putting their lives at risk, trying to deal with urban room clearing. These young men and women are having to make split-second decisions on 'who do I shoot or do I not shoot' based on who they find in a room and the threat that they perceive," he said.

Hard-earned lessons

American generals sent to Israel may be able to offer some lessons from their own struggle to mitigate civilian casualties after two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the U.S. may have intelligence about specific technology that Hamas may have obtained from Iran – which spent years helping militants in Iraq build booby traps and mines to attack American troops.

But having a high-level liaison to Israel also allows for two-way communication.

"The bigger role would be to liaise with Israel to make sure that Israeli military operations are anticipated by the United States," said Dan Byman, author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.

"We're also seeing an array of militant groups, many of which are tied to Iran, attacking not only Israeli but also U. S. forces. Military operations by Israel could excite these, whether it's an operation that kills large numbers of civilians or simply something that changes the status quo," said Byman.

The U.S. may need to prepare bases in the region for any backlash, and even prepare its own response, as it did this week against Iranian forces in Syria.

Having this ongoing high level cooperation can help the U.S. sway Israel — as it may have already done to delay the ground invasion, said Byman.

"Part of the Biden administration's approach has been to hug Israel quite tightly as a way of saying to Israelis, America is behind you, but also giving Israelis the willingness to trust the United States. And I think should military operations go into overdrive during a ground invasion, the United States could offer suggestions, could to push for course corrections that other countries simply would not be trusted [to give]," said Byman.

That may mean course corrections like the one the U.S. slowly made in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially regarding protecting civilians, said Gen. Schwartz. The Israeli military is obligated by the laws of war to protect civilians in Gaza, but it's also in their interest, he said.

"Well, if you want to have any opportunity to try to leverage human intelligence to find out where the hostages are located, you certainly want to mitigate the pain and suffering on the civilian populace and, candidly I think Israel's failed in that," said Schwartz.

That's the kind of candid appraisal that might just be heeded from a high-ranking U.S. military official working closely with Israel, he adds.

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Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.