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November 15, 2023

I covered the battle against ISIS in Mosul. Gaza’s challenges will make it look like child’s play.

By Arwa Damon

I can close my eyes and replay the first forty-eight hours of the push into Mosul, Iraq in November 2016. I was a CNN senior international correspondent embedded with Iraqi special forces—a unit that was part of the first wave of the assault on the city to eradicate the Islamic State of Iraq and el-Sham (ISIS) once and for all. The battalion that cameraman Brice Laine and I were with was ambushed. Alongside dozens of wounded Iraqi soldiers, Laine and I would end up spending well over twenty-four hours hiding in civilian homes with terrified families. I later returned to Mosul multiple times over the next year and as the reconstruction efforts began.

Now, as I watch what’s unfolding in the Gaza Strip, there are important parallels to what I witnessed. However, lazy comparisons between Israel’s war in Gaza and the US campaign in Mosul miss some crucial differences. 

To understand Mosul and ISIS, one must turn back in history to Fallujah in November 2004. Back then, Fallujah had fallen into the grips of ISIS’s predecessor: al-Qaeda in Iraq. I was there embedded with US forces. It would end up being the bloodiest battle for US Marines since Vietnam. By the end of 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq was declared defeated. However, it quickly re-emerged, working with other extremist Sunni organizations and rebranding itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Fallujah fell back into its grips; Ramadi became better known as “Swiss cheese city” because so many of its central buildings were pockmarked with the wounds of war; and American troops and the Iraqi government lost control of Anbar province.

Then, in 2008, there was a US troop surge. But it was not the US boots on the ground that necessarily turned the tide of the battle. By that point, the United States had realized that they needed a fighting force from the Iraqi people. They were called the “Sons of Iraq”—a hodgepodge of former “nationalistic” insurgents and volunteers. It worked for a while.

By 2007-2008, ISI became more or less obsolete before resurging again around 2012—this time as the Islamic State of Iraq and el-Sham. Within two years, ISIS would take over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria.

From a military standpoint, what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are up against in the Gaza Strip will make what the Iraqi troops on the ground in Mosul faced seem like child’s play. ISIS had three years in Mosul to establish its underground network. Hamas has had thirty years to prepare itself for battle on its turf and dig and fortify its tunnels and underground systems.  

Mosul would end up being a battle largely won in the air, with the US and its allies pummeling the city to dust (knowing fully that just about every building had a family in it).

It was one of the most intense air campaigns I have witnessed, with a final death toll ranging from nine thousand to eleven thousand civilians. The United States justified this with its standard cut and paste response: “We take utmost care to avoid civilian casualties.”

In that sense, Gaza is similar to Mosul. It is all but guaranteed that civilians will die in each strike. But there are also big differences.

Civilians in Mosul were unable to flee. ISIS held around one million civilians hostage; in many cases literally holding them at gunpoint. This is known from the stories of those who survived, including families I met in Mosul after the dust settled. The only surviving adults told me that an airstrike that hit the house behind where we were holed up (alongside the wounded Iraqi soldiers) had also killed eleven civilians.

Gaza’s civilians are also unable to flee—not because they are being held at gunpoint, but because they cannot escape the battle zone.

Despite what the IDF is saying, in my years reporting from Gaza, I have never once heard—not even a whisper—of Hamas holding someone at gunpoint and preventing them from fleeing their homes. Gazans can go. Hundreds of thousands have followed the IDF’s directive to go south. But the south is being bombed.

The battle for Mosul lasted for around eighteen months. The death toll in the bombing campaign of Gaza has already surpassed eleven thousand in its sixth week.

In Mosul, there was a deliberate escape route left open for fighters. As ground forces pushed forward, ISIS fighters could either stay and fight or flee into the desert and other towns that ISIS had control of at the time. That is not an option that exists in the Gaza Strip. The IDF will have to continue to pulverize the strip and face a force that will not surrender and is unable to fall back.

Those bombing Mosul did not have to face the hostage dynamic present in Gaza. The dozens of families of hostages taken from Israel on October 7 are understandably beside themselves, increasingly anxious about the fate of their loved ones and acutely aware that the bombs falling on Gaza could also be claiming hostages’ lives.

Perhaps one of the most glaring differences between the two campaigns can be seen in the siege of Gaza. Israel has deliberately cut off water, food, electricity, medical supplies, and fuel from 2.3 million people. In my two decades reporting on war, I had never heard of a democratically elected nation-state taking such a measure against a civilian population. While aid has started to trickle in from Egypt, it’s barely at 10 percent of what Gaza used to receive daily—never mind that aid organizations need to scale up—not be handed crumbs—in order to meet the extreme needs of the present.

The battle for Mosul saw attacking Iraqi troops encircle the city, but it was never even close to causing this level of a humanitarian crisis. Water and electricity were not cut off. Those who survived the bombs and the ground war were able to reach humanitarian aid and shelter.

From the telling of those who survived and the images that emerged, Hamas’s October 7 attack does echo ISIS’s attacks. However, Hamas is not ISIS—not even close—and understanding the differences between them is crucial. Hamas rose and gained power, prestige, and popularity as a response to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and its oppression of the Palestinian population. As such, Hamas’s relationship to the population of Gaza cannot be compared to that of ISIS and its relationship to the people over whom it ruled. True, Gazans have not had much of a choice as Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007 and has not had elections since.

In addition, some countries do have a relationship with Hamas, such as Egypt and Turkey. Hamas’s political headquarters is in Qatar—an office established in 2012 with the blessing of the US.

Other than the stated goal of wiping out Hamas, there is a frightening lack of post-war planning from Israel, which many military experts argue is just as important as the military operations themselves.

In Mosul, there was an Iraqi government with whom to coordinate; faulty and messy, yes, but it existed.

In the Gaza Strip, there is no local partner for the IDF, and Israel is not coordinating with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. There is no equivalent of the Iraqi army and there is no Palestinian force—let alone one to partner with or do a handover to secure “peace,” assuming that, at the end of this, there is anything left of Gaza to secure. The option that is being floated right now—that Israel would somehow “secure” the “peace” and “re-occupy” Gaza—is borderline ludicrous.

“Stability, however, requires policy attention to terrorist hotspots after the battles are over,” veteran journalist Thanassis Cambanis wrote in October 2021 in reference to Mosul. “A credible counterterrorism policy must revolve around good governance, rights, and human dignity.”

If there is any comparison to be drawn right now, it is that this war on Gaza does bear similarities to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq—a military campaign driven by a desire for revenge with disastrous consequences.

It is worth remembering that, while the majority of Iraqis did not support Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, this did not mean that they supported an American invasion. History in Iraq teaches a basic lesson: the best way to ensure support for a militant organization is to kill civilians and destroy hope. A survey carried out by the Barometer on October 25 found that barely a quarter of Gazans would vote for Hamas if they had the opportunity, and that 67 percent have little or no confidence in the government led by Hamas.

But as the authors themselves point out, this relentless assault by Israel could alter that dynamic.

“Continued violence will not bring the future most Gazans hope for any closer, write authors Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins. “Instead of stamping out sympathy for terrorism, past Israeli crackdowns that make life more difficult for ordinary Gazans have increased support for Hamas.”

America’s counterterrorism policy was a mediocre mess at best, failing over the years to take into account key drivers of what led people to pick up weapons and join the insurgency, al-Qaeda, and, later, ISIS. If there is something to be drawn from those lessons, it is that what Israel is doing right now will secure anything but peace and stability.

Arwa Damon is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and president and founder of the International Network for Aid, Relief, and Assistance (INARA), a nonprofit organization that focuses on building a network of logistical support and medical care to help children who need life-saving or life-altering medical treatment in war-torn nations.

Further reading

Image: September 28, 2017 - Mosul, Iraq: Scenes of devastation in the Mosul old town two months after Iraqi forces retook the city from Islamic State fighters. (Reuters)