Israel's Ground War In Gaza Would Be A Brutal Race Against Time
The Hamas attacks leave Israel with no choice but to launch a ground offensive in Gaza. This is the only way Jerusalem can truly debilitate the terrorist organization. And so a race against time begins with any such assault, as casualties would be high, international support will weaken, and the question of the ultimate "end game" lurks behind.
It's been less than a week since the bloodiest massacre in the nation's history, with more than 1,200 people brutally murdered in southern Israel, and an estimated 150 more kidnapped and taken into Gaza. But already, the country is switching from defense to attack. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, a “wall” of tanks, troops and guns is currently arriving in the south in what all predict will be a ground offensive into the Palestinian enclave.
The number of reservists called up has risen to 360,000, a record mobilization for Israel, with a long history of defending itself militarily against enemies since its founding in 1948. For days now, the country's air force has been striking targets in Gaza. But now, the scenario of an all-out offensive into Gaza, with boots on the ground, looks quasi certain.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday: “We are only at the beginning.”
The militant group Hamas has been in control of Gaza since 2005, when Israel withdrew its troops from the region and abandoned all Jewish settlements. Land for peace — at least, that was the hope. Since then, there have been countless attacks by Islamists, with rockets, suicide attacks, and sometimes even terrorist squads breaking through the fence.
But the last time Israeli troops rolled into Gaza was in 2014, with Operation Protective Edge, when it sought to enter the densely populated coastal enclave — with more than two million people living in a strip of land of 363-square kilometers/141 square miles. An estimated 66 Israeli soldiers died in that operation, while the number of Palestinian victims is thought to stand at more than 2,000, including civilians.
Different this time
But that did not spell the end of Hamas, as the organization knew how to hide its command structures in homes, schools and across an expansive network of tunnels. Since then, Israel had avoided another invasion.
Instead, Israel limited its actions in Gaza to containing Hamas's military capabilities through airstrikes, and to delivering humanitarian goods to the sealed-off area — all the while hoping that the situation would remain manageable, and that the country's Iron Dome air defense system would be enough to intercept missiles from Gaza.
Until now, the Israeli army had relied on the “roof-knocking” strategy.
But things will be different this time around, says military expert David Wurmser, longtime adviser to then U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. “It's not about re-establishing a system of deterrence against Hamas, but rather eliminating it completely.” That means destroying the infrastructure, but this time could also include renewed occupation — at least for a while.
Oct. 11, 2023: Israeli army deployed in Upper Galilee of northern Israel.
Wurmser is convinced that the army will act more decisively than it did in previous wars in Gaza. Not because the military situation has changed fundamentally, but because of the shift in the Israeli perception of Gaza. The fact that there are now people there who “want to kill Israelis and do nothing but kill,” Wurmser says, is conjuring up traumatic memories of the Holocaust, justifying calls for the country to defend itself by all means available.
What is certain is that Israel will initially seek to weaken Hamas though massive airstrikes — but with less consideration than before to prevent any civilian casualties. Until now, the Israeli army had relied on the “roof-knocking” strategy: Because Hamas uses its civilians as human shields, pilots usually launch a non-explosive projectile at a targeted building before bombing it, so that people have time to escape safely. Now the IDF has switched to warning Palestinians shortly before the attacks, by distributing maps in Arabic indicating the larger zone of an impending attack.
Inevitable ground operation
Israel has called on the population of Gaza to stay away from Hamas facilities, and if they can, to flee to Egypt. However, Egypt has promptly closed the border and is unlikely to welcome refugees in the future — also out of concern that Hamas fighters may retreat into Sinai.
Meanwhile, Hamas is threatening to begin publicly executing the estimated 150 Israeli hostages, should airstrikes continue. Some videos of such executions have already circulated online, although they cannot be verified. This puts the Israeli government under enormous pressure, especially since Jerusalem has already announced that it will not stop the military operation, leading to protests from the relatives of the kidnapped citizens.
On Thursday, Israel said that it would continue its ongoing siege of Gaza, which has cut off basic necessities like fuel, food and water, until the hostages are released.
Ultimately, Israeli special forces will have to enter Gaza if it wants to eradicate Hamas on a structural level and, if possible, capture high-ranking members. But the trauma of the 2014 offensive on Gaza is still fresh in Israel's mind.
At that time, the soldiers' primarily objective was to destroy the terrorists' tunnel systems. Waiting for them were snipers, suicide bombers, booby traps and commandos with guided missiles that annihilated armored vehicles. In recent years, Hamas has expanded its underground tunnels. It is also unclear how well-equipped Hamas really is, as it manages to produce weapons or smuggle them despite Gaza being sealed off.
Another temporal factor is international pressure on Israel.
Security experts are also speculating whether Hamas may have succeeded in paralyzing Israeli Defense Forces communications during its major attack on Israel, possibly via a large-scale cyberattack. There is no confirmation of this, but it would be a new, dangerous tool for the terrorists.
October 11, 2023, Gaza city: Palestinian families evacuate to safer areas following overnight Israeli shelling in Gaza city
Time is of the essence
Jerusalem therefore has an interest in a short-term ground operation. “Completely clearing the Gaza Strip of Hamas could take months,” warns U.S. expert David Wurmser. That is time that Israel does not have, as the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza is pushing the Iron Dome to its limits.
This becomes a problem if the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah gets involved. The Iranian-funded militia, based in southern Lebanon, has aimed more than 100,000 rockets at Israel. A war on two fronts would put the Jewish state in considerable danger.
Another temporal factor is international pressure on Israel. Even though Jerusalem is currently receiving countless signs of solidarity after the unprecedented terrorist attacks, experience shows that as the number of Palestinian civilian casualties increases, so too will appeals to stop hostilities.
The looming question that comes with a ground war is the possibility of whether Israel will occupy Gaza again.
Israel would have liked to have gotten rid of that question sooner, during the Six-Day War back in 1967. But no one wants Israel back in Gaza: not Egypt, nor the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Fatah, which ruled over West Bank areas, is almost as hostile to Hamas as it is to Israel. However, the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank is already proving a logistical, political and undoubtedly moral headache for Israel. It is only made possible because of the cooperation between the autonomous authority in Ramallah and Israel on security issues.
Longtime Israeli government advisor Jacob Nagel says that managing and providing for the Gaza region with two million people in tight quarters is not a job he would want to take on. “We can occupy Gaza for a while, but then hand it over to someone else,” says Nagel. And hand it over to whom? Even such an experienced strategist in the region doesn't have a clue.
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