The Israeli military has finally sent ground troops into the strip. The ground offensive—and its casualties, military and civilian—will decide the fate of Gaza and also the power balance in the Middle East. In part one, we look at the ground offensive and its potential risks. Part two will look at the geopolitics of the war for Israel, Palestine and the other players in the region.
The ground offensive begins…
After weeks of anticipation (and dread), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the beginning of Israel’s invasion of Gaza:
We have unanimously approved the widening of the ground invasion … Our objective is singular: to defeat the murderous enemy. We declared ‘never again’, and we reiterate: ‘never again, now’.
The rhetoric raised the stakes significantly—almost designed to prevent the possibility of an early cease fire. Netanyahu called the operation Israel’s “second war of independence.” And he warned of a “long and difficult war against Hamas.” What was missing: the ‘I’ word. He called it a “second phase” not an invasion.
A very worried Washington: The only remaining question is what this offensive will look like. Netanyahu refused to reveal any details: "I will not elaborate on when, how or how many. I will also not elaborate on the various calculations we are making, which the public is mostly unaware of and that is how things should be." But the military strategy is of great concern to Israel’s closest ally—the US. The reason: it will determine the number of civilian casualties.
Sweeping or piecemeal? The US has been doing its best to stall a ground offensive—even while assuring Tel Aviv of its unconditional support. It is worried most about the lack of “achievable military objectives.” But now that the deed is done, the New York Times reports that the Israelis have “improved and refined their plan” due to the US’ tireless efforts:
But current and former Pentagon officials [said]... that Israel appeared to be conducting a phased operation, with smaller reconnaissance units advancing into Gaza to locate Hamas fighters, clash with them and identify their vulnerabilities… the tactic also seemed to be a way for Israeli forces “to reduce or limit casualties as well as collateral damage” to buildings.
Since NYT’s sources are all from the US defence establishment, this may well be wishful thinking—rather than a prediction of what Israel will do. Then again, Vox says, “The ground assault appears to be a phased assault, in which the IDF will push increasing numbers of soldiers into Gaza over time to accomplish different military objectives.” We will have to wait to see if they stick to this supposed plan in the weeks to come.
Point to note: After being walloped for raising questions about the number of civilian deaths, the US National Security Advisor tried to strike a more ‘balanced’ note:
There is a burden, as I said before and as the President has said, on Israel to take the necessary steps to distinguish between Hamas, who does not represent the Palestinian people, and innocent Palestinian civilians… What we believe is that every hour, every day of this military operation, the IDF, the Israeli government, should be taking every possible means available to them to distinguish between Hamas—terrorists who are legitimate military targets—and civilians who are not.
This is the first time Washington has suggested Israel has any duty other than defending itself. And it may be due to angry noises made by its other close ally—the Saudis.
The Saudi response: While Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hardly been a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, Saudis themselves are firmly on their side. That’s why Riyadh promptly declared it "condemns and denounces any ground operations carried out by Israel due to the threat they pose to the lives of Palestinian civilians.” And it warned of "serious repercussions for the stability of the region.” Just hot air? Only time—and the death count—will tell. But the Saudi defence minister will be in Washington this week. We will know more about what Riyadh wants—and what the US may have to do to accommodate its Arab allies. Until now, Israel has been free to do whatever it wants—without consequences in the region.
Risky business of war
The end goal: We don’t know what the invasion will look like. But these are its stated objectives according to Defence Minister Yoav Gallant:
[T]he Israeli government’s goal is to create “a new security regime in the Gaza Strip, the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip, and the creation of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel and the residents of” the area surrounding Gaza.
All that talk about Hamas is a bit more focused: “Israeli leaders have publicly stated their goals are to destroy Hamas’s capacity to govern Gaza and attack Israel (which is not the same as destroying Hamas, of course), and to release the hostages.” No one knows if these constitute “achievable” objectives—as Washington or anyone else in the region defines that word. For all the big talk, this is a highly hazardous operation for Israel—and here are some reasons why:
#1: The terrain: For weeks, Israeli airstrikes have turned buildings in Gaza into rubble—as these ‘before’ and ‘after’ satellite images show:
All that destruction can now become a military hazard: “The rubble created by Israeli bombing also offers opportunities for small groups of fighters to find cover against Israeli troops, set up sniper positions, and plant booby traps.”
#2: Urban combat: Military strategists agree that fighting in cities is a great equaliser—and can overcome even a superior foe: “Many urban invasions—from the Middle Ages to modernity—have started off with a rapid advance, only to later bog down in districts that favour defenders.” This especially a worry for the Israelis:
A professional force like the IDF is not truly built for urban combat. It is designed to conduct combined arms manoeuvre warfare, overwhelming an enemy by concentrating speed and mass at critical points. It is built to be mobile, quickly transferring forces to areas the enemy doesn’t anticipate to break through defences and cause resistance to collapse.
But in cities, a larger force has to break down into smaller units to move slowly through narrow streets, and cannot overwhelm defenders as they would in forests, fields or deserts.
Previous wars show that urban battles are played out in small spaces—which can easily become a “killing zone.”
#3: Hamas: To be clear, Hamas isn’t some ragtag bunch of terrorists with weapons. It has at least 40,000 fighters—almost 5X more than Islamic State militants in the battle for Mosul waged by the Americans in 2016. That lasted nine months and resulted in 10,000 civilian deaths. The numbers will be exponentially higher in Gaza—more so since Hamas has had time to prepare for this fight. It has surely stocked up on food, fuel and other supplies—their own civilians be damned.
Also this: Gaza has over 20,000 people per square mile—one of the highest population densities in the world. Whether they support Hamas or not, they surely hate the Israeli military—making the strip an especially hostile territory for the IDF.
“In 2008", said a Hamas commander, reflecting on a brief but intense war over Gaza that winter, “the air strike and air surveillance [by Israel] took us by surprise…so we made strategic plans to move the battle from the surface to underground." By 2014 the group’s tunnelling effort employed 900 full-time staff, with each tunnel taking three months and an average of $100,000 to build, according to a study by the RAND Corporation
Hamas uses them to hide supplies and leaders—and a lot more:
Tunnel fighting is a nightmare. The former head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, compared it with the Islamic State’s use of a tunnel network in Mosul, Iraq—which was a fraction of the size of Hamas’s tunnels)—and warned, “It will be bloody, brutal fighting.” Hamas fighters may use the tunnels to pop up behind Israeli forces, ambushing them or even capturing more hostages. Israel has tried to bomb these tunnels, but they are difficult to find and destroy from the air.
OTOH: After being taken by surprise by the tunnels in the 2014 war, the IDF has worked very hard to neutralise the threat: “It has introduced new doctrine, techniques and specialised units. It has constructed its own version of Hamas tunnels for training.” And it has acquired high tech help in the form of robots. But none of these have been tested in actual warfare.
#5: Civilian deaths: As experts point out, Israel “has fought almost every war of its history in a race against time, seeking to achieve its goals before international pressure forces it to stop operations.” That may not be possible this time—even Netanyahu has warned it will be a long slog. But longer the urban battles grind on, the higher the body count. Losing soldiers risks making the war unpopular at home—remember, many in the IDF are civilian reservists.
OTOH, chalking up Palestinian deaths will create great international outrage—which Israeli can’t afford to ignore. It will certainly put great pressure on Tel Aviv’s Arab friends like UAE, Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia. But the US doesn’t want to deal with global outrage over dead children either—especially not Biden, especially not in an election year:
The humanitarian situation in Gaza could potentially affect Israel’s ability to fight this war, [military expert James] Jeffrey said, because public opinion about the humanitarian toll on Gaza, as well as the safety of the more than 200 hostages Hamas is holding there, “is very important for Washington.” Israel must, he said, “really care, as a strategic military issue, [about] civilian casualties and humanitarian issues because that will determine how long you have American support. They only have so much time, even if it’s an existential battle.”
The bottomline: The New York Times sums up the fallout of the ground offensive best:
Hamas and Israel have already engaged in a contest for sympathy that has spurred angry protests around the world and again made the Middle East a source of international anxiety. How both sides fight with arsenals of weapons in crowded cities will create an even more transformative test of competing narratives and willpower as long as the war lasts.
Vox has a good report looking at the ground offensive so far. Times of Israel has a detailed piece laying out the military risks of ground offensive. New York Times via The Telegraph has an excellent summary of the overall risks. Check out BBC News if you want detailed analysis of a ground offensive—and its odds of success. Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link) has an eye-opening report on ‘Little Gaza’—constructed by the Israelis to practise for the war. Associated Press looks at the last ground war fought in 2014. The other good pieces are sadly behind a paywall over at Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs.