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20 October 2023

Will Israel launch a ground invasion?

Urban warfare is hard and it’s unclear what Israeli forces would be able to achieve.

By Lawrence Freedman

After the crisis caused by being caught by surprise on 7 October, Israel now faces a second crisis as its government struggles to find a strategy to meet its stated objective of pushing Hamas out of Gaza and rendering the Palestinian militants incapable of further atrocities. Even before the uproar surrounding the tragedy at al-Ahli hospital, the dominant issue was becoming the dire situation in Gaza rather than the security of Israel. To understand how we have reached this point – so quickly – we need to go back to the way that Israeli strategy was set before its implications were fully appreciated.

The land war in Israel’s strategy

As the scale of the horrors of Hamas’s attack on 7 October were being realised, Israel was declared to be at war. That day, 300,000 reservists were called up and a military build-up began on the southern border in preparation for a major incursion into Gaza. Electricity and water were cut off to the Gaza Strip and a bombing campaign was begun to destroy as much as possible of Hamas’s infrastructure from the air. Soon Israel was telling Gazans to move from the north of the territory to the south, as UN agencies described a developing humanitarian crisis. Initially the time allowed was 24 hours, presumably reflecting the urgency of the moment. This was never going to be enough despite many Palestinians moving as fast as they could to the south, or searching for safe places, some of which have turned out to be very unsafe.

Yet after all this urgency, and talk of a coming land war, nothing has yet happened and Israeli officials are now suggesting that it is possible nothing will happen.

Because Israel started by talking up a ground attack it seemed as if it was almost obliged to launch one. There was an alternative – still to mobilise and prepare while insisting that such an attack was but one option under consideration. This is more or less where we are now, except that the government seems to have lost confidence, not only as it comes to appreciate the challenges of a land operation but also because of the perplexing situation in which it finds itself.

To say that the land war will be postponed indefinitely may be a prediction too far. The forces are still there, poised for action, and preparations continue, in terms of training and surveillance of likely routes of attack. The Israeli government knows that it already faces a popular backlash, following the intelligence failures that allowed the attack to happen. If, having talked up the promise of a decisive operation in response, it then steps back because it does not know how to fulfil it, that will lead to even more anger. But the backlash could be even greater if more lives are lost and more credibility squandered in an operation that does not achieve its war aims. This is why in the past, despite his rhetorical bellicosity, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always been wary of authorising such operations.

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[See also: Who is to blame?]

Since the strategy was set in motion on 7 October the composition of the government has changed. An opposition leader, Benny Gantz, has joined the government and sits in the war cabinet, along with two influential colleagues. These are Gadi Eizenkot – who, like Gantz, is a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces – and Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington from 2013 to 2021. In and around the government tensions are now reported about the obvious issues: what to do about Israeli hostages in Gaza, whose families have now formed their own pressure group, and what to do about the possibility of a second front to the north, with Hezbollah threatening to enter the war from Lebanon. One option reportedly considered, and dismissed, was to pre-empt Hezbollah by striking its military facilities first.

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A land offensive was always a daunting prospect. Urban warfare is hard. We have seen in Ukraine how tenacious defenders, taking cover in the rubble of battered and depopulated cities, can hold up an attacking force for a long time. I cannot think of a recent example of a properly defended built-up area falling quickly to an offensive, even one relatively well executed. Grozny in Chechnya, Aleppo in Syria, Mosul in Iraq, Bakhmut in Ukraine all took time, with the defenders only being shifted as they and their surroundings took a pounding from air and artillery strikes. In this case the Hamas fighters, numbering about 30,000, can operate out of a labyrinth of underground tunnels. The Israelis have experience of fighting in these conditions and have developed tactics to cope, but there is a trade-off between a methodical approach, slowly unpicking the defences, and the high casualties likely to be incurred if they rush. And the more they take their time the more international pressure to stop will grow.

The most important question is what is to be achieved. Assuming that Israel can fight its way to Gaza City, which would be the most likely objective of a major incursion, what then? It can destroy a lot of Hamas’s military infrastructure, but it is unlikely that it can remove its entire political leadership. Military commanders might stay to manage the resistance, and a number of them have reportedly already been killed, but many of the political figures will be away by now. Israel cannot install a new government because the fact that Israel was installing it would deprive it of legitimacy. And I have seen no Israeli analysts with any appetite for a prolonged occupation.

The Hezbollah threat has to be taken seriously. It is doubtful that the Shia group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, really wants a war, because of the impact on Lebanon, where Hezbollah is already widely blamed for many of the country’s recent problems. If intense fighting does develop inside Gaza, however, then he will come under enormous pressure to act. Hezbollah has a substantial army, though not one that would expect to last long if it crossed the border into Israel. But its arsenal of rockets is formidable – far more than Hamas’s. If it had orchestrated strikes with Hamas it would have stressed Israel’s Iron Dome air defences.

When Hamas opened its attack on 7 October with an intense barrage, the Iron Dome could not deal with everything, although it was never completely overwhelmed. Damage and casualties were caused by the attacks but they were mitigated by a combination of air defences and shelters. They did far less harm than the Hamas fighters who infiltrated southern Israel. Now replenished, the Iron Dome should be able to cope with a separate Hezbollah attack even though its missiles are more accurate and lethal. It would still pose a problem Israel can well do without, however.

[See also: Kenneth Roth: We should be conservative about accusations of genocide]

The crisis in Gaza

Linked to all of this is a desperate humanitarian crisis. Hamas uses Gaza as a base from which to attack Israel. It does not separate its military capabilities from civil society, so that they are harder to find and when found can only be attacked by risking civilian casualties. There is nothing Israel can do to degrade Hamas as a military entity – siege, air strikes, ground attack – that will not affect ordinary Gazans, whose lives are already miserable enough. The Gaza Strip is densely populated, poor, and has been under a blockade since 2007. Hamas’s priority has been its politico-military projects. This is why the territory is blockaded by Egypt as well as Israel (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly provided the government of Egypt until displaced by a military coup led by the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi).

Israel’s critics argue that the whole situation is the country’s historical fault, for which ordinary Gazans should suffer no more, and so Israel’s best course is to ease their plight and find a better way to coexist. The Israeli government argues that coexistence is impossible so long as Hamas is in charge of the Gaza Strip, and so Israel’s need for security means that it must take necessary action, even though this will add to the pain of civilians.

Those sympathetic to Israel’s predicament but anxious about its methods have advised Israel that it has a right to defend itself but must do so with the minimum harm to civilians. That, as we have seen, is easier said than done. To be sure of hitting only the right targets, even with accurate strikes, requires first-class intelligence and, as was evident in the way Israel was caught out on 7 October, the intelligence agencies’ local knowledge of the state of affairs inside Gaza is not as good as it was. Whether or not the detailed intelligence offered by Israel to demonstrate Islamic Jihad’s culpability for the hospital’s destruction defuses some of the condemnation coming Israel’s way, the sense of gathering chaos and catastrophe in Gaza has created pressure to end the siege and air strikes. Because of the intense reaction to the scenes from the hospital Joe Biden, the US president, has had to postpone his planned trip to Jordan, at least until after that country’s three days of mourning for the victims of the explosion.

Before this the starting point for international diplomacy had already been ending the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, not dealing with Hamas or even freeing the hostages. Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, tweeted on Monday: “Today, at our request, the United States and Israel have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organisations to reach civilians in Gaza, including the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way.”

The wording is telling. This was an American and not an Israeli initiative. The diplomacy to get this far has been substantial, for which Blinken deserves credit, with Egypt and Jordan both having to be persuaded that Israel’s aim was not to push Palestinians out of Gaza in the hope that they will go somewhere else; the Arab neighbours will only allow people to get out if humanitarian assistance can get in.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

Diplomatic next steps

When Biden arrived in Israel he seemed determined to push Israel towards a better strategy. After the Hamas attacks he provided a strong statement of solidarity, and moved warships in position as a warning to Iran not to get involved. All this was appreciated by Israelis. This is a typical Biden approach – steadfast support followed by lots of hard questions. He has made clear that he is wary of a land invasion and worried about the heavy loss of Palestinian life. Biden’s own experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left him sceptical when any general claims that he can solve a long-standing conflict by eliminating the enemy. American generals have been visiting their Israeli counterparts to assess the realism of their plans.

Meanwhile Biden is putting the US at the centre of a new diplomatic effort. This is what Barack Obama wanted to avoid. He disliked American entanglements in Middle Eastern affairs, in which every effort to solve one problem just seemed to make another one worse and where it was necessary to cultivate relations with dubious regimes. But the region keeps on drawing the US back in, because of the global consequences of more disorder, from high oil prices to a possible war with Iran.

And the US is still the power best positioned to orchestrate an effort to de-escalate this crisis. Whatever his faults, Biden does have diplomatic skills, as shown by his ability to maintain the coalition supporting Ukraine. The US is the only country that has relations with the key regional players, other than Iran and Hezbollah. But to talk with Arab leaders in a constructive way he may need to distance himself more from Israel’s current tactics, and he needs a possible plan around which to structure his conversations.

Absent from all this is Russia. It is worth noting that before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine it would have been hard to keep Vladimir Putin out of any international initiative. The Russian president had decent relations with Netanyahu, who has notably failed to give much support to Ukraine. Russia has sided more with Hamas, for after all Iran has now become an important arms supplier to Russia and getting at Israel can be a way of getting at the US. (For his part Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, was quick to condemn the Hamas attacks, possibly with an eye on US Congressional opinion as much as Israeli.) In the past Russia would have worked with the US to come up with an agreed UN Security Council resolution. But Putin is too distracted by his own war and lacks the capacity and the network for a serious political initiative of his own. Only Biden is in position to get concessions from the Israelis.

[See also: Does Qatar fund Hamas?]

Without much optimism we can describe the first steps if a diplomatic path is to be followed. From Israel a ceasefire, if only temporary, to allow the humanitarian crisis to be addressed and work to begin on how the crisis can be managed over the short term. Israel also has its own problems with hundreds of thousands of people moved away from the borders of Gaza and Lebanon, continuing rocket attacks, and a level of military mobilisation that is costly and disruptive to maintain. So long as the rockets keep on coming, and the hostages continue to be held, it will be difficult for Netanyahu to declare a ceasefire.

The real challenge is to find an agreed political formula for Gaza that at least reduces Hamas’s political and military role. The only possibility I can see for the medium term is one involving the Palestinian Authority (PA), as it is the obvious alternative government to Hamas, but this will require boosting its standing in the West Bank. This is for want of anything better. Up to now the main achievement of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the PA, has been his survival; otherwise he is associated mainly with corruption and ineffectuality. With riots in the West Bank, his standing has been further damaged. The PA therefore could not cope on its own but would be supplemented by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which currently provides many basic services in the Gaza Strip, and a contact group of key Arab states with relations with Israel, necessarily including Egypt and Qatar, which is the most likely intermediary with Hamas (a number of Hamas’s leaders live in Qatar).

This is the opposite direction to which the current Israeli government wished to move. As part of the gathering indictment against this government is the claim that Netanyahu preferred Hamas to the PA because it shared his rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu might now have little choice but to go along with a diplomatic process to explore options so long as he can claim that the conclusion is not predetermined, but at any rate his days at the top of Israeli politics are numbered. It will not take many defectors for his tiny parliamentary majority to vanish even before another election.

If Biden is unable to make any political progress, the war may continue on its expected course with Israeli troops entering Gaza in numbers, and the Israeli government seeking to impose its own solution on the Palestinian territories. But it is hard to see how that will get it to a substantively different situation than intensive diplomacy. As Gaza will never be run by a pro-Israeli politician, Israel might as well start thinking now about who else can bring stability to the territory.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Anatomy of a disaster]

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