Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza: not if, but when

Hasan Illaik, The Cradle, October 23, 2023 —

The question isn’t whether Israel will launch a ground war or not. Head of state Benjamin Netanyahu has already made clear that Tel Aviv’s battle with Gaza is a matter of ‘life or death’ for the occupation state.

The “Al-Aqsa Flood” battle launched by the Palestinian resistance on 7 October dealt Israel an unprecedented blow – in terms of human loss and its impact on the country’s military, intelligence, psychology, and deterrence.

In exchange for the blow it received, Israel set itself a goal of eliminating the Hamas movement. This goal was announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and the majority of Israeli officials.

Hence, any ceasefire without achieving the full elimination of Hamas means a pure Israeli loss.

And while the Israeli military has killed about 5,000 Palestinian civilians and caused massive damage to housing and infrastructure in its 17-day air assault on the Gaza Strip, it has neither restored the pre-7 October deterrence it enjoyed, nor is it capable of emerging victorious.

To date, Israel has not been able to seriously harm Hamas’ military structure, say Gaza sources who spoke to The Cradle. Any ceasefire today would therefore mean that Tel Aviv has publicly swallowed the losses it incurred in Operation Al-Aqsa flood: at least 1,400 dead Israelis, the destruction of its army’s Gaza division, and 250 captives held by its enemy inside Gaza. Together, these will deliver a massive blow to Israel’s hard-fought deterrence capacity. 

These prisoners will be used by the resistance to negotiate the release of more than 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention centers, in addition to lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip. Unless Tel Aviv is willing to sacrifice all these prisoners in its Gaza air blitz, the captives will play a big role in any settlement. Consider, for instance, that in 2011, Israel exchanged a single captured soldier for 1,027 Palestinian detainees.

Israel cannot exit this battle without fighting a ground war. Its army spokesman, Jonathan Conricus, told the Australian ABC that a ground war will occur unless Hamas complies with two conditions: surrendering without conditions, and releasing all Israeli prisoners. The Palestinian resistance outright rejects these conditions, and will continue to use its captives to pressure Israel to stop the war.

What’s taking so long?

Israel believes it needs a ground war to restore its deterrence with not only Gaza’s resistance factions, but also with adversaries in Lebanon, Iran, and the rest of the region. This ground war will focus on the northern Gaza Strip, including Gaza City and its environs, where the military and heart of the resistance is based. Eliminating Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip will inflict a defeat on the resistance that will take years, and perhaps decades, to recover from.

So then, why hasn’t the ground war begun yet? Eighteen days have already elapsed since Israel’s declaration of war, when it began to mobilize its 300,000 soldiers and reserve officers.

First, the occupation army knows well that the goal of “eliminating Hamas” is no easy feat. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that “eliminating Hamas is not possible” because it is an expression of an ideology and exists “in people’s hearts and minds.” Barak’s analysis is important – he isn’t just a former head of state, but importantly, a former Israeli army chief of staff and a former defense minister who led two battles in the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2012.

Second, the Palestinian resistance in Gaza has prepared itself well for the ground war. The last such operation conducted by the Israelis in 2014, in which 60 troops were killed and two went missing, ended in failure by not achieving any of its goals. At that time, the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) forces had nowhere near the quality of armaments, training, and numbers that they have today.

Furthermore, the network of strategic underground tunnels allegedly built by the Gaza resistance also developed significantly after 2014, allowing Hamas, PIJ, and others to move troops, weapons, and supplies around the territory unseen.

While the Israeli army seems prepared to bear greater human losses than it did in any previous war, largely because of Al-Aqsa Flood’s huge death toll, this does not mean that Tel Aviv can bear the cost of thousands more deaths, hundreds of destroyed armored vehicles, and the economic fallout of war.

The Israelis usually also try to avoid lengthy battles at all cost. In the case of a ground war, Tel Aviv recognizes that it may need to occupy the northern Gaza Strip for months, which will place severe hardship and pressure on Israel’s settlement community who will effectively become refugees.

Third, is Israel’s fear that its regional adversaries will open other battle fronts to relieve pressure on the resistance in Gaza. Both Washington and Tel Aviv are most wary of this development unfolding on the border with Lebanon.

But even the introduction of two US aircraft carriers into the East Mediterranean was unable to deter the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, from continuing its attacks on Israeli military positions along the Lebanese-Palestinian border. Since October 8, these borders have turned into daily clashes that have only escalated on both sides. ​​

So far, the Israeli army has lost most of the surveillance equipment that it amassed over years on that critical border. Hezbollah has also destroyed more than 15 tanks and 20 armored vehicles, in addition to the killing and wounding of dozens of Israeli troops. In turn, the resistance has lost 28 of its soldiers, along with four Lebanese civilians.

Palestinian resistance factions (Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had 5 casualties) have also participated in these Lebanese border operations, in addition to the “Islamic Group,” the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the “Lebanese Brigades for Resisting the Occupation,” which lost two fighters.

The situation on the Lebanese-Palestinian border is still being classified as “clashes,” despite the intensity of confrontations escalating each day. Tel Aviv expects the pace of these clashes to spike after the start of its ground operation in Gaza, which it fears will prevent the achievement of its goals in Gaza.

While the Resistance Axis refuses to divulge any of its plans, its sources indicate that escalation against the Israeli military will increase in correlation with developments in the Gaza war.

US presence & the Axis of Resistance

The fourth factor delaying the onset of Israel’s ground war is Washington’s need to secure its own regional military bases, assets, and interests, in advance of any regional escalation.

In recent days, US bases in Iraq and Syria have been bombed by Iraqi resistance factions, as Yemen’s resistance movement, Ansarallah, launched missiles and drones in the direction of Israel. When some of these projectiles were shot down by US defense systems, Ansarallah threatened to target Israeli ships in the Red Sea.

On the Iraqi-Jordanian border, Iraqi resistance factions are mobilizing thousands of supporters who have declared their intention to head to the occupied West Bank, via Jordan, if the aggression against Gaza continues.

To date, Israel’s western allies have amassed aircraft carriers and battleships; 2,000 American soldiers have landed in occupied Palestine; about 1,000 tons of western military aid has been airlifted to Israel; tens of thousands of munitions intended for Ukraine have been diverted to the occupation army; the Biden administration has announced the allocation of $14 billion in urgent aid to replenish Israel’s war coffers; the US has issued threats to the entire regional Axis of Resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran that it will enter the war if those forces attacked the Israeli army.

Together, all these factors have delayed the start of Israel’s ground war in Gaza, as Tel Aviv awaits the arrival of even more US and western forces into West Asia and the eastern Mediterranean – both to bolster Israeli military forces and to fortify US bases in the region.

The fifth and final reason for postponing Tel Aviv’s ground invasion, is to provide a short window for Qatari-led negotiations to gain the release of further captives held in Gaza, as revealed by Israeli Army Radio on 23 October. The news leak coincides with fears expressed by the Washington establishment that the region could catch fire, to the detriment of American interests, if Israel insists on pursuing its Gaza ground war until the very end.

Delaying the ground war does not, however, mean canceling it. In 2014, Israel’s ground attack began two weeks after the war’s onset, although the number of Israeli reservists called up was no more than 40,000 – one-seventh of the 300,000 troops mobilized today.

Israel also faces another problem that it cannot solve: the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the northern Gaza Strip who refuse to comply with Israeli orders to abandon their homes.
All these factors pose a potentially insurmountable challenge for Tel Aviv. They each conspire to thwart Israel’s plan to destroy Hamas and re-establish the deterrence capacity it lost on 7 October. While the occupation state may win many battles ahead, it cannot win the war with so many uncontrolled variables in the air.

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