October 30, 2023
DARK WAR CLOUDS OF AN ISRAELI GROUND INCURSION into Gaza have been looming since Hamas launched a surprise attack on October 7, resulting in significant casualties among Israeli citizens and hostage-taking. Israel’s goal is to eliminate the threat posed by Hamas and ensure Israeli security. However, various factors—including international humanitarian efforts, negotiations for hostage release, internal divisions within Israel’s unity government and pressure from Washington—delayed the invasion.
But, after a long-delayed start, Israel’s Defense Minister, on Saturday (October 28, 2021), declared that the war had entered a “new phase” as Palestinians in the Gaza Strip witnessed the heaviest night of bombardment by Israel since its offensive against Hamas began three weeks ago. Gaza’s Hamas-led authorities said hundreds of buildings were demolished in air and artillery strikes as Israeli warplanes hit 150 underground targets, including tunnels and other infrastructure, and that at least 377 people were killed in the past 24 hours. Tanks and ground troops also clashed with Hamas fighters in the Strip.
THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES
Engaging in a ground incursion into Gaza could have significant negative consequences for Israel, potentially worse than the US response in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11. While I understand Israel’s desire to eliminate Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization, and its right to defend its citizens, it is crucial to consider whether this objective is not only understandable, but also strategically wise and feasible.
Destroying Hamas through military means without causing substantial harm to Palestinian civilians or further radicalization is not a viable option for Israel. The invasion of Gaza has resulted in a humanitarian, moral and strategic disaster, inflicting immense human suffering and undermining Israel’s long-term security. It is important to consider that the potential gains from such an operation may not outweigh the inevitable harm it would cause, even under the best of circumstances.
THE HAMAS MILITARY NETWORK
The Hamas military infrastructure is deeply intertwined with civilian areas, with an estimated 30,000-40,000 fighters blending among non-combatants. So, any attempt to eliminate Hamas in Gaza would necessitate a painstaking, block-by-block, building-by-building, and door-by-door approach in one of the world’s most densely populated urban environments. This would occur amidst a uniquely hostile population and against a highly motivated enemy that has been preparing for this conflict on their home turf for a significant period of time.
This urban battle would be tactically more challenging and result in higher Israeli military casualties than the US operation in Fallujah. Despite Israel’s efforts to protect civilian lives, it is evident that many innocent people are being killed, injured and displaced. Prior to October 7, 50% of Gazan Palestinians had already faced chronic hunger and 90% lacked access to clean water. Under siege and without a means to leave the territory, their situation has worsened.
MORE RADICALIZATION IN GAZA
The death and suffering of innocent civilians are almost certain to fuel radicalization among many Palestinians in Gaza and other areas, leading to increased support for Hamas and a heightened threat to Israel. At the very least, we can anticipate widespread anti-Israel demonstrations throughout the region, along with a higher probability of terrorist attacks. There may also be an upsurge in social unrest in the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan, which could potentially destabilize the broader region and trigger more extensive conflicts beyond Gaza. This could involve retaliatory actions from Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even Iran.
Simultaneously, as Israel’s offensive causes greater damage, its moral legitimacy and international reputation will nosedive. This has already placed Western support for Israel under scrutiny and strained Israel’s relations with the Arab nations and much of the Global South—including its normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia. Heightened resentment toward Israel among Arab populations is bound to create challenges even for the most authoritarian Arab governments, potentially prompting them to distance themselves from the US and Israel. This, in turn, has the potential of snowballing into a rise in extremist violence in the US and Europe.
NO CLEAR PLAN FOR ‘DAY AFTER’
The major challenge with a ground invasion is that, even if Israel were to successfully eliminate Hamas, there is no clear plan for Gaza’s future the ‘day after’. This issue mirrors the difficulties that the US faced after overthrowing governing regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not feasible for Israel to install the Palestinian Authority, as it is considered too weak and unpopular to replace Hamas.
It is also unlikely that Egypt or the Gulf states would be willing to assume responsibility for Gaza after years of avoiding involvement in the Palestinian issue. If Israel were to simply withdraw, there is a high probability that a resurgent Hamas, or a similar militant group, would fill the resulting power vacuum. This would mean that this ill-advised ground invasion could lead to a prolonged occupation and a challenging counter-insurgency with no clear victory in sight.
MILITARY SOLUTION NOT VIABLE
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a military solution is ultimately not viable. Hamas represents not just an organization, but also an ideology. So, even if its leadership and infrastructure were to be eliminated entirely, the movement would likely persist as long as the underlying political issues persist. To achieve long-term security, it is crucial for Israel to provide Palestinians with a credible path to peaceful self-determination, addressing their legitimate, long-time goal.
While acknowledging Israel’s right to self-defence and the obligation of its government to protect its citizens from harm, Israel’s Western allies feel it is imperative for the Zionist nation to respond militarily to the October 7 attacks by Hamas. A long-term ceasefire and de-escalation for Israel, much of the West widely believes, are both politically unfeasible and morally unacceptable as long as Hamas remains a threat to Israelis. Beyond immediate protection, Israel must also re-establish deterrence to prevent future, potentially more severe assaults and to create an environment where diplomacy can be considered in future. The perception of strength is essential to incentivize Israel’s adversaries to eventually seek a peaceful resolution.
PRECISION STRIKES ARE NEEDED
To achieve these goals without exacerbating the growing humanitarian crisis or creating additional challenges, Israel should refrain from further intensifying its ground invasion, which has already led to collective punishment for innocent Gazans, and may result in a prolonged occupation. Instead, it should concentrate on precision strikes targeting Hamas leaders, combatants and infrastructure. This strategy would succeed in weakening the terrorist organization’s capabilities, while minimizing both Israeli military and Palestinian civilian casualties.
The counter-terrorism campaign, as opposed to the upcoming regime change and counter-insurgency efforts, should be accompanied by increased pressure on Qatar to cease hosting Hamas’s political leaders. Additionally, negotiations, operations by the special forces for hostage rescue and immediate, sufficient humanitarian aid for Gaza civilians should be initiated. It is imperative to establish safe zones and refugee camps, provide humanitarian aid, evacuate more northern Gazans and negotiate for release of additional hostages.
HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE: UN
Unfortunately, more than 8,000 people have already been killed in the territory since October 7—half of them children, according to the Gaza health ministry—and the UN has warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding”. Israel’s retaliatory action, described by the White House as “emotionally driven rather than strategically planned”, has the backing of Prime Minister Netanyahu, his entire war cabinet and a significant portion of Israelis from various political backgrounds. While the military and intelligence services are acutely aware of the challenges and risks of a prolonged occupation, the leadership and the general public are determined to take decisive and immediate action regardless of the potential consequences.
With the significant influence that the US holds over Israel, the Biden Administration’s focus is on mitigating the damage. Privately, they have advised the Israeli government to undertake a swift operation, limit the areas of engagement and establish safe zones in northern Gaza to provide shelter and essential supplies, such as water, food, medicine and fuel to civilians. While a few relief trucks did manage to reach residents in southern Gaza recently, it was insufficient to meet the region’s minimum humanitarian requirements. Unfortunately, there is little optimism that Israel will agree to the “humanitarian pause” that the White House proposed.
To emphasize, Israel unquestionably possesses a sovereign and inalienable right to ensure its security. However, the current ground invasion into Gaza does not serve this purpose; it has the opposite effect, benefiting Israel’s adversaries and destabilizing the region, while not effectively addressing Israel’s strategic challenges. I sincerely hope that rational decisions prevail to prevent Israel from harming its own interests. But, unless an unforeseen positive turn of events occurs, the situation is likely to deteriorate significantly before any improvement can be expected.