Israel’s anticipated ground offensive in Gaza could be catastrophic for civilian life and pose risks to Israeli forces, potentially widening the war with Iran-backed proxy groups. For the first time in years, Israeli forces will need to penetrate deep into Gaza, a coastal enclave where thousands of Hamas militants operate out of an underground network of tunnels and hide among civilians. The group’s elimination will necessitate a prolonged and intense battle against guerilla combatants who employ human shields.
The mission will be messy, taking time and potentially causing many casualties. Additionally, Israeli forces need to rescue 150 hostages, including some Americans and foreign nationals. A large-scale attack in Gaza may open a new front in the war, with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah warning it will respond if Israeli forces invade the coastal enclave. Israel is determined to respond decisively after Hamas killed over 1,300 people in a surprise attack last Saturday.
Israel has ordered the evacuation of over one million people in Gaza, sparking a humanitarian crisis. The blockade has been ongoing for years, with Israel cutting off its fuel and electricity. After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared war and vowed to eradicate the terrorist group. Israeli forces have spent days mopping up remaining militants and launching mass air strikes on Gaza, killing over 1,500 Palestinians.
However, if Netanyahu wants to keep his promise to purge Hamas, he will have to send troops deep into Gaza to deliver a final blow. Analysts believe the delay is part of Israel’s strategy to pressure Palestinian militants with rocket strikes and prepare for contingencies. The main reason may be to maximize intelligence gathering on hostages to know where to strike. Israel is attempting to locate and safely extract hostages from Gaza, who are likely hidden in various locations and subject to the whims of Hamas factions and individual leaders. Andrew, a principal at Pax Group, warns that Israel’s risky operation involves telegraphing an intention to destroy Hamas while keeping the hostages alive, potentially destroying necessary communications channels for negotiations.
Israeli operations into the Gaza Strip pose significant risks for both soldiers and Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. Israeli officials have sent mixed messages on the potential for civilian casualties, with President Isaac Herzog claiming an entire nation was responsible for the attacks on his country. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant assured civilians in Gaza City that soldiers would not intentionally shoot them to “destroy Hamas” and remove these phenomena from Gaza and the Earth, and requested them to move south.
International human rights advocate Knox Thames emphasized the need to avoid civilian casualties, but Hamas often embeds its fire platforms and organizational nodes within civilian areas, using them as a shield and using civilian deaths as propaganda. The last major conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups was a 50-day clash in 2014, involving 66 Israeli soldiers and over 2,000 Palestinians. Hamas may have anticipated an Israeli ground offensive in retaliation for its recent attack, as the military and political authority took over Gaza in 2007.
Israel has the capability to “massively degrade” Hamas’ military capabilities, but the goal of completely eradicating Hamas is near impossible due to its political support and the difficulty of wiping out a deeply rooted organization like ISIS. If Hezbollah is pulled into the war, it may prove even more problematic for Israel’s military than any trouble inside Gaza itself. If Israel were forced to fight against two militant groups backed by Iran, it would be stretched much thinner and less able to concentrate on its main objective, eradicating Hamas.
Hezbollah is far better equipped and advanced than Hamas, and the Lebanese militant group, an archenemy of Israel along with its creator Iran, has already begun firing rockets and artillery in nonstop tit-for-tat exchanges with Israel. Saab said the risk of a front opening with Hezbollah was very real, but added that Israel has little choice. If Israel communicates to Hezbollah that they are worried about opening a second front, it will set a precedent for the future, as they must show they can handle multiple fronts.