Announced as imminent several days ago, after over 1 million inhabitants of the northern half of the Gaza Strip were given only 24 hours to flee south, the Israeli armed forces’ land onslaught on Gaza is yet to start at the time of writing. Despite attempts to convey a contrary impression, this delay reflects the fact that Israel’s political leadership and military command had no oven-ready plan for the invasion of Gaza on the scale they have been contemplating since the assault launched by Hamas on Oct. 7. The Israeli armed forces could hardly have been anticipating a reoccupation of Gaza, which they evacuated 18 years ago. The successive operations they launched against the strip in 2006, 2008-09, 2012, 2014 and 2021 — to mention only the largest ones — have all been limited, essentially consisting of bombing, along with limited ground assaults in 2009 and 2014. But the extraordinary scale and traumatizing effect of Oct. 7 made it impossible for Israel’s leaders to set a lesser goal than the total eradication of Hamas from Gaza and the “pacification” of the strip.
This is a formidable challenge, for not only does the invasion of such a densely populated territory involve urban warfare of a kind that is highly risky for the assailant, but it poses most acutely the problem of what to do with the conquered territory the day after. The issue is not only military, needless to say; it is also, even primarily, political. The tight interdependency of political and military considerations is especially clear in the present situation. The scale of violence that is unavoidable in the pursuit of Israel’s proclaimed goals will inevitably provoke a political fallout, which will impact the conduct of the war itself.
The most obvious factor in the equation is that Israel’s tolerance for losses among its troops is very limited, as illustrated most spectacularly by the exchange in 2011 of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive in Gaza, for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. This makes it impossible for the Israeli army to launch ground assaults under conditions that impose a heavy cost in soldiers’ lives, like the assaults that Russian troops (regular ones and/or those affiliated with the Wagner paramilitary service) have been launching in Ukraine since 2022 — not to mention extreme cases like Iran’s “human waves” during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. Thus, the Israeli army’s superiority is at its maximum in terrains such as Egypt’s Sinai desert or the Syrian Golan Heights, where buildings are scarce and firepower from a distance is decisive. Conversely, when Ariel Sharon, Israel’s minister of defense at the time, ordered his troops to enter besieged Beirut in early August 1982, they had to abandon the attempt the next day. It was only after the negotiated evacuation of Palestinian fighters from Beirut that Israeli forces managed to storm the city in mid-September. They withdrew by the end of the same month after a nascent Lebanese urban resistance movement started targeting them. [Continue reading…]