Why Israel has been reluctant to launch a full-scale ground operation in Gaza

It would take one to two years to destroy terrorist infrastructure, and Israel’s options after toppling Hamas are all bad, say observers. But a more limited operation is possible.

Israeli soldiers seen near IDF tanks stationed near the Israeli border with Gaza on May 6, 2019. Credit: Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
Israeli soldiers seen near IDF tanks stationed near the Israeli border with Gaza on May 6, 2019. Credit: Aharon Krohn/Flash90.

In the past year alone, Gaza’s terror factions fought eight rounds of conflict with Israel, signaling a collapse of the four-year period of quiet. Yet despite the frequent flare-ups, Israel stayed clear of launching a ground operation so far.

Southern Israeli cities and towns repeatedly came under mass rocket attacks, yet Israel made due with air power in its responses, unleashing waves of precision airstrikes. The Israeli Air Force destroyed assets and killed operatives of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but when the dust settled, nothing significant had changed.

There were times when it looked like a ground operation was close. During escalations in November and, most recently, in May, the Israel Defense Forces stationed infantry, armored corpse and artillery units around Gaza, preparing the option of an offensive—an option that never materialized. The move was seen by many as a flexing of muscle, rather than a real intent to move into the Gaza Strip.

“The question is always: For what do we go to war?” asked Gabi Siboni, director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “If you look at the IDF’s 2018 strategy, it has two types of approaches: decisive victory on the one hand, and prevention and influence on the other.”

So far, the Israeli cabinet has not instructed the IDF to launch an operation aimed at decisive victory, which would involve a substantial change of the strategic situation. Instead, the cabinet ordered limited maneuvers, aimed at operations that “do not shatter the status quo,” noted Siboni.

Now, he argued, Israel has to decide where it is going in respect to its belligerent neighbor. This means setting strategic objectives and deciding ahead of time whether Israel seeks a substantial change, which would mean toppling the Hamas regime.

“What does this mean? Ending Hamas rule? Setting up [Israeli] military rule in Gaza? We have to state what we want,” said Siboni.

The option of fully occupying Gaza and destroying its terrorist infrastructure would require a year to two years of combat operations, he assessed. “It can be done, but it takes a major effort. Let’s say we do it in two years and destroy the military infrastructure in Gaza. A few attacks may remain, but the combat comes to an end. Now what do we do? Stay there and set up a military government?”

That option has long-term implications for Israel, which would, under such a scenario, become Gaza’s new ruler and take responsibility for the Strip’s services for nearly 2 million civilians.

The unattractiveness of that option has been sufficient to make Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and military chiefs stay far away from ordering a full-scale military invasion of Gaza.

A second alternative that has been brought up by observers is to bring in international forces to control Gaza, instead of Hamas, following an operation. “My assessment is that this is doomed to fail,” said Siboni. “If you look at all past experiences and combine them, we see that international elements do not have the motivation to act. This option has no value in my eyes.”

It matters little whether the international forces would be Arab, NATO or others, he added.

Another alternative would be to bring in the Palestinian Authority to rule Gaza. But the P.A. “riding into Gaza on Israeli spears” is also likely to prove a nonstarter, warned Siboni. “I struggle to see how they can do it if they don’t want to get their hands dirty. If Gaza turns into Judea and Samaria, we’d have a new status quo, but this would require giving full freedom of operation to the IDF, like it has in Judea and Samaria.”

‘There are no good alternatives’

Without the IDF launching nightly counter-terrorism raids, as it does in the West Bank, the P.A. would not be likely to survive as a regime in Gaza.

As a result, all of the options linked to decisive victory over Hamas “would need real courage because their significance is difficult, no matter how you look at it,” said Siboni.  “Decision-makers could say, ‘Let’s invade and look for a solution in five years because the situation became intolerable.’ But they have to think very seriously because there are no good alternatives.”

On the other hand, continuing the pattern of operations aimed at punishing Hamas and PIJ, without toppling Hamas’s rule, would be easier to conduct and would not necessarily have to be as limited as past responses.

“Israel could do more of the same, but use the next escalation to deliver a very painful blow,” he said. “The objective would be not just to destroy immediate terrorist infrastructure.”

Instead, Israel could threaten the survivability of Hamas’s leadership. “I assume that at a certain stage, the leadership will say ‘stop. We do not want to commit suicide.’ This leaves open the option of [an Israeli] withdrawal.”

Putting the existence of Hamas’s leadership under threat and launching much harsher responses before withdrawing from Gaza is the most realistic option, assessed Siboni.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, told JNS that “keeping a weakened Hamas in power is the best of the bad options. We have to think in terms of conflict management, not resolution.”

Israel has no better realistic options than living with Hamas as the governing body in Gaza, he assessed.

“Only a severe and sustained change for the worse justifies the heavy losses a ground operation would incur,” stated Freilich.

“A ground operation which will solve nothing will cost tens or hundreds of lives,” he cautioned. “Unless there is a serious diplomatic objective based on a settlement with the P.A., the objectives remain limited to a return to the status quo.”

Past Netanyahu governments have been aware of this fact, which is why they have not launched an operation to destroy Hamas, despite their rhetoric, argued Freilich.

Should this change, he added, and Israel would feel forced to launch a major ground operation, it will need “U.S. support and to the extent possible, Egyptian, Arab and international support.”

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