As Israel prepares massive ground campaign, the end game remains opaque

After October 7 horror, Netanyahu’s cabinet is determined to bring Hamas down, but confounding questions will have to be answered

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli tanks head toward the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel on October 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli tanks head toward the Gaza Strip border in southern Israel on October 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

It seems inevitable that Israel will embark on a massive ground operation in Gaza in the coming days, potentially its largest in four decades.

Israeli leaders haven’t exactly tried to hide what’s coming. The IDF said on Saturday it was finalizing its preparations for a “coordinated attack from the air, sea and land.”

The Israeli Air Force has been flying top ground forces commanders over the Gaza Strip to familiarize them with the territory and provide them a bird’s eye view of the territory in which the military is expected to maneuver, The Times of Israel learned on Sunday. Brigade and battalion commanders were shown, from combat helicopters, where ground troops are expected to enter and advance during the looming ground offensive.

“Our responsibility now is to enter Gaza, to go to the places where Hamas is preparing, acting, planning, launching. Attack them everywhere, every commander, every operative, destroy infrastructure,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said while visiting soldiers in southern Israel. “In one word: win.”

The strategic goals of operation are well-defined. According to the Kan public broadcaster, a document has been circulating among the war cabinet laying out four war aims: toppling the Hamas government and destroying its military capabilities, removing the terror threat from the Gaza Strip on Israel, maximum effort to solve the hostage issue, and defending Israel’s borders and its civilians.

The operational level of the invasion — where the tactical military actions are organized into a logic meant to serve the strategic goal — is more murky.

Palestinians visit an exhibition of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Palestinian Hamas terror group, during the Eid al-Adha festival in Gaza City, on June 30, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/ Flash90)

An invasion that threatens Hamas’s survival is more likely to ensure that the hostages never return than convince Hamas to free them. Israeli hostages and bodies that have come back to Israel after being held by Hamas and Hezbollah in the past have only been released after a prisoner deal in which Israel frees a large number of terrorists.

If the IDF invasion goes well, some rogue Hamas operatives could conceivably try to save themselves by offering hostages, but there is unlikely to be a widespread release ordered by Hamas.

But the main aim of the war is the first one — toppling Hamas and ending its rule over the Gaza Strip. By what mechanism would aggressive ground maneuver end Hamas rule over the Gaza Strip?

The New York Times reported that the operation will focus on Gaza City as the hub of Hamas rule. And the IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari, urging residents to evacuate, warned on Saturday night that the IDF would be striking Gaza City “widely” and “soon.” This would suggest that Israel intends to chop off the head of the Hamas snake, believing that the rest of the body will break apart without its senior leadership and core infrastructure.

Smashing Hamas initially could go relatively smoothly as its infrastructure is uprooted and thousands of its fighters are killed. Israel will place a particular emphasis on killing Hamas’s top leaders — Yahya Sinwar and military wing commander Mohammed Deif. Top IDF officers have called them “dead men walking.”

But as the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, knocking enemy groups to the ground doesn’t mean they’re down for the count.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of the Hamas terror group, hosts a meeting with members of Palestinian factions, at the Hamas president’s office in Gaza City, on April 13, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)

It could take an extended occupation of the Strip to locate Hamas leaders and fighters and to destroy their military capabilities. But that opens up IDF soldiers to guerrilla attacks and responsibility over a restive population, which Israel has tried desperately to avoid ever since extracting itself from the Lebanese mud in 2000 after a 15-year occupation.

And there is also the question of the IDF’s maneuver capabilities. Though much has been said publicly since the 2006 Second Lebanon War about restoring the IDF’s ability to conduct major ground operations, Israeli leaders have largely shied away from ordering such incursions. Instead, they relied on deterrence operations primarily from the air, something that October 7 showed was a spectacular failure.

And of course, the question Israel will have to face if it does indeed dismantle Hamas as an organization is who runs the Strip now? Having withdrawn unilaterally in 2005, Israel certainly doesn’t want to reassume responsibility for 2 million poor and hostile civilians. The Palestinian Authority, unpopular everywhere, can’t be seen as riding to power in Gaza on Israeli tanks.

And no international organization can or will take over.

Iran will move to fill any vacuum left by Hamas’s absence, as will unaffiliated jihadist groups.

That difficult question will have to be answered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet. Until that time, the IDF must show that it knows how to design a campaign that brings about its ambitious war aims, and that it has built a force that is capable of carrying out that campaign.

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