Analysis

Israel has shunned ground operations for decades. Is it still looking for a way out?

As questions arise about the fact that the tanks are still inside Israel 17 days after the Hamas massacre, this war so far looks like the inconclusive operations that preceded it

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli soldiers move a tank at a staging area near the border with Gaza Strip, in southern Israel on October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israeli soldiers move a tank at a staging area near the border with Gaza Strip, in southern Israel on October 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Israeli leaders have said in no uncertain terms that this war will only end when Hamas no longer runs the Gaza Strip.

“It’s only the beginning,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the first week of the war. “Our enemies have only just begun to pay the price. I won’t detail what will come next. But I’m telling you, it’s only the beginning.”

“We will destroy Hamas, and we will win,” he pledged.

US President Joe Biden, speaking publicly and definitively more than a week after Hamas massacred 1,400 people across southern Israel, agreed that Hamas must be eliminated.

IDF commanders are reportedly champing at the bit, leaking to journalists that a ground invasion has to begin soon.

And the Israeli people wouldn’t accept anything less after the savagery they witnessed on October 7 and the trauma it has produced, given the political and military leadership’s failure to protect civilians in their homes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference in Tel Aviv, Oct. 17, 2023. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

Yet, 17 days into the war, Israel’s response looks similar to the long string of inconclusive military operations that for years allowed the Hamas threat to grow, then explode across the border into southern Israel. So far, almost the entire IDF response has been in the form of fire from the air force and artillery.

The much-anticipated ground invasion, meanwhile, has been pushed off far longer than seemed possible after Hamas invaders butchered 1,000 civilians and took hundreds more hostage.

Some of the frustrating delay reportedly comes from White House pressure to allow more time to get hostages out. There is also certainly some logic to making sure troops are fully trained and equipped, and that Hamas defenses are softened up, before sending IDF divisions into the fight.

But given Israel’s fighting record over the past 30 years, there may be another factor at play — a deep reluctance to order IDF ground troops into battle.

The rise and fall of ground maneuver

In the country’s early decades — when it won its famous victories — the IDF was an aggressive force once unleashed in war. With no strategic depth, Israel sent its ground forces to maneuver hard into enemy territory, quickly moving the fight away from Israeli population centers to deliver decisive defeats to adversary forces.

A platoon of Israeli armored cars is seen moving through the southern Sinai, Egypt, during Israel’s invasion of the Sinai in the Six-Day War, June 7, 1967. (AP Photo)

That approach was stunningly effective. Arab divisions were unequivocally devastated on the battlefield, and captured territory was the basis for peace talks with the leaders of the hostile Arab coalition, which saw members drop out with each defeat at the hands of Israeli ground forces.

But the ground maneuver concept began to crumble in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Though that conflict still ended with a classic battlefield victory by Israel’s ground forces, unexpected losses by IDF tanks, and an unprecedented loss of faith in leaders sending young men into battle, spurred Israelis to begin to reconsider whether risking their lives in pitched battles was as necessary as they had been told.

The seeds of change were planted, even though in the ensuing years the IDF doubled down on ground forces. The largest ever IDF ground army pushed into Lebanon in 1982, but the bitter debate in Israeli society over a war that was seen as one of choice added to questions over how much it should have to sacrifice in wartime.

It also pointed at the way forward. In the now-legendary Mole Cricket 19 operation on June 9, 1982, the IAF shocked the Syrians and their Soviet patrons by destroying the SAM anti-aircraft array in the Bekaa and downing around 25 Syrian planes while losing none of its own. The air force’s success — which relied on innovative applications of new technologies — combined with the disappointing performance of the ground forces, opened the door to a new concept.

Israeli troops in Lebanon, 1982. (Michael Zarfati / IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The growing debate in Israel took place at the same time that US military thinkers were relying on their technological advantage to deal with the problem of the Soviet numerical advantage in Europe. Instead of meeting Russian armor head-on, the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA, envisioned using precision missiles and improved intelligence capacity as the keys to devastating enemy forces. The stunning US victory over the large Iraqi army in 1991 underscored to Israel the potential for RMA to offer a means of victory without losses to ground forces.

Looking to avoid costly ground wars, and to make full use of Israel’s technological advantage over its enemies, the IDF pursued a conceptual revolution in which resources streamed toward the intelligence and the air force.  Israeli planners envisioned using precision missiles and improved intelligence capacity as the keys to devastating enemy forces, enabling the military to shut down the enemy military system by striking at key nodes while incurring minimal losses.

It also would obviate the need to capture ground, seen increasingly by Israel as a liability in the wake of the First Palestinian Intifada and amid the long occupation of southern Lebanon by the IDF. “The possibility that the IDF would go again into Lebanon in order to defeat a terror organization wasn’t a real possibility at any stage after the withdrawal to the security zone in 1985,” wrote Moshe “Chicho” Tamir, a former brigade commander in southern Lebanon, in 2005.

Ground maneuver, formerly the cornerstone of IDF war plans, disappeared from major Israeli conflicts, with commanders exhibiting an aversion to ordering ground troops into the fight. The two large-scale operations against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the 1990s — Accountability and Grapes of Wrath — featured only artillery and aerial attacks and absolutely no ground maneuver.

Yair Golan as a colonel in southern Lebanon in the 1990s (Yoav Gallai/IDF)

Advances in stealth technology, UAVs and electronic warfare in the 1990s and early 2000s led some Israeli planners to entertain ideas of a “perfect war,” according to Itai Brun, former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Analysis Division. Though they might not have been explicitly cognizant of it, security chiefs seemed to be working under the belief that Israel could carry out campaigns with no casualties to its forces and no civilian deaths on the other side.

The threat that preoccupied the IDF at the time, the Second Intifada, was handled  by small infantry units carrying out raids and arrests of Palestinian terror suspects, along with airstrikes on terror leaders or rocket launchers within cities.

The major exception was Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, in which IDF forces retook Palestinian cities and fought pitched battles against massed gunmen. But that operation, not coincidentally Israel’s last decisive victory in a campaign, was seen as relevant only to the unique conditions in the West Bank, and didn’t lead to a renewed appreciation for classic ground maneuver in subsequent IDF documents.

An IDF soldier stands guard in Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of innovative technology and budget increases went to the air force and intelligence units, while the IDF ground forces — increasingly seen as irrelevant to contemporary operations — suffered through a lost decade.

Separation  

Over the same years, there was also a shift away from holding enemy territory, detaching unilaterally rather than subjecting soldiers to a slow bleeding by guerrilla forces and damaging Israel’s standing on the world stage.

Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in 2000. In the ensuing years, Israeli leaders had no desire to get stuck again in the Lebanese mud by using ground forces against Hezbollah, or to countenance the idea that pulling the troops out may have been a mistake. Instead, the idea was to hold Syria accountable if Hezbollah attacked Israel.

“I hope no one will dare, and I think that whoever dares will have to pay a price… I really don’t recommend to anyone to try us,” prime minister Ehud Barak cautioned Syria and its allies ahead of the pullout.

Then-prime minister Ehud Barak, right, with then-prime minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres in New York in 2000. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Israel took a similar step in Gaza, pulling out all civilians and troops in the 2005 Disengagement. Prime minister Ariel Sharon warned Palestinian terrorists not to take the withdrawal as a sign of weakness: “If they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever.”

The Gaza withdrawal, and the security fence that started going up in the West Bank at the same time, reflected an Israeli desire to solve its conflict with the Palestinians by simply separating from them, having given up on the chances for a negotiated peace.

Deterrence

Since the Disengagement, Israel’s operations have increasingly focused on deterrence based on firepower. The 2006 Second Lebanon War began as previous operations had, with massive airstrikes. But as it became clear that the air force couldn’t stop Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel, ground forces were introduced gradually and haltingly.

“The thing that was seared into my memory was the difficulty the decision-makers exhibited in launching a ground maneuver,” remembered Gen. Guy Tzur, then commander of Division 162.

After the 2006 debacle, there were signs that maneuver was returning. The 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza saw significant ground maneuver by IDF infantry and armored forces.

Israeli tanks at the staging ground outside Gaza on December 29, 2008, the third day of Operation Cast Lead (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)
Israeli tanks at a staging ground outside Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, December 29, 2008. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

Then, the Iron Dome anti-rocket system was deployed in 2011, giving Israeli leaders cover to think in defensive terms, and not deal with the root of the terrorist army threat over its borders.

After the advent of Iron Dome, Israel fought two more major conflicts against Hamas. In the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, the IDF relied entirely on stand-off firepower and did not send troops in, while the limited ground advance in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge was part of a defensive effort against tunnels, and was not meant to defeat Hamas in the field.

Smaller rounds of conflict — in 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023 — featured exclusively fire from air, sea, and artillery, and no ground incursion.

These deterrence operations were marked by an opening air attack, days or weeks of air and artillery strikes, then a ceasefire accompanied by assurances from Israeli leaders that deterrence was restored.

Brig. Gen. Eran Ortal (Courtesy)

Some senior IDF officials warned publicly that deterrence operations were a road to perdition.

Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai and Lt. Col. Eran Ortal wrote in an official IDF journal over a decade ago that the conflicts were part of a predictable and worrying pattern: Israel’s air force carries out an opening strike that kills a senior commander and temporarily knocks the enemy off balance; Israel decides to continue the operation; the IDF then struggles to keep pressure on the enemy, which recovers and fights back; Jerusalem turns to the international community to help bring the fight to a close; Israel enjoys a limited period of quiet before the next round.

The 2013 article came out in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense — a weeklong fight that started with an airstrike on Ahmed Jabari, the second-in-command of Hamas’s military wing.

A decade later — and only five months before the Hamas massacre — the Netanyahu government launched Operation Shield and Arrow by taking out three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad officials, sparking five days of intense fighting and zero hopes that it would be the last round between the two sides.

Illustrative: An Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 27, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The strike eliminated Khalil Bahtini, PIJ commander for the northern Gaza Strip, who had taken over for Tayseer Jabari, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in August 2022 at the opening of another Gaza operation, Breaking Dawn. Jabari had replaced Hussam Abu Harbeed, killed by Israel during a 2021 operation, who himself had replaced Baha Abu al-Ata, struck by Israel’s air force at the start of Operation Black Belt in 2019.

Years of airstrikes, rockets, assassinations and brief bouts of tense calm were evidence for many that the IDF has been stuck in a paradigmatic rut that has placed long-term security — let alone victory — out of reach.

Return?

Still, in the years leading up to the 2023 Hamas onslaught, there were signs that the IDF was waking up to the fact that it was not providing answers to threats from Gaza and Lebanon.

Under the previous IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi, the IDF released two important documents, “The Momentum Multiyear Plan” and its conceptual underpinning, “The Operational Concept for Victory.”

The two publications showed that the IDF recognized that there was a serious problem, and that it must change conceptually and materially.  They provide for a significant shift in the way the IDF sees both itself and its adversaries. And at the heart of the documents lies the IDF’s understanding that reactive measures are insufficient to confront contemporary challenges.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks during a ceremony on the second night of Hanukkah, at the Nativ program on the Kiryat Moriah campus in Jerusalem, on November 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

They shed the language of insurgencies, guerrillas, and asymmetric warfare that was especially in vogue in the early aughts after the 9/11 attacks and US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the Kohavi-led documents speak about well-trained, capable “rocket-based terror armies.”

The documents accept the fact that deterrence operations not only don’t remove the threat, but also “inoculate the enemy against IDF power by gradually exposing him to limited doses of our capabilities,” according to Ortal, whose ideas were central to the new concept. The deterrence operations also told the enemy that his moves were having an effect on Israel “and that he should continue to develop them,” Ortal noted.

The new concept recognized the need for decisive victory through ground maneuver. But it proposed a new type of maneuver, one that emerges from the understanding that territory is no longer the asset Israel’s enemies are trying to protect. Instead, it is their ability to maintain their rocket fire on Israel’s home front that must be suppressed.

The emerging ground forces concept would take advantage of new opportunities offered by civilian technologies, especially artificial intelligence, miniaturization, sensors, automation, and big data. This, in the Kohavi vision, would allow Israeli ground forces — maneuvering once again in Gaza or Lebanon — to utilize their proximity to stealthy enemy forces and launchers to locate and destroy them after they are forced to reveal themselves.

But the concept had been meeting resistance before the Hamas onslaught. The IDF is slow to adopt organizational changes, which take years to filter through the ranks, much like any other large institution.

Though its leaders pay lip service to maneuver and victory, operationally the IDF has continued to cling to the deterrence concept and the assumptions underpinning it.

A Merkava tank drives past a fence near Kibbutz Be’eri, close to Israel’s border with Gaza, on October 20, 2023, in the aftermath of a devastating onslaught by Palestinian terrorists on October 7. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

The fact that Ortal and Yadai, both now generals, had continued to call in print for the change to occur was a sign that they still saw plenty of reason to worry.

“Ostensibly, the IDF has agreed to this road map,” they wrote last October. “But we are more focused on the bank of targets [for the air force] than we are on the question of victory itself. In order to confront the new challenge, we must wean ourselves off the habits we have become used to for more than three decades.”

Right now as these lines are written, these are indications that the IDF feels itself ready to go into Gaza and is straining to do so, but is being held back by Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

By all indications, we will very soon have a much clearer picture of whether the IDF can still maneuver in enemy territory… or whether Israel’s leaders even have the stomach to order such an operation. For now, soldiers wait anxiously in staging grounds, Hamas continues to prepare its defenses, and the impatience and concern of Israeli civilians grows.

Most Popular
read more: