The death toll in Israel from the October 7 Hamas attacks rose to 1,200 on Wednesday, according to Israeli officials, who said the final figure is likely to be higher.
The rising casualty count reflects bodies discovered by Israeli soldiers searching besieged villages near Gaza. The New York Times published a collection of verified videos to accompany their on-the-ground reporting. Grisly scenes of indiscriminate murder underscore the depravity of what can only be described as an up-close massacre. Infants weren’t spared.
The Times also published a play-by-play account of how Hamas evaded Israeli’s security apparatus. In it, Ronen Bergman and Patrick Kingsley described photos shared by Israeli officials: Hamas ambushed “at least” four military bases and shot “scores” of Israeli soldiers “as they slept in their dorms.” Some of the soldiers, the Times said, were “still wearing their underclothes.”
Some kind of ground operation in Gaza is seen by most observers as a foregone conclusion. From what I understand, the Israeli public and Gazans expect no less. Israel continued to mass forces near the border in preparation for the next phase of an operation which Benjamin Netanyahu has in no uncertain terms suggested will spell the end of Hamas.
The problem with such an operation is threefold.
- It’ll be urban warfare of the worst sort. It’ll be impossible to tell who’s a combatant and who isn’t, there are tunnels and hiding places everywhere and although some kind of Israeli victory is probably assured, it’s not clear what kind, nor is it clear how the IDF would ever exit the enclave. That raises the specter of a forever occupation. The history of forever occupations in Muslim territories is spotty, to put it politely. It doesn’t help in this case that the locals already view the Israelis as occupiers and cruel jailers.
- It’s entirely possible that with the IDF mired in a nightmarish quagmire in Gaza, Hezbollah would attack Israel from Lebanon. Were that to happen, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the US would step in, probably with air support, to ensure the IDF isn’t overrun. The US still has special operators in Syria, and although the Pentagon probably wouldn’t acknowledge ground troops, some of them would almost surely be moved to Israel.
- Gazans would broadcast any Israeli ground operation to the world on social media, and the optics would be bad. Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a warning in that regard on Wednesday. “Disproportionate and unconscionable attacks on Gaza could push Israel to an unexpected and unwanted position in the eye of world public opinion,” he said. Leaders around the Middle East would likely come under immense public pressure to distance themselves from Israel if any Gaza ground operation resulted in mass civilian casualties, which it invariably would.
But, as noted here on several occasions since the attacks, not going into Gaza isn’t an option either. The militants, the weapons, the ammunition and probably the hostages, are underground. There’s a limit to the effectiveness of airstrikes in Gaza. At some point, you’re just bombing the same rubble you already bombed with nothing to show for it besides dead civilians. As of Wednesday, some 500 children were dead in Gaza from four days of Israeli airstrikes.
Gaza will soon be without all electricity. An official from the Palestinian energy authority said the enclave’s sole power plant would only be able to operate for another 12 hours. I’m sure cutting off the lights sounded like a good idea to the IDF, but you can be sure Hamas planned for that, and might even believe it’ll be to their benefit. No lights means that in a ground invasion, Israeli soldiers will be playing hide and seek with a notoriously resourceful, ruthless militant group in a densely populated urban setting in the dark.
To say Israel has “no good options” (as one media outlet put it, while previewing a prospective ground campaign in Gaza) would be to materially understate the case. It’s possible, although exceedingly unlikely, that the IDF could “lose” in Gaza, with the scare quotes there to denote that “lose” in this context would mean conceding that the only path to victory would go through total annihilation of the territory (and everybody in it) via the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, which Israel surely has. Plainly, that’s not an option.
Remember: The US “lost” that way in Vietnam. And in a similar way in Afghanistan. And in Iraq too. The US also “lost” in Somalia. It was that fight (the Battle of Mogadishu) and the subsequent withdrawal of US troops, which emboldened Osama bin Laden.