Can Israel ‘Win’ A Ground War In Gaza?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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16 thoughts on “Can Israel ‘Win’ A Ground War In Gaza?

  1. Given the type of man and leader that Netanyahu is, he is going to try to produce a show of force that nullifies his humiliation and failure as a leader. Of course he himself won’t be doing any of the showing of force, he’ll rely on his constituents whom he has already failed, to do the showing for him. As soon as he deploys this ground assault the process of digging the hole he’ll never be able to get out of begins. He will cover one humiliating defeat with another at the expense of more civilian lives, Israeli lives, and the credibility of the nation of Israel. This is why you don’t vote for strongmen, they react instead of respond. I think all of us have the sinking feeling that this won’t end well for anyone.

  2. One of the lessons of World War II was that to defeat an implacable enemy (like the Germans and the Japanese) the Allied nations had to kill people by the millions. But civilized people, and particularly a country founded on the notion that all people are created equal and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, have no stomach for that. More wars will be “lost.”

  3. A classic situation of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I remain hopeful that behind the Biden administration’s unequivocal rhetorical support for Israel, the administration is using its back channels and considerable leverage to urge restraint on the Israelis.

  4. Karma sucks when you are an occupier and an apartheid state. Not so good for their enabler either. sorry, USA USA. I saw a wrecked Abraham Honda Accord for sale on Craig’s List, $300 today…….

  5. I have no real insights here so probably shouldn’t comment. But I am wondering how many people feel as conflicted as I do that a well-supported and militarily strong “ally” led by an autocrat-ish leader (Israel) deserves our unwavering support against a comparatively weak enemy/threat, while another ally who we not only helped weaken (thru disarmament) but who also boasts a democratically-elected leader (Ukraine) is seen as a futile money pit as it tries to maintain its sovereignty versus an invasion from an autocrat-led superpower that we used to consider our foremost enemy. If someone has a quick cure from my cognitive dissonance, I would surely appreciate it.

    1. You’re not wrong. There’s nothing inconsistent about being anti-massacre and also anti-oppression. Gaza is a de facto prison. 2 million people are being held in a giant ghetto. That’s just a fact. Stating that fact doesn’t make me pro-massacres, nor am I suggesting that being forced to live in an open-air prison justifies any and all means to change the situation.

      I mean, I guess I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that if I lived in Gaza, I wouldn’t resort to wanton acts of violence against innocent people as a way to express my frustrations. I might do some crazy things aimed at bettering my circumstances, but participating in a massacre wouldn’t be among them.

      Try this: Let’s say you wanted to take the most extreme position possible (I often ask readers to engage in these kinds of thought experiments so that they — readers — can see where their thinking is erroneous), where that means you want to argue that Hamas’s atrocities justify the complete razing of Gaza, with no regard whatsoever for anyone. In other words: Let’s say you think Hamas’s actions justify a nuclear strike from Israel on Gaza. That still wouldn’t change the fact that Gaza is (or was, past tense, in that scenario) a de facto prison.

      That’s all I’m saying, and it’s a roundabout way of saying (again), that you’re not wrong.

      1. Appreciate that and I’m with you 100%. The other pole of your thought experiment requires one to try to imagine what its like to live interminably in a de facto prison that is ruining generations of lives and feeling that doing some “crazy things aimed at bettering my circumstances” just doesn’t move the needle if it is even really possible in the first place.

        In the end, it frustratingly feels like yet another example, as we certainly are getting a taste here now, that government of the people and by the people ain’t necessarily for the people. I don’t know a lot of the nuances of Middle East politics, but am pretty sure the Palestinians did not countenance a ground assault (or worse) of Gaza when it “allowed” Hamas to come to power in order to help resolve its own civil strife. Sadly, once you step beyond your “crazy things,” as has now happened, it feels like the ground shifts permanently and there is no going back. How does Hamas just stand down now? And if the Palestinians decide that Hamas has gone rogue, what can they really do about it? If Israel doesn’t just flatten Gaza post-haste, the most likely scenario seems to me to be a return to civil strife as Fatah or whatever new element comes to the fore to challenge Hamas. The one thing that doesn’t change though — the Palestian civilians are left to pick this poison, or that poison. Welcome to the new standard of government — civilians as ciphers.

  6. All Iran has to do here is to say and act to reign in Hamas and Hezbollah.

    This is where Biden and gang should be putting the pressure on. I think Iran understands that Hamas went overboard and now it’s time to act before they all of them become targets of the West. This was an ISIS moment. The depravity and savagery of Hamas cannot be written away this time around by leftist leaning governments in the West. Hamas has to be destroyed, incapacated, or whatever else you wish to call it.

    1. I’m running out of patience with your allusions to “leftists” in the West being inadvertently responsible for terrorism, and I’m politely asking that you stop doing that.

  7. Hi. I have heard this expression, « open air prison » to describe Gaza before, and from people with direct knowledge of the place. It’s a powerful image. However, can I test this description for my own understanding: if a Gazaoui wanted to leave Gaza, how easy would it be for him to do it? Can he claim refugee status in the West? In Arab countries? Or: How can Hamas build the arsenal on display in a prison?

    1. It’s pretty tough to get out of Gaza. Over the 40 odd years I was involved in the ME, I met lots of Palestinians ex-West Bank, Israel proper, Jordan and Lebanon, but can’t remember meeting a Gazaoui. The Gulf States and Egypt don’t want them – fear of radical politics. Both are somewhat complicit in Gaza’s isolation.

    2. A lot of money and goods flow into Gaza, billions – examples here

      Hamas is the government of Gaza and collects tax, customs, graft etc from that flow, as well as from economic activity in Gaza (which is not universally destitute, it has or had modern shopping malls, luxury goods, etc – there is always a 1%). In addition, of course, to funds and goods specifically directed to Hamas.

      Goods come via the border in Egypt, both the official border crossing and tunnels; there may be other routes. Some of those goods are weapons and components for weapons, often from Iran, and Hamas makes others. The tunnels are sizeable, some even large enough for cars to be shipped, so plenty large enough for weapons. Hamas has plenty of places to receive, develop, assemble, and store weapons (University of Gaza, just struck by Israeli missiles, is believed to be one.)

      As for if people can leave Gaza – for the 1%, I expect there are always means. For the average person, Egypt keeps them from leaving via its border, Israel ditto (although 20,000 people from Gaza were allowed to travel in/out of Israel for work), other Arab countries do not let them immigrate either.

  8. H-Man, the Gaza matter has no good solutions. Invade and there will be a terrible toll on both sides. Stand down for Israel is not a choice. Snuffing out Hamas is like chasing the wind. Trying to resurrect a two state nation is more a dream than reality. So the apparent solution is to simply pummel each other into oblivion while exacting a toll that screams inhumanity. All done in the pursuit of “superstitious myths”. Is common ground that difficult to find? Maybe the same “myth” needs to be shared without causing a war.



  9. I think Israel has to be patient. They should also remind the world that in Islam there is no tolerance for hostage taking, murdering women and children or war prisoners..These are all war crimes..I think Israel violating any of these norms is a bad idea, just as invading Iraq after 9/11 really hurt us…I would go after Hamas through assassination, and also also their agents who raise money, buy or supply arms, etc…I would particularly go after their intelligence people…

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