Few Good Options as Israel Weighs a Ground Assault on the Gaza Strip

Israeli troops are massing for what’s widely seen as all but inevitable: a ground invasion of Gaza.

(Bloomberg) — Israeli troops are massing for what’s widely seen as all but inevitable: a ground invasion of Gaza. 

The public and the national security establishment in Israel are demanding retribution for the attacks by Hamas militants that claimed more than 1,000 Israeli lives over the weekend. But a ground invasion would be complicated by Gaza’s dense population, its complex underground network of tunnels and the danger it would pose to Israelis, Americans and others being held hostage.

“The problem is that it’s basically house-to-house fighting once you get into Gaza. And so it could be a heavy price,” former US Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday on Bloomberg Television’s “Balance of Power.” “But on the other hand, I think it’s very clear that Israel has made the decision that they have got to crush Hamas in Gaza.”

An invasion would bring heavy casualties on both sides and questions about whether Israel can devise an exit strategy for the conflict. It would also create ripple effects through the Middle East, endangering Israel’s fragile rapprochement with its Arab neighbors and increasing the risks that the conflict spirals into a broader regional war. 

What follows an invasion, a US official said, may resemble the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, which involved bloody street-to-street fighting. Resistance in Gaza may be formidable, especially if neighboring countries provide reinforcements, according to the official, who discussed the sensitive matter on condition of anonymity.

Israel hasn’t announced that it will send troops into Gaza, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised that “what we will do to our enemies in the coming days will reverberate with them for generations.” 

Developments on the ground also suggest Israel is planning something big. It’s bombarding Gaza from the air, land and sea. Its military is building a base next to the Gaza Strip to accommodate tens of thousands of soldiers as columns of Israeli tanks move toward the region. The country has already mobilized 300,000 reservists — the most in its history.

“Israel is going to respond very severely and aggressively and there will be more loss of life,” Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli military, told journalists Tuesday. 

Underground Stockpiles

Part of the growing conviction that Israel will launch a ground invasion rests on the limitations of aerial warfare in Gaza. Airstrikes are unlikely to succeed in clearing out the tunnels, underground weapons stockpiles and smuggling routes that made Saturday’s attack possible. 

“At some point they’re going to have to go in,” said Keith Alexander, a retired four-star US Army general who was director of the National Security Agency. “They can do limited operations,” he said, “but that’s a fairly big area to occupy and a lot of people to cover.”

Street-to-street fighting in Gaza, where two million residents are packed into an area just over twice the size of Washington, DC, would likely result in heavy civilian casualties. Arab officials fear images of dead civilians could prompt a backlash among Arab publics, putting pressure on their governments to cool ties with Israel.

“The longer the occupation lasts, the more ebbing of support that you’ll see for Israel and the more pressure you’ll see on Arab states from their publics,” said William Usher, a former Senior Intelligence Service officer at the Central Intelligence Agency who specializes in the Middle East. “This has the potential to devolve into a political and PR disaster.”

Endangered Hostages

Then there’s the chilling complication of Hamas’s hostages. During Saturday’s raid, the group took scores of Israeli and foreign prisoners, from toddlers to elderly women. Hamas has said it’s prepared to kill a hostage each time Israel strikes civilian homes in Gaza without warning. Their potential fate in any ground incursion is unknown. 

There’s also a serious risk of escalation. Israel has already seen rocket attacks from Lebanon, raising the possibility of a multifront war and a descent into broader regional conflict if Israel responds with military force. 

Hanging above all of this is the possibility of Iran being drawn in. “The massacre and mass killing of the people of Gaza will bring a greater calamity” on Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said at a ceremony on Tuesday. US generals have warned Iran not to get involved and sent a carrier strike group to the region to deter Tehran.

There’s also the problem of what would follow an invasion. There’s no guarantee of a durable political solution to accompany military action. Israel withdrew ground troops from Gaza in 2005 in part because a previous occupation of the region proved too costly. 

“The end will be when they accept an arrangement in which they give up any idea of carrying out terror attacks in the future,” Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top Israeli military intelligence official, said of the militants. “After the Israeli population understood what it means to live next to Hamas, they are ready to pay almost any price in order to stop living next to Hamas.”

–With assistance from Courtney McBride, Anna Edgerton, Annmarie Hordern and Joe Mathieu.

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