Israel faces immense risks as it prepares for a massive ground invasion of Gaza.
A sweeping operation from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) into the coastal enclave will almost certainly intensify the humanitarian crisis there, along with civilian casualties. It also risks costing the lives of Israel’s soldiers, turning global and domestic sentiment against Israel — as well as opening a second front in the war.
But Israeli leaders have pledged to conduct the operation, known as Operation Swords of Iron, to destroy the Palestinian militant group Hamas for a deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel that claimed the lives of 1,400 people.
“Our maneuvers are going to take the war into their territory,” Israel’s Southern Command officer, Yaron Finkelman, told soldiers this week. “We’re going to defeat them in their own territory.”
Increasing civilian deaths
Any ground operation could be long, bloody and involve house-to-house urban fighting, posing an immense risk to the civilian population in the Gaza Strip.
Air strikes alone have already killed more than 3,000 Palestinian civilians — more than 1,500 of whom were children, according to Hamas officials. And more than one million people who have been forced to flee their homes have nowhere to go, trapped in southern Gaza without a corridor out.
David Cortright, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame’s global affairs school, said fighting in Gaza carries an immense risk for Israel’s standing, suggesting they should instead “convene an international tribunal to bring to justice” those responsible in Hamas for attacking Israel, while seeking a political solution with the Palestinian people.
“It is understandable that Israelis are outraged and vengeful after the heinous terrorist attacks of Hamas, but the continued siege of Gaza will only cause more death and destruction and will widen the war, and could end up benefiting Hamas,” Cortright said in an emailed statement.
“Already, public sympathy and attention around the world are shifting from the innocent Israelis who were butchered by Hamas gunmen to the children of Gaza who are dying under Israeli bombs,” he added. “It is a trap that Israel must avoid.”
In the 2014 Gaza War, Israeli infantry battalions fought in a northern neighborhood of Gaza City, a battle that killed more than 1,600 innocent bystanders and wounded more than 10,000 in a little more than a month — with Israel eventually retreating with no significant strategic victories.
The upcoming military operation is threatening to be even more deadly, with Israel’s leaders vowing to eliminate Hamas outright.
“Every Hamas member is a dead man,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the attack in Israel.
Netanyahu, however, said in a meeting with President Biden this week that Israel “seeks to minimize civilian casualties.”
“Israel will do everything it can to keep civilians out of harm’s way,” he pledged.
Cost to the Israeli military
In 2014, Israel lost 66 soldiers in the fighting with Hamas.
Troops struggled at the time to battle in urban jungles, tunnels and booby traps across Gaza, getting picked off by mines, ambushes and snipers. That was a conflict of just a few weeks, and Israeli forces only entered parts of the territory held by Hamas.
This time, Israel is promising a full-fledged operation to destroy Hamas, calling up a record 360,000 reservists to report for duty. The larger operation will likely require significantly more time and resources, risking more lives.
Hamas also has an extensive underground tunnel network, an advantage that can be used to attack Israeli troops.
Alp Sevimlisoy, a millennium fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Israeli forces must designate “small success parameters” district-by-district if they want to overcome the many traps and obstacles within Gaza.
“Stage one has to be gaining district by district control until they at least attain 75 to 80 percent of geographical control,” he said, predicting that could take a few months.
“In terms of stage two — administering — they need to make sure that they’ve eliminated the entire top brass of Hamas,” Sevimlisoy added.
Waning public support
The Israeli public is enraged over the deaths of nearly 1,400 people at the hands of Hamas, and the roughly 200 hostages taken by the group, driving widespread support for efforts to defeat the militants in Gaza.
But if the Israeli military suffers severe losses in a prolonged conflict with no end in sight, that could change.
A poll by Israeli daily newspaper Maariv published Friday found 65 percent of citizens support a ground invasion, while 21 percent are opposed.
Bilal Saab, an associate fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, also cautioned that U.S. support could change over time.
Saab said Israel “is more than capable of destroying Hamas.”
“But an offensive will not take place in isolation: the military must account for the opinion of its allies, the threats of its enemies and wavering public opinion at home,” he wrote in an analysis. “All are significant, and highly unpredictable. “
Israel has also already fought four wars with Hamas, with every attempt to wipe out the group failing.
But Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said in a video message that by the end of this conflict, Hamas will not hold the ability to “threaten or kill Israeli civilians” anymore.
Opening a second front
Since the deadly Hamas attacks, Israel has been trading daily fire with Hezbollah, a militant group in Lebanon on the northern border.
The exchange of attacks on the Lebanon-Israel border has been the deadliest in years and likely would have sparked an all-out war already if Israeli forces were not focused on Hamas.
Hezbollah leaders have recently met with Iran, which backs their military as well as Hamas, as the fighting takes place. And Iranian officials have repeatedly warned they may have to take action if the attacks on Gaza continue. Tehran considers Israel’s attacks on the Palestinian people an act of genocide.
“Time is running out and if the warmongers think that they can remove the resistance and Hamas from Gaza, they are mistaken,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, according to state-run media.
Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., told the Hill he was skeptical of Hezbollah invading Israel during a period of economic unrest in Lebanon, but it also depended on Iran’s wishes and how the operation in Gaza unfolds.
“If Hamas is defeated,” he said, “it’s a threat against [Hezbollah] because Hamas is no longer there.”
Weaker relations with the Arab world
The Arab world has already erupted in anger over the crisis in Gaza and has stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people amid an intense Israeli bombing campaign on the coastal strip.
Arab anger was only amplified after a deadly explosion near a hospital in Gaza City this week killed hundreds of people, though U.S. officials say the evidence points to a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket.
But a prolonged campaign in Gaza presents a major risk of sparking more anger in the Middle East and North Africa, which has long sympathized with the Palestinian cause. And that could set back diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as further isolating Israel in the region.
Harb, of the Arab Center, said Israel has already lost political support among the Arab population and was risking a groundswell of anger by invading Gaza.
“It’s definitely going to be very bloody for Hamas and for the population,” he said. “The people around the Arab world are going to be pressuring their governments.”