With Israel suffering its deadliest attack in decades at the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants, all eyes are on what its government chooses to do next.
The Israeli Air Force has already conducted several days of air strikes on targets in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based, and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, ordered a “complete siege” of the Palestinian territory, cutting off its energy, food and water supply.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested this is only the opening salvo in a much larger offensive on the Palestinian group.
“We have only started striking Hamas,” Netanyahu said in a televised address on Monday. “What we will do to our enemies in the coming days will reverberate with them for generations.”
Video footage has appeared on social media showing a massing of Israeli military equipment near the border with Gaza. Some 300,000 reservists have been called up after the nation declared war on Hamas.
While Israel is tight-lipped about its plans, the rapid mobilization of reservists has fueled speculation it could be preparing for a major ground invasion of Gaza.
“I don’t think that can be considered a foregone conclusion,” Colonel Richard Kemp, a retired British Army officer who commanded a battalion during the war in Afghanistan, told Newsweek. “What he [Netanyahu] says and what happens in reality may be two different things. You’ve got to look at it from the perspective [of] you don’t announce your plans to the enemy.”
“Netanyahu [has] always been very cautious around widespread use of military force,” Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox. “But it may be hard to be cautious in these circumstances.”
It would not be the first time Israeli troops have entered Gaza, but experts are already warning that such an operation could be costly for both the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the more than two million Palestinian civilians who live there.
They said that Hamas fighters may have already prepared ambushes and traps for any incoming forces, and that potentially heavy casualties, including of civilians, could complicate the operation for Israel geopolitically.
Entrenched Urban Warfare
Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, measuring 141 square miles in total, meaning buildings in its urban areas are tightly grouped together. Even though the Israeli army is proficient at both conventional and urban warfare, it is a tactical nightmare.
Israel previously occupied Gaza from 1967 to 2005, and successfully invaded the territory in 2014. But this time round, the same time militants had for planning their seemingly unnoticed coordinated attack was also time to prepare within Gaza.
“If they do decide to go in on the ground, then it’s a very, very dangerous operation for the IDF because, apart from anything else, this attack that’s taken place now obviously took months of planning—and part of that planning would be to prepare for Israel’s reaction,” Kemp said. “The whole area is going to be sown up with booby-traps, mines, sniper positions, ambushes, attack tunnels—you name it.”
He added: “The IDF is trained to do that, they’re trained for those operations…but, no matter how much training you do, it’s still a risky, very dangerous form of military operations.”
“Hamas still has a robust arsenal of rockets and could be planning more ambushes,” Colin Clarke, research director at the Soufan Group, a security consultancy, told Vox. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see suicide bombings, if Hamas is able to infiltrate more operatives onto Israeli soil.”
An article for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point examined the performance of Hamas in Gaza in 2014. It described Hamas fighters as determined and adaptable.
“Close combat involved direct fire engagements between Hamas and Israeli ground forces, with Hamas using RPGs, machine guns, and small arms. Hamas employed mortars, short range rockets and antitank guided missiles to support these engagements. Hamas fighters appeared more effective and aggressive than in past conflicts, surprising Israeli forces and coordinating fire,” it said.
It added that Hamas was able to maintain its defenses, and fire rockets toward Israel, even under intense attack from the air. However, it was less effective at engaging Israeli tanks and armored vehicles.
“Whatever its path forward, Hamas will be ready for the next round of war with Israel. It will seek to fight longer, do more damage, and defend itself more vigorously,” it said.
Israel has conducted an intensive campaign of air strikes on targets across Gaza since Saturday, with video footage showing entire high-rise buildings being demolished. Israeli officials have said it has been forewarning civilians in the areas about to be hit, and telling them to move to safer ground.
Kemp suggested the Israeli air force could achieve its government’s aims of crippling Hamas with air strikes alone, but had been prevented from doing so previously due to international pressure. While many world leaders have expressed solidarity with Israel over the latest attacks, that sentiment may not hold in a bloody, urban battle.
The former colonel, who also served in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, said a ground invasion was “less precise and controlled than strikes from the air.
“IDF aircraft are pretty much invulnerable; they can take their time, and the same goes for missile strikes into Gaza. There’s no real pressure to act quickly if the conditions aren’t right, whereas on the ground there is pressure to act quickly and in a very confused situation. Because it’s not only a question of killing the enemy; it’s also a question of trying not to kill your own troops.”
When Israel last sent troops into Gaza, the war took around 1,500 civilian lives, according to U.N. estimates. Some 1,600 people have already been killed on both sides in the current violence, the Associated Press has reported, with thousands more wounded. So far, Israel’s military action beyond its borders has been limited to air strikes.
“The likelihood of a high number of civilian casualties in a ground operation is much greater,” Kemp said. “I think no matter how much you work to minimize civilian casualties, you’re not going to succeed when there’s lots of densely populated built-up areas, when the enemy is operating among the civilian population—very often dressed exactly like the civilian population [and] hard to distinguish—and not only that, but they use the civilian population as human shields deliberately.”
“You could get up to 10,000, 20,000 [civilian casualties]—there’s really no limit to the amount of people that could be harmed by that kind of invasion,” Frank Lowenstein, a former U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace, told BBC Newsnight on Monday.
A high civilian death toll would likely lead to public outcry, and could prompt political pressure for Israel to cease any potential ground invasion—frustrating its stated aim of eradicating Hamas’ militia.
“Hamas’ entire military strategy is predicated not on defeating Israel on the battlefield—because they can’t,” Kemp said. “Their strategy is to attack Israel in such a way that Israel is obliged to carry out retaliation, as any country would, and that retaliation is inevitably going to cause civilian casualties, which is what Hamas want.
“They want their own civilians to die at the hands of the IDF, so they can use that to isolate, vilify, condemn Israel…on the world stage, which they’ve been extremely successful at.”
Hugh Lovatt, a senior Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Telegraph: “An Israeli ground incursion will come at a tremendous cost in terms of Palestinian and Israeli lives. As past operations have shown, it will amplify Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and fan Palestinian and Arab anger against Israel.”
It is not just Palestinian civilians currently at risk in Gaza, but an estimated 150 hostages—including women, children and the elderly—who were taken from Israel by militants with the intention of exchanging them for Palestinian prisoners. Hamas officials have since threatened to kill one for every air strike undertaken without warning.
“You can’t release them from the air,” Kemp said of the hostages. “Whether you can release them from the ground or not is another question as well, and I wouldn’t be too confident of that.”
Hamas, through its political wing, has been the de facto ruler of Gaza since 2006, after Israel’s withdrawal. Even if Israel were able to dismantle its operations, the IDF would then face the challenge of maintaining order in a region where the local population staunchly opposes Israeli governance.
“I think it may be that there is not an exit strategy,” Kemp said, noting a withdrawal from Gaza could come when the IDF “believe that Hamas’ capability of fighting back and its will to resist had been destroyed,” but that in previous conflicts Hamas had “never lost their will to resist.”
In the ensuing power vacuum, he said, the only alternative was for the IDF to maintain a military presence in Gaza on a permanent basis, as it had done previously—but that was “not an easy task.”
In addition, any ground invasion on Gaza could also escalate into a conflict on multiple fronts for Israel, drawing resources away from any offensive on Hamas.
Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed, Lebanese Islamist Shiite militant group, has already conducted artillery strikes on northern Israel, while the head of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization reportedly threatened to attack U.S. forces if they intervened in the war on Israel’s side, after the Pentagon ordered the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group into the eastern Mediterranean.
Update 10/11/23, 2:36 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information.
Update 10/11/23, 8:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional information. The headline was also updated.
Correction 10/11/23, 9:25 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct the area of Gaza.