Will Israel Invade the Gaza Strip?

As Israel attempts to force Hamas into a full ceasefire, it can expect the situation to become increasingly complex.

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The window of opportunity for resolving the conflict in Gaza by diplomatic means is shrinking by the minute. The series of late-night phone calls on Friday, in which ministers approved an extensive call-up of reserve units that could include as many as 75,000 soldiers, represents a possible turning point in Operation Pillar of Defense.

Israel is presenting Hamas with a significant threat, attempting to force them to accept a full ceasefire before the IDF ground forces enter the coastal enclave. But a reserve call-up of such magnitude is like applying pressure on a spring, posing the threat that it could have the reverse effect on both Israeli public opinion and decision makers.

A reserve call-up affects the economy, increases tension among civilians and army reserves soldiers, and applies pressure on the political leadership to approve a ground operation. Reserve units can't camp in southern Israel forever without going into action; especially since positioning a significant number of troops in the open outside the Gaza Strip places them in danger of falling victim to a rocket attack. That is what happened in Kfar Giladi during the Second Lebanon War back in 2006, when a katyusha attack killed 12 reservists.

The aerial portion of the operation, as has already been stated here, is fast approaching the stage of exhausting its effectiveness. Israel's leaders will have to decide, within a few days, whether or not to move the operation into its land combat stage. Despite the sheer mass of forces being assembled near Gaza, including several infantry and armor brigades, the IDF entering the Gaza Strip doesn't necessarily mean it plans to take over the strip. In Operation Cast Lead, for example, Israel only took control of parts of the coastal enclave.

This time, the ground operation could be even smaller. And yet, land combat of any kind means increased friction with Hamas, which could mean, first and foremost, more casualties on the Palestinian side – although there will be some on Israel's side as well. In addition, it would be impossible to completely prevent some injury to innocent civilians in Gaza.

Weather forecasts for the beginning of the coming week indicate more stormy weather in southern Israel, which could make a ground operation more difficult – both because the forces would find it harder to cross the terrain and because air coverage – for surveillance and attack purposes – suffers when skies are cloudy.

Netanyahu and Barak have intentionally chosen to blur the operation's goals. Ambiguity is meant to influence the enemy, as well as, to a certain extent, the Israeli public. The question that should nevertheless be asked is whether or not, behind closed doors, the government and the IDF are indeed in sync as to the goals they wish to achieve.

Until now, the military operation has been conducted with a minimum of mistakes, while scoring some significant achievements. But despite American support for Israel's efforts, a lot more work is needed in the diplomatic arena. The deterioration of Israel's relations with Egypt and Turkey makes it harder to use these nations as mediators that could convince Hamas to take the ladder and get off the tall tree they got themselves into before they get seriously hurt.

The caution with which the IDF has been conducting its aerial strikes, compared with the attacks at the early stages of Operation Cast Lead, significantly reduced the number of Palestinian civilian casualties. However, it also led to a reduced number of causalities reported among Hamas's ranks. Much of the organization's leadership has already entered the intricate tunnel system excavated under Gaza, a lesson learnt by the Palestinian during Operation Cast Lead. This time Hamas units haven't completely abandoned Gaza neighborhoods for fears of an imminent Israeli invasion. If that situation persists, it could mean that IDF forces could face stronger resistance.

It should be admitted that, at least up to now, and despite the enormous efforts on the part of the air force and army intelligence, we haven't seen any real drop in the rate of rocket fire from Gaza. (It still remains to be seen if the relative decrease Saturday signals a turning point.) In the first two and a half days, the Palestinians fired over 600 rockets from the Gaza Strip, almost twice Hezbollah's firing rate during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Compared with the successful attack on the mid-range Fajr rockets (Missile attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have been negligent in military terms, overblown by the media mainly because of its psychological and symbolical significance.), the IDF is struggling with containing the shorter range rockets with a rage of up to 28 miles, which have been disrupting everyday life in southern Israel.

Up to now, the number of airstrikes and hits on Palestinian firing squads hasn't been very high. It seems that, the assassination of Ahmed Jabari notwithstanding, the Hamas's command and control capabilities remain operational, with launching crews firing rockets according to a relatively orderly operational plan. We should differentiate between the state of Hamas, whose leaders are likely safe in their tunnels, and that of the Palestinian pubic that lives in the Gaza Strip, which lives in constant fear of Israeli airstrikes. This fear is only aggravated by the possibility of a ground operation. Operation Cast Lead left scarred the collective memory of the people of Gaza, and the hardship and fear expressed by ordinary Palestinians will have to be taken into account by Hamas when discussing a possible ceasefire.

One significant Israeli advantage lies, of course, in the deployment of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, which has already intercepted over 200 rockets since the operation began. On Saturday, a fifth battery was deployed in the Tel Aviv area, though it could take some time before it is fully operational. Iron Dome provides Israel's decision-makers with much needed breathing space, since it greatly reduces the number of civilian casualties. But even that can't last forever: One must assume that the longer the fighting rages, the more exposed to harm Israel's civilian population will be, as international pressure to end the offensive grows. Israel's leaders will have to make a decision soon, in order to avoid the long period of foot-dragging that characterized most of the Second Lebanon War.

IDF soldiers pray on their tank stationed at the Israeli-Gaza Strip border on Nov. 16, 2012. Credit: AFP

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