At this stage, the Israel Defense Forces’ ground incursion into the Gaza Strip is limited. The size of the forces, all standing army, is smaller than during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-09. The troops are mainly occupying open areas near the fence in the north, center and south of Gaza. According to Palestinian sources, the IDF is holding the outskirts of the Strip’s built-up area, hundreds of meters to two kilometers west of the fence.
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For now, the campaign’s main goal isn’t to thwart rocket attacks — the main threat to most Israelis. Rocket launchers are scattered throughout most of the Strip. The diversity of their ranges enables attacks on central and southern Israel even if the IDF captured large chunks of Gaza. Only by occupying the whole area, and after that a campaign of searches and arrests that could last months, might Israel halt the rocket fire militarily.
The mission’s main goal, therefore, is to handle the tunnels near the border; some of them pass under the fence and lead into Israel. The army has been perturbed by this threat for years, but the public — including the residents of the towns near Gaza — only became aware of them following three events: the foiled terror attack in the tunnel near Kerem Shalom on July 7, the thwarted infiltration at a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa on Thursday, and the false alarm about terrorists rushing through a tunnel near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha.
The television appearances by Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council, reflect the change. Yellin, usually a sober, moderate type, has urgently called on the government to take care of the tunnel threat. Near Gaza, people have learned to bite their lips regarding the missile threat, but the risk that dozens of terrorists will come through a tunnel to slaughter people on your kibbutz or moshav isn’t a risk you can live with.
The Israeli troops in the Strip will try to find the tunnels and blow them up, based on intelligence and ground analyses done in advance. In parallel, the forces will occupy areas from which they can protect themselves. There will be clashes with Hamas and other Palestinian groups that will try to cause as many Israeli casualties as possible.
None of this will stymie the rocket fire on Israel, which has receded amid the offensive that Hamas seems not to have expected. The hope seems to be that the incursion will create military pressure that, combined with diplomatic pressure from Egypt, will make Hamas reconsider its rejection of a comprehensive cease-fire.
On Friday, the cabinet convened for a special session; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made another statement in front of the cameras. As has been his wont since the operation began, his delivery was considered and he didn’t present unrealistic goals. Netanyahu said he told the army to prepare to expand the offensive that began Thursday night. The cabinet approved a call-up of more reservists, though there are more standing-army divisions in the south that have yet to be sent to Gaza.
Israel should also press for a diplomatic drive toward a cease-fire. It remains unclear if anything positive is happening with Egyptian or Qatari mediation. It’s no secret that Israel’s leaders don’t want a full occupation of Gaza, but the situation could still deteriorate.
The lesson of the 1982 Lebanon war is clear: War isn’t a restaurant meal where you can decide that the starter did the trick and forgo the main course. Much depends on what Hamas does. The group has been surprising Israel with what is sometimes perceived as an unrealistic attitude.
Israel went into this mission with clean hands. The leaders only ordered a ground offensive when Hamas rejected two initiatives for a cease-fire to which Israel had agreed. The IDF is acting under constraints designed to reduce the number of civilian deaths. The government has the approval of the wider public, including the Zionist left.
For now, the move has also been met with international understanding. But time is working against it, because the moment a ground offensive begins, force is even less selective. The soldiers are moving among a dense civilian population.
In such a scenario, soldiers take fewer risks regarding their own safety, so there are more civilian casualties on the Palestinian side. The Arab media is already full of pictures of children’s’ bodies; these will spread to the international media and it will become even harder for Israel to explain its case, despite the rain of rockets on most of the country’s civilian population.
The commanders in the field naturally have other concerns. Aerial photos that the IDF has released show the movement of large forces in the area. The fighters, like all ground forces in every war, are too bunched together as they move, a big danger when mortars are flying.
Hamas will also be using anti-tank missiles, snipers and bombs, in addition to their tunnel operations. As usual during fighting in urban areas, there’s the risk of friendly fire (a question that also has to be asked about the death Thursday night of a Nahal Brigade staff sergeant). On top of all this lurks the usual danger – kidnappings, with which Hamas would seek to tilt the scales against Israel’s clear military superiority.