The Israel Defense Force could enter the Gaza Strip at literally any moment. A number of brigade combat teams are deployed around Gaza's borders; infantry battalions, tanks, engineers, armored personnel carriers, and all the logistic echelons to keep them supplied.
The operational plans have been ready since last week, authorized by IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz. Every day that passes, there will be more hardware, officers better acquainted with every detail on their maps and more intelligence at their disposal. But while there is near-total operational readiness at the staging-grounds, there's also a languid atmosphere of weary skepticism. In the coffee shops and kebab joints which suddenly fill up whenever there's a security crisis around Gaza, they grabbed quick breaks over the weekend, but didn't actually seem in a rush anywhere.
None of them, not even the top brass who brushed shoulders with reserve sergeants, have any idea when the order will come - or if it will ever come. The last operation in November 2012 ended without a ground offensive. Reserve forces were called up, the tanks and APCs deployed around Gaza and then a cease-fire was achieved and everyone went back home. This time, the cease-fire seems still far off, and the possibility of an incursion is once again on the agenda. But there is still no clear indication from the two men who will have to make the call, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon whether or not they will give the order.
At times it seems almost inevitable that the order will come, the dead-end situation leaving no other alternative. Then it seems increasingly unlikely as all the many factors, drawbacks and risks are added up.
Here are the reasons that the government will give the order and the reasons why Netanyahu will hold back and stick with air-strikes and at the most very small-scale raids.
Reasons for a ground invasion
1. No other way to get rid of rockets
As of Monday morning, the IDF has carried out 1,474 attacks on targets in Gaza, dropping 1,500 tons of explosives. For all this, the intelligence assessments are that only about 20 percent of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket stores have been either used or destroyed. Massive air-strikes have come nowhere near to denying the Palestinians the capability of launching rockets at most of the inhabited areas of Israel. The only way to destroy the rockets in reinforced underground warehouses is through a ground offensive.
2. Political pressure on PM
Neither Netanyahu nor Ya'alon seem eager to order the troops in, but many of their cabinet colleagues, starting with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are competing with each other in calling for more forceful action against Hamas. Either way it will be the top two who take the flak for whatever comes out of this operation but the worst thing for an Israeli politician is to be perceived as being "weak against terror."
3. No other alternative left
The air-strike campaign isn't having the desired effect and the number of targets that can be hit from the air without causing massive collateral damage is running out. If no cease-fire is achieved soon, a ground attack may be the only military option remaining.
4. The public supports it
Surveys conducted in recent days show clear support among the Israeli public for going in to Gaza. This is, of course, a temporary snapshot of the public mood and it could change the moment the IDF begins sustaining casualties, but the effect on the leadership from the chorus of voices rising from parts of the media and social networks is hard to overlook.
5. Restoring Israeli deterrence
If a cease-fire is achieved now, the Palestinian organizations in Gaza will be able to say that they withstood Israel's attack and continued fighting and launching missiles all the way through. Some military commanders are urging for the only kind of strike that can shatter that narrative.
But despite all these arguments and the apparent preparedness of ground forces, the order has not yet been given and there is little indication that it will. Here's why.
Reasons for avoiding ground invasion
1. Fear of offering Hamas targets
For now, all the targets Hamas is firing at are protected either by reinforced structures or Iron Dome and so far, as a result, Israeli casualties have been minimal. Large IDF forces going into Gaza will immediately present them with hundreds of new targets, on their own territory. It also gives Hamas a chance to go for the most high-value asset – capturing a live Israeli soldier.
2. Much higher Gazan death toll
The high death-toll in Gaza in the first six days of the operation, 172 as of Monday morning, will be dwarfed in a ground offensive, when field artillery, much less accurate than the air-strikes will be used to lay down covering fire for the advancing troops. The aircraft being used now are all under close command and control of air force headquarters. On the ground, every junior officer, every sergeant is master of his little sector and the civilians within it. The potential for something to go wrong with disastrous fallout is exponentially greater.
3. More elusive cease-fire
It would be simple now for Israel to implement a cease-fire. One short order and the aircraft stop launching missiles. With thousands of soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles inside Gaza, a ceasefire is much more complex as every mobile unit will have to continue protecting itself as a tactical retreat is first agreed upon and then carried out.
4. Responsibility for Gaza population
The last thing Israel wants (save for a few on the far right) is to reoccupy Gaza and take responsibility for the welfare of 1.7 million civilians. A ground invasion carries with it the risk of toppling local infrastructure and being left there to pick up the pieces.
5. Netanyahu is too risk-averse
Ehud Olmert in his three years as prime minister launched two large ground offensives into Lebanon and Gaza and a strike Syria's nuclear reactor. Netanyahu has been prime minister for nearly three times that and, for all the talk, has never come close to that. He has an innate caution (which translates into stagnation on the diplomatic field) and hates throwing too many dice in the air. Ultimately it is his decision and both his track-record and character are for now the best guarantee against a major ground offensive.
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