With the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) calling for all civilians to leave Gaza City, the stage is set for an Israeli ground invasion.
This would involve a million people, half the population of the already over-crowded Gaza Strip, with the UN having reportedly termed the order as an impossible one.
On Thursday, at a press conference, in which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was present, visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken endorsed Israel's actions but called on the country to take steps to avoid civilian casualties.
But Tel Aviv does not seem to be in the mood to take advice from anyone.
The IDF has clearly defined the northern half of the Gaza Strip, populated by descendants of refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was founded in 1948, as the focus of the first phase of its ground invasion. The IDF also says that it wants to ensure that the Hamas will not use civilians as human shields.
On the other hand, this could well mean that the Israelis will consider Gaza City as a free-fire zone where any remaining people will be liable to be killed.
Urban warfare has always involved collateral damage and has consequently been bloody.
Israel's Maximalist Goals in Gaza
For its ground operation, the Israelis have brought in 3,60,000 reservists, taking their total force to more than 5,00,000.
Here, they will confront not only the terrorist organisation Hamas' force of some 40,000, now a hardened and skilled military entity, but its partner forces — the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), some 15,000, and another 10,000 terrorists belonging to the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and an assortment of other such groups.
Israel’s earlier operations focused on controlling the periphery of the dense urban areas for short stretches of time, but there is a major difference this time — Israeli goals have now become maximalist.
Whereas in the past, their aim was to merely deter the Hamas by periodic punishment. This time around, Israel says it needs to eliminate the organisation which was responsible for the worst attack against it since 1948, accompanied by horrific terrorist crimes.
This would mean the destruction of the remaining rockets and munitions of Hamas and PIJ, the destruction of all the tunnels and underground infrastructure, the elimination of their industrial infrastructure, and the killing and capturing of as many fighters as they can.
This is not something that can be easily achieved.
The Weapons and Equipment on Either Side
Besides their rockets and drones, Hamas's equipment comprises of Russian Kornets and Konkurs, which are anti-tank guided missiles, and it also has shoulder-fired Strela and Igla anti-aircraft missiles. It is essentially a light infantry force with heavy machine guns, mortars, and the like.
Hamas has been readying for this war for some time and has prepared for the battlefield with mines, strong points, and ambush sites.
Importantly, their defences will use their tunnel network for both defensive and offensive purposes.
As for the Israelis, they have the most powerful military in the region. Their operation will be a high-tech one involving airpower in the form of drones, fighter jets, and strategic reconnaissance aircraft supporting an armoured and artillery thrust blasting a path through the Hamas’ defensive lines to reach and destroy their strongholds.
Among the special weapons is the D9R, an Israeli-modified bulldozer that is three stories high and can simply push through buildings, avoiding the booby traps and mines.
Gaza: Israel's Past Offensives
When it comes to a ground invasion of Gaza, Israel’s has been there and done that — several times before.
It began with the Six-Day War of 1967 in which Israel captured Gaza and placed it under its military administration. Since then, Israel has had to cope with Palestinian resistance through protests, rocket attacks, and now, more recently, a Hamas terror strike on itself.
The First Intifada between 1987-1992 saw the rise of Hamas and the decline of leftist secular groups like the Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. The Second Intifada of 2000 pushed the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas emerged as the dominant force there.
The Gaza War of 2008-09 featured Israel's Operation Cast Lead which began with a bombardment of Gaza targeting Hamas bases, police training camps, police headquarters, and so on. Civilian infrastructure like mosques, hospitals, and schools were also hit with Israel claiming that these were being used by militants.
The Israeli ground invasion began in early January and ended in three weeks.
20 months after this operation, tensions continued to escalate and Hamas' rocketing began in early November 2012, followed by the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense with the targeted killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari.
Israel mobilised its reserves but avoided a ground invasion.
Thereafter, there was a period of calm till July 2014 when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. The campaign had three phases — an air campaign, followed by a ground incursion to find and destroy Hamas’ extensive cross-border tunnels.
The operation lasted till the end of August. The Israelis lost some 66 soldiers and 6 civilians, while the Palestinian count was 2133, of whom 1489 were civilians, according to the UN.
Since 2018, there have been regular protests by the Palestinians at the Gaza-Israel border that have erupted into clashes between the Hamas and the IDF periodically. In 2021 and 2022, there have been regular clashes but their duration has been limited and most of them led to rocket attacks by Hamas and aerial retaliation by Israel.
Dealing With Hamas' Tunnels
Many of the features of the ground operation that will be launched now would have taken lessons from the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
Before this, the IDF had focused on intelligence and air power, but having to send troops into Gaza required heavily armoured vehicles and what are called Active Protective Systems (APS) which can protect them from rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles.
Another feature was the importance of dealing with the Hamas’ underground infrastructure in the form of tunnels developed to counter Israeli air power.
Hamas has an extensive network of tunnels within the Gaza Strip, as well as many leading out of Gaza into Israel for operations, as well as to Egypt to obtain clandestine supplies. Given this capacity, Israel has little choice but to undertake a ground war, and patiently locate and destroy this subterranean infrastructure.
There is a third element that emerged in Protective Edge which the Israelis will have to take into account — the need to conduct their operations within the bounds of international law. At the time, there were several charges against the Israelis on account of civilian casualties.
There was a UN-led inquiry that questioned the IDF’s use of munitions which affected wide areas and often hit civilians.
Israel Has Options but None Are Too Good
As can be seen, Israel has been controlled in its retaliation in Gaza till now.
The main reason for this is that they wanted to deter Hamas, but not topple the regime. The Israelis themselves have simply lacked the stomach to run Gaza in any form. Now, all those bets are off and Israel feels that it has no choice but to eliminate Hamas or to completely defang it militarily.
Bombing Gaza every now and then and eliminating select leaders was a good option in this regard. But now, the Israeli population would demand something more.
The choices before the Israelis are not very good.
Eliminating Hamas could take time and involve a prolonged Israeli military occupation of Gaza. Israel, for example, may have to maintain a garrison till its objectives are met.
As it is, it will not be easy to politically and militarily eliminate Hamas, given that it has a significant base in Gaza. And in any case, the same will not be possible without the possibility of civilian casualities and large-scale destruction of civilian infrastructure.
Whatever choices Israel makes now could have consequences in the years ahead.
Don’t forget that the 1982 siege of Beirut, once hailed for neutering the Palestine Liberation Organisation, eventually gave rise to the formidable Hezbollah. There are lessons, too, from the American operations against the 9/11 terror attacks that gave rise to the Islamic State and helped establish the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan.
Beyond the coming battles, is the question: Where will it end?
Israel has suffered a terrible terrorist attack. But its conduct in the region has hardly been exemplary.
More than that, the reaction to the 7 October events in Gaza, in the West Bank, and in the Arab World reveals the depth of hatred for Israel which cannot be dealt with through military force alone.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)