The Israeli leader is emboldened by a hard-right coalition and frustrated with calls for humanitarian pause in Gaza
Within a week of the 7 October atrocities, numerous Israeli Defence Force (IDF) units had converged on southern Israel close to Gaza. A major ground offensive was expected to start within days but the actual deployments into Gaza have not so far been substantial.
Possible factors in the delays included US president Joe Biden’s unexpected visit to Israel, negotiations with Hamas on hostage releases, and an announcement from the Pentagon that additional US air defence systems will be sent to the region. These are not specifically for Israel’s use but are primarily to offer additional protection to US personnel in bases in Iraq, Syria, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Drone and rocket attacks against some US bases have increased in the past two weeks, especially in Iraq, and many more are expected when the IDF starts a ground assault.
Whatever the given reasons for the delay, it is likely that the IDF is simply not ready to start a major ground force operation and is urgently working out how to take on Hamas, whose attack on 7 October demonstrated capabilities well beyond the previous assumptions of the Israeli security and intelligence forces.
Though Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced on Saturday that the war has entered its “second stage” with a ground offensive, few IDF troops have entered Gaza. Israel’s ultimate war aims also remain unclear. The repeated claim from Netanyahu is that Hamas will be completely destroyed, vowing that the group will cease to exist after the IDF offensive, so that the so-called ‘Gaza problem’ will be sorted out once and for all.
The best semi-official account of how Israel will seek to do so came from its defence minister, Yoav Gallant, speaking of a three-phase war. First, he said, would be an intense air war, followed by a ground war, combining to destroy most of Hamas. Phase two, which would quite possibly be a long process, would finish off “pockets of resistance”, and the third phase would involve pushing Gaza’s 2.3 million people into an area even smaller than the already densely populated tiny enclave. This would have a substantial buffer zone permanently separating it from Israel, which, Gallant said, would no longer take any responsibility at all for Gaza, with ‘the international community’ left to ensure the survival of the Palestinians living there.
Not all of the Israeli political system would accept this. Many, including some within Netanyahu’s government, want Gaza’s Palestinian population displaced to Egypt or elsewhere, and some want the even larger West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinian peoples expelled across the Jordan Valley for the Hashemite Kingdom to take on.
Such thinking has for many years been the dream of the more fundamentalist elements within Zionism but somewhat consigned to the margins of Israeli society, though the Hamas attacks of 7 October have brought it closer to the surface.
For 75 years, a central requirement of Israeli governments has been to keep Israel utterly sure of its power to resist enemies. They have maintained military forces that make it far stronger than any state in the region, even Turkey, extending to being the only nuclear power in the Middle East.
Yet the term ‘impregnable in its insecurity’ comes to mind. However strong Israel might seem to be, it is insecure by virtue of contesting the status of the Palestinian people. Over the years Israel has successfully fought off other powers including Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, though, are another matter, having resisted in many ways, the most extensive being the two intifadas (uprisings).
The first, from 1987 to 1993, mainly involved Palestinians carrying out general strikes, riots, protests and other disturbances and was a factor in the evolution of the Oslo Process of peace talks. These led to some progress, but it was inadequate and was overtaken by the far more intense second intifada in 2000, which lasted for five years. That ended partly with the Israeli government constructing a separation barrier right around the West Bank, much of it a massive concrete wall, combined with increasing Jewish settlements and building a network of new roads that could be used only by the settlers and security forces, with Palestinians banned.
Since then, settler numbers have greatly increased, taking up more and more Palestinian land in a process seen by many Israelis as essential to maintaining their security, but has led to the deaths of many thousands of Palestinians. For Israelis, this process has seemed to work for the best part of 20 years, but it failed disastrously on 7 October, when at least 1,400 people in southern Israel died and more than 200 were taken hostage by Hamas – undermining the very sense of security that was always essential and seemed assured.
In Israel, a far-right government – which was not previously popular and is led by a prime minister who has proved to be a class act when it comes to political survival – has presided over an utter security disaster. To describe its rapidly evolving response as an “iron fist” is a masterpiece of understatement.
For now, Netanyahu can count on grudging support from most Israelis, and he appears to be using the war to respond to the ultranationalists and religious fundamentalists who make his rule possible. This combination of leader and coalition, interacting with a shell-shocked population, is determining the government’s actions. Netanyahu can go far further than he otherwise would, which may well be part of Hamas’s strategy.
More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gazan health ministry, and perhaps three times that number wounded, with much worse to come. Hamas, with at least 15,000 paramilitaries, is well prepared for a long and costly conflict. Given how violently Israel responded to its setbacks in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in 1982 and southern Lebanon in 2006, it is likely to fall back on area bombing if it finds it cannot realistically defeat Hamas with ground forces. This would likely be so destructive as to leave little of Gaza standing.
While some Western governments still profess solid support for Israel, the calls for some kind of pause – including by the US – suggest growing unease behind the scenes. The reaction of the Netanyahu government to these calls will stem from deep frustration, already shown by its demands that UN secretary-general António Guterres resign over his recent comments on “the clear violations of international humanitarian law that we are witnessing in Gaza”. For all the acceptance of the terrible impact of 7 October, more influence from outside may be the one thing that saves Israel from itself.
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