Quite often, a bad situation can be made worse. When it comes to a situation as extreme and as volatile as what’s happening in Palestine and Israel, the ceiling for any potential catastrophe is particularly high.
Although there has been no let-up in the Israeli air strikes that have claimed thousands of Palestinian lives so far – overnight bombing raids on Gaza killed more than 100 people on Monday alone – the continuing threat of a ground invasion by Israeli troops hangs over the heads of the blockaded enclave’s 2.3 million people. The likely consequences of such an operation for Gazan civilians are grim, but things are far from clear cut for Israel. There are many humanitarian, political and strategic reasons why a full-scale ground war should be avoided, and it is not just critics of Israel who are urging caution.
White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that although Israel's army and political leadership would make the final decision on the timing and scope of any invasion, the US was “talking to them about all the kinds of consequences, second and third-order effects, that come from making decisions on the battlefield and what that means”.
US President Joe Biden was more direct when he said that a reoccupation of Gaza by Israel would be “a big mistake”. Although there appears to be little appetite right now among the Israeli military for taking and holding territory in Gaza, the October 7 attack by Hamas, during which it killed more than 1,400 Israelis – mostly civilians – has ushered in a new paradigm, and nothing can be taken for granted any more.
Israel has mobilised more than 300,000 troops and reservists. And although many Israelis back a ground war, the near-certainty of more Israeli casualties could eat into that support, particularly given the way in which the massive protests that rocked Israeli cities before the current conflict revealed a public deeply unhappy with its current political leadership. This is to say nothing of the economic impact of calling up so many reservists for weeks – or potentially months.
There is also the uncertain fate of more than 200 Israeli hostages abducted by Hamas militants. Their safety amid powerful Israeli air strikes is already in doubt but the consequences of a major ground incursion for them cannot be predicted. The families of some hostages have been pleading with the Israeli government to pause and allow more time for negotiations. This call may grow louder if Hamas continues to release handfuls of Israeli civilians.
In addition, Gaza is not the only front in this conflict and the sight of Israeli troops and armour crossing into the beleaguered territory could be the trigger for Hezbollah to step up its attacks in the north. The effects of a ground invasion on other regional enemies of Israeli can only be guessed at but it is safe to assume that it would only add to the volatility.
Neither is there any guarantee that an operation involving brutal street and tunnel fighting will either restore Israel’s military deterrence or destroy Hamas. Even former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon – a security hawk – saw the strategic inadvisability of trying to pacify Gaza militarily, and unilaterally pulled Israeli troops and settlers out in 2005.
Israeli troops have already spent decades occupying the West Bank, and the consequences there have been more or less continual instability and insecurity, which created the need for a permanent military presence. Sending large numbers of soldiers into somewhere like Gaza is one thing – getting them out again is another.
Israel’s political and military leadership will make its own decision, but the country is still reeling from an unprecedented loss of life at the hands of Hamas. There has been no shortage of high-level diplomatic visits to Israel to express support and solidarity – French President Emmanuel Macron was in the country yesterday. Those who have influence with Israel’s leadership would do well to outline the potential for even more disaster that a full-scale invasion of Gaza could bring.