Expanding Israel's campaign into southern Gaza would only deepen the disaster

Israeli objectives are hard to achieve, and cornered civilians are running out of places to shelter

The southern Gaza city of Khan Younis has received thousands of refugees from the north amid Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Since a truce took hold on November 24, thousands of Palestinians from northern Gaza, up to now the primary staging ground for Israel’s air and ground campaign, have seized the opportunity to return temporarily from refugee camps in the south, to survey the damage to their homes, check on loved ones and salvage whatever belongings survived. Friday, one Gaza resident told The National, was “the first quiet night for nearly 50 days”.

The quietude is likely to be short-lived. Truces, by their very nature, come to an end, and from the outset this one was described by Israel’s Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, as “short”. The Israeli military reportedly expects fighting to continue for at least two more months, though the sprawling nature of its objectives renders any estimate of a timeline questionable. Israel’s military Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, said on Friday his forces were using the truce to “try to connect the goals of the war”.

Speaking from the Gaza Strip on Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listed these goals: “eliminating Hamas, returning all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza does not become a threat to the State of Israel again”.

With some of the Israeli hostages having already been returned – in exchange for the release of Palestinian captives – Mr Netanyahu can claim a measure of progress to his constituents. But it is far from obvious whether and how Hamas can be eliminated. Opinion polling in Gaza varies widely, but pollsters generally agree that support for the Strip’s militant rulers was waning up until October 7. Since the war began, however, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction.

It is far from obvious whether and how Hamas can be eliminated

Israel’s tactical advantage over Hamas, moreover, diminishes the deeper into Gaza it moves. Clearing the northern half of the Strip involved a more conventional form of warfare at which Israel is well-practised. But the southern half is now more densely packed than ever – with regular residents, displaced civilians and most probably regrouped militants. This makes it difficult to use tanks, which were integral to the northern Gaza operation. But it also means that any expansion of the war into southern Gaza risks being far bloodier and more brutal than what the world has seen over the past two months.

Having already been corralled into the lower half of their territory, Gazans have no place else to go, leaving many to question what victory plan could possibly unfold that is in line with international law. As the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has repeatedly said, “one horror cannot justify another horror”.

The growing desperation of civilians may indeed, as Mr Gallant has put it, “create the impetus for the next groups of hostages, who will only come back as a result of pressure”. But the human suffering involved would be as abhorrent as it ought to be intolerable.

Published: November 28, 2023, 3:00 AM