Israel to resist the urge for full-scale Gaza land invasion, ex-diplomats say

James Moran, former EU ambassador to Egypt, says Israeli ground troops could get stuck in the mud if sent into war zone

An Israeli army spokesman has said any ground offensive in Gaza will be based 'on operational conditions that will benefit the implementation of our goals'. AFP
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Israel is likely to continue limited ground operations in the Gaza Strip instead of pushing ahead with a full-scale invasion, diplomats have told The National.

“There is no easy way out for the Israelis," said James Moran, a former EU official and ex-ambassador to Egypt. "The most likely outcome is that there will be so-called surgical raids.

“If there were a full-scale invasion, the Israelis could get stuck in the mud very quickly in Gaza, as they have before.”

The US has reportedly put pressure on Israel for more time for hostage negotiation and humanitarian aid delivery. Meanwhile, Israel has been publicly lowering expectations of a full-on invasion.

“We’ve never announced that there was going to be a ground operation,” army spokesman Peter Lerner told the BBC Newshour programme on Monday.

"If it happens, the ground offensive will be based on operational conditions that will benefit the implementation of our goals,” he added, without clarifying what those conditions were.

Israel disengaged in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, a densely populated 360 square kilometre enclave which it conquered in 1967.

In 2007, it placed Gaza under a blockade after Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by several Western countries, came to power.

Hamas’s unprecedented raid on Israel on October 7, during which it killed more than 1,400 Israelis, has led to limited retaliatory land raids and intense air strikes from Israel that have killed about 5,000 Palestinians.

Israeli military officials on Monday said Hamas was still holding 222 hostages in the Gaza Strip. The militant group released two US women on Friday and up to 10 more are believed to be in captivity in Gaza, according to The New York Times.

Concern for the well-being of hostages is one of the reasons why the US is pressuring Israel to delay its invasion, media reports say. The US also wants more time for aid to reach Palestinians.

Israel’s “total blockade” of the Gaza Strip has left the enclave without running water or electricity and the hospital network is collapsing.

Those worries are shared on the other side of the Atlantic.

The EU's foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Monday that he was "personally" in favour of a "humanitarian pause" and that hostages "have to be released, obviously."

In parallel, the Israeli military continued shelling Gaza, and also announced on Monday an overnight raid into the Gaza Strip.

Since October 7, it has reported similar raids, sometimes with the goal of retrieving bodies of Israeli soldiers.

Mr Moran said: “The overwhelming feeling is that Israel will go in but how they will do that is a big question.

“They are going to have to do something. You cannot lead your troops to the top of the hill and march them down again without a very good reason,” Mr Moran, who is also associate senior research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, told The National.

Skirmishes but little desire for regional war

A former French ambassador to Syria, Michel Duclos, said he expected Israel to hit Hamas hard enough to destroy its underground tunnel network while also avoiding "collateral damage".

This may entail a military incursion into a part of Gaza but not across the entire enclave, he said.

He pointed at fears in Lebanon of being sucked into a regional conflict that would destroy the already fragile country. "It's high-risk politics," Mr Duclos told The National.

Analysts believe most actors in the region do not want the conflict to escalate further.

There have been skirmishes between Israel and Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah and the US said it intercepted missiles fired by Houthi militants in Yemen.

Israel has also bombed Syrian airports at Damascus and Aleppo in what was viewed widely as a warning to Iran to not get involved. In an act of deterrence, the Pentagon has also deployed two aircraft carriers in the past two weeks.

"Iran is showing its ability to make trouble but would have too much to lose with a regional war," said Syrian author Firas Kontar. "It cannot risk losing [ally and Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad."

High-level diplomatic contacts continue between western, Arab and Israeli officials and many hope that the possibility of a regional spillover will decrease if there is no full-scale Israeli ground operation in Gaza.

"Our diplomatic efforts alongside the US and the UN are designed to try to contain the conflict," said Mr Borrell at a press conference in Luxembourg. He warned that "at any moment, a spark might fly that would provoke a spread of the conflict."

Analysts have pointed at a the risk of a widening rift between the West, viewed as pro-Israeli, and the Arab world, where there is strong pro-Palestinian sentiment.

Mr Duclos expressed worry that the split will continue to grow.

"The dialogue between the Global South and the Global North needs to be extended to security issue," he said. "This misunderstanding cannot go on."

Confusion in Brussels

Europe has so far aligned itself with the US, which has traditionally the strongest diplomatic ties with Israel.

This approach has been criticised, including by EU staff, as European Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen has come under fire over her pro-Israeli approach.

The Commission also gave contradictory statements about cutting Palestinian aid after the Hamas attacks.

Mr Borrell has been trying "desperately to get back to a more even-handed approach", said Mr Moran, but the confusion has rendered Brussels' response more irrelevant than ever to Israel and Arab countries.

Many European leaders have visited Israel in recent weeks in a show of support, and France's President Emmanuel Macron is expected to arrive there on Tuesday. France is one of the few European countries that speaks directly to Hezbollah.

There have been no calls for a ceasefire, neither from the US nor from Brussels, unlike in past instances of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2021, the EU called for a truce six days after an eruption of violence.

Calling for a "humanitarian pause" is "a less ambitious objective than a ceasefire", Mr Borrell told a press conference in Luxembourg.

"For the humanitarian aid to arrive there has to be an interruption of hostilities, otherwise the humanitarian aid also will be destroyed in the process," he said.

There is a feeling among EU diplomats that this time, Israel needs to be given the freedom to respond to the Hamas attacks as it sees fit.

Hans-Jakob Schindler, a former German diplomat and Middle East expert, said Berlin’s position was that “this is not the time to tell the Israelis what to do”.

“Of course, as many nations have said, there are basic rules of war,” he said.

But on “particularly doing this or that, I don’t think that the German government is going to get involved or should get involved. On what basis would you say ‘delay it by a day’?”.

It is not easy for the EU to be viewed as credible by either side while trying to balance strong support for Israel with calls to preserve Palestinian civilian life. "It's a real problem," said Mr Moran.

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister, said at a meeting with her EU counterparts lives that it was like trying to “square a circle”.

Updated: October 24, 2023, 5:45 AM