Why has Israel held off on its ground invasion of Gaza?

Despite brief incursions into the enclave, the Israeli military is yet to launch a full-scale land offensive

Israeli soldiers look out towards Gaza – but whether they are sizing up a full-scale ground incursion remains to be seen. Getty Images
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Almost three weeks after Hamas stormed southern Israel, killing about 1,400 people and taking more than 200 hostages, a much-expected retaliatory ground offensive has yet to be launched.

Israel vowed to "crush" Hamas but thus far it has tried to do so through aerial bombardment, incursions into Gaza and a siege, under which humanitarian corridors were shut until last week, with only small amounts of aid trickling through since Saturday.

There have been inevitable questions over what has caused the delay and whether Israel is rethinking the scope of any planned invasion.

As Israel completes it mobilisation on the border with Gaza, a decision to send in ground troops for the first time since 2014 is one that international actors will be watching closely, not least due to its implications on hostage release and regional stability.

Washington says any decision to invade is up to Israel but the Biden administration is reportedly seeking to delay any invasion to allow more room for hostage negotiations and for humanitarian aid to arrive.

The Pentagon has sent ships and air defence systems to the region but not all are in place, so the US also needs more time for the security umbrella to be fully operational to respond to an expected increase in attacks by anti-Israeli groups in the event of an invasion.

Experts question what can be achieved by a land assault and some believe pressure from allies and public opinion in Israel may be partly behind the delay.

“There is no easy way out for the Israelis," James Moran, a former EU official and ex-ambassador to Egypt, told The National this week. "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.”

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.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prioritise hostage release, as he advised "targeted operations" in the Gaza Strip, rather than a full ground invasion.

While Israel has received unwavering support for its “right” to defend itself from the US, UK and EU, the bombing of targets in Gaza has raised concerns about the plight of civilians. Air strikes have killed more than 5,000 Palestinians, including 2,000 children, says Gaza’s Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas.

Ground troops are likely to increase the risk to civilians, as well as the number of casualties among Israeli soldiers. Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly asked Israel’s military to show “professionalism and restraint”, which he said was “an important part of preventing this becoming a regional conflict”.

Arab states, meanwhile, fear a ground invasion could spill over into a regional conflict. The risk of a second front mounting on the Lebanese border is still present, as Hezbollah and Israel have engaged in skirmishes since the Hamas attack on October 7.

While these concerns may delay an invasion, some experts say it is no longer a matter of “if, but when”.

“It’s just a last-minute collection of further intelligence,” said Bilal Saab, director of the defence and security programme at the Middle East Institute.

But he fears Israel lacks a strategy over what to do next. “What happens the day after [the Israeli military] destroys Hamas? Israel will not occupy Gaza,” he said. “Hamas 2.0 remains a possibility as long as Iran is willing to supply weapons to Palestinians who are willing to take arms and do battle with the Israelis."

The Israeli government’s pronouncements that they would “wipe out” Hamas was “not doing any favours” to the country’s military, he added. The military’s “most realistic” objective was to degrade the group’s military capabilities to compel it to disarm.

The protection of hostages added a “layer of complexity” to the operation. The Israeli military faced a choice between a “full-force” invasion, which put hostages' lives at risk, or a more “surgical one”, which gave Hamas “the opportunity to fight back”.

Mr Saab stressed there was “no military solution” to the conflict, with another group likely to emerge from the war should Hamas be destroyed.

Pressure is also mounting from Israelis themselves, as the families of hostages ask for the return of their loved ones to be made a priority. Outside the Israeli military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, some relatives of those being held captive have organised sit-ins, begging their army to negotiate.

With the hostages in mind, there are two opposing opinions on what a ground invasion would achieve. Some say that the assault could put the hostages’ lives at risk but others believe the threat will lead to hostages being released. There are fears that the hostages could be used as “human shields” as Hamas seeks to protect itself.

At a press briefing at the Israeli embassy in London, the families of hostages highlighted this “moral dilemma”.

British-Israeli Ayelet Svatitzky, whose mother and brother are being held hostage by Hamas, said Israel had a dual remit – to protect the hostages but also to ensure her family could continue to live safely in southern Israel.

“Israel has a responsibility for hostages and for their release,” she said. “But they also have a responsibility for life to exist on the border of Gaza.”

Some Israeli politicians have suggested neutralising Hamas should take priority over the hostages. "We have to be cruel now and not to think too much about the hostages [in Gaza]," Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was reported to have said.

"It's time for action."

The Israeli government will also be considering the regional implications of a ground invasion, said Prof Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at Chatham House’s Mena programme.

“What will it do to relations with countries that have already signed a peace agreement with Israel? A ground invasion risks destabilising the region and creating a potential refugee crisis in the region and in Europe,” he told The National.

Israel is in danger of compromising its existing diplomatic relations with the Arab world – which underwent a new wave of normalisation agreements through the Abraham Accords in 2020. An influx of Palestinian refugees into the Egypt – which Cairo views as a red line to its 40-year peace agreement with Israel – is only one of the factors that could jeopardise these relations.

But at the core of it is an existential question about the lasting “image of Israel” itself, both at home and abroad.

Israel neutralising Hamas through the complete destruction of the Gaza Strip and at the expense of Palestinian lives may have repercussions for the long term. “As Israel has been warned by President Biden and others, democracies fight differently from terrorists and Israel’s reputation as a democracy would be tarnished if the death toll among Palestinians continues to rise,” said Prof Mekelberg.

Updated: October 25, 2023, 11:40 AM