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19:36

08 APR 2024

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  • Jenna Romano

More War? Why Has Israel Expanded Its Ground Operation?


Why is Israel continuously expanding its ground operations in Gaza? What is the goal? What has been achieved? Why is the operation so problematic? 


Israeli ground troops

Photo by IDF Spokesperson Unit licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license



  • Israel formally declared a state of war against Hamas on October 8, emphasizing its intent for a ground operation. 


  • Since the start of the war, the IDF has continued to expand its ground operations which presents a slew of complications for both Israel and Gaza. 


 

A Look at Israel's Ground War Starts With What Happened On October 7


On October 7th, 2023, Israel suffered a surprise attack when the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas launched thousands of rockets towards the country while simultaneously infiltrating by ground and by air. Alongside the barrage of 5,000 missiles, a coordinated assault by 3,000 terrorists associated with Hamas breached the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel. The attackers infiltrated into 22 Israeli locations, including towns and communities up to 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the border.   


Terrorists slaughtered both civilians and soldiers in nearby towns and at the Re’im Music festival. They butchered entire communities—murdering around 1,300 Israelis and Arab citizens, as well as foreigners, and injuring 3,300 while 240 were taken hostage into Gaza. Most of these victims were innocent civilians, and many of them were children, young adults, and women. 


After immediately retaliating with IAF attacks Israel formally declared a state of war against Hamas on October 8. At that time, the IDF activated around 300,000 IDF reservists. The counteroffensive attack, officially coined “Operation Swords of Iron,” had begun. 


As Israel moves forward with its “Swords of Iron” operation in Gaza, the IDF's mission on the ground continues to grow. In this article, we will have a look at why Israel is expanding its ground operations and highlight some of its most important aspects. 



Why Is Israel At War With Hamas? 


The threat—present and potential—of Hamas’s attack was a major catalyst for Israel to launch into a full-out war. Within hours, the number of casualties had devastated Israel and shocked the world. Without a doubt, October 7th was an unprecedented massacre and one of the biggest attacks on Israel in its history. 


Israel decided early Saturday morning on October 7 to respond with a counter-defensive attack. Around 8:30 AM, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on X (formerly Twitter) stating explicitly, “We are at war,” as hundreds of thousands of reservists were called to duty and the IAF began attacking Gaza.  


The military operation is a “decisive effort by Israel to safeguard the security and well-being of its citizens and to address the challenges posed by extremist elements in the region.” Many wondered how a catastrophe like this could happen in Israel, a country with one of the strongest defense and intelligence teams in the world. In the period leading up to the October 7th attacks, some argue that Netanyahu’s government became too complacent to prevent a scenario like this—underestimating Hamas's motives, capabilities, and military strength in the Gaza Strip.  


A ground invasion is important to Israel this time around. This is because, in the past, frictions between Israel and Hamas usually led to limited IDF responses, focused mainly on using air strikes. However, the compromises that resulted from these exchanges in the past are not strong enough this time considering the extent of Hamas’ attack. Similarly, with a ceasefire, Israel fears another failure to thwart Hamas’s power and alliances will result in future attacks. 


With the declaration of the Israel-Hamas war, Netanyahu announced a singular objective for the war: “To defeat the murderous enemy. We declared ‘never again,’ and we reiterate: ‘never again, now.’” 


Still, it would take weeks until the full-fledged ground offensive was up and running. 



Why Is Israel Expanding Its Ground Operation In Gaza? 


During the first days following Hamas’s attack on Israel, the IDF mobilized thousands of army reservists declaring a state of readiness for war. The Security Cabinet met overnight, deciding on a series of operational decisions aimed at ”bringing about the destruction of the military and governmental capabilities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.” Both of these groups are considered Proxy Islamic Terrorist organizations that receive the majority of their funding from Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran.  

 

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, an estimated 12,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza. At this time, the IDF is no longer focused on responding with only artillery fire. Below, we’ll highlight some key aspects of why Israel is growing its ground operations and how Gaza is responding. 


Israel’s expansion of its ground operation and counter-attack has three  primary goals: 


  • Defense against future attacks 

  • Dismantling Hamas 

  • Return of all Israeli and foreign hostages 



Ground Operations And Israel’s Need For Defense Against Future Attacks 


For the communities affected by the massacre, such as Kibbutz Be’eri and Nahal Oz, returning to their homes depends not only on rebuilding but also on the promise of future safety and security. Thousands of residents from Israel’s south have been evacuated to other locations in the country where they remain to this day. 


After a meeting with his security cabinet on October 7th, Netanyahu declared that “[The IDF’s] first objective is to clear out the hostile forces that infiltrated our territory and restore the security and quiet to the communities that have been attacked." 


This goal is not insignificant, since Hamas has already threatened to release their wrath on Israel again, "The 'Al-Aqsa Flood is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth because we have the determination, the resolve and the capabilities to fight," said Hamas official Ghazi Hamad in an interview with Lebanon media. Documents, statements, and previous sentiments from Gazan leaders also indicate that Hamas’s goals for the October 7th attack reflected genocidal intent


A sense of future security, however, does not only depend on military and diplomatic actions. At the moment, Israel faces a more personal challenge: restoring Israelis’ confidence that their government and army can provide for their security. 



Dismantling Hamas Requires A Ground Invasion of Gaza


Another clear goal of Israel’s ground invasion is to strip Hamas of its organizational and military capabilities. While announcing Israel’s declaration of war, Netanyahu pointed out that alongside the primary goal of stabilizing security in Israel, "the second objective, at the same time, is to exact an immense price from the enemy, within the Gaza Strip as well.” 


The IDF sees its objective to destroy Hamas as part of a bigger, long-term responsibility to not only defend Israeli citizens but thwart Hamas’s systematic abuse of Gazans. Following the initial counter-operation and the expanding ground operations for the second phase of the war, the IDF Chief of Staff told soldiers, “Our responsibility now is to enter Gaza, to go to the places where Hamas is preparing, acting, planning, launching. Attack them everywhere, every commander, every operative, destroy infrastructure.” 


Using on-the-ground tactics has the aim of drawing Hamas out from the safety of tunnels and from under the cover of dense urban regions—it is a forceful way to bring fighters into open areas where they can be more easily identified. Once Hamas commanders and fighters are more exposed, they can be more easily targeted. This is not the case in IAF attacks and artillery. A drawn-out ground invasion is also a way to degrade the strength of Hamas fighters and leadership.  


Many discussions have been held attempting to provide answers for how Israel will settle things after the war and prevent future terrorist attacks—especially if Hamas is successfully wiped out of the picture. Some solutions include more involvement of a safety force, including the five Arab states who have reached peace agreements with Israel and have the nation’s confidence—Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. 



Return of All Hostages Requires Ground Forces


Israel believes that 136 of the hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7th still remain in Gaza, although not all of them are thought to be alive. This is after 105 were released during a weeklong truce in November. The mission to bring all of them home has been a priority for Israel’s ground operation from the start. 


According to Netanyahu, the ground invasion is expected to increase pressure on Hamas by eliminating key leaders, targets, and weapons. As Hamas’s abilities weaken, and pressure increases, a greater chance that they will give in to demands to return all of the captives held in Gaza arises. Israel also believes that many hostages are held deep within Hamas’s network of tunnels, which can only be precisely navigated with troops on the ground. Lastly, Israel hopes that with a long, on-the-ground campaign, time itself will potentially leave more room to rescue hostages. 


On October 31, a successful mission rescued Ori Megidish, but, since then, the perils of hostage rescues in Gaza have become more difficult for the IDF to bring live hostages home. Some efforts to recover the bodies of fallen hostages, however, have been successful. 


A heavy focus on diplomatic efforts brokered by Qatar resulted in a truce deal that allowed for the release of 78 Israeli and dual-national hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. The vast majority of hostages returned during the ceasefire in November were women and children. 

 

Bringing the hostages home remains one of the top priorities and goals today. Families of Israeli hostages remain unified in this mission, putting pressure on the government and stressing the need to make the return of captives its priority. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with families of hostages from Kibbutz Be’eri last month, he reiterated, “Rescuing them is the highest mission,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office. 



The Realities of Ground Operations In Gaza 


This war is possibly one of the toughest wars fought in Israel’s history. In addition to salvos of artillery fire, the IDF has strategic reasons to operate in Gaza on the ground. Within such a dense urban environment, the vertical layout means the range of artillery fire presents more risk of harming civilians


In this situation, IDF soldiers on the ground can aim more accurately and accomplish more succinct targeted attacks against Hamas militants. A lesson that the IDF has learned in the past is that even the most precise bombing from the air cannot achieve the destruction of targets in Gaza. 


They are also focused on the objective of uncovering and targeting a system of subterranean tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip. Although this is a slow and cumbersome mission, the IDF has uncovered some of the biggest tunnels to date and is steadfast in its goal to destroy them. 



The Main Challenges  A Ground Invasion Presents to The IDF


From its clever use of weaponry to ancient-style “terror” tunnels—many will argue that Hamas has an asymmetrical advantage over Israel as the IDF progresses with its ground operation. Although Israel has a stronger army, chances are that its force is being exploited by Hamas’s confusing tactics, such as the setting up of ambushes and booby traps. Not to mention, the innate challenges presented by urban warfare. 



The Urban environment


Fighting in Gaza means fighting in crowded quarters and Hamas fighters are dispersed everywhere. Hamas militants fight from within and around refugee camps, forcing the IDF to make tough decisions when it comes to what attacks are necessary. For example, Israel is criticized for targeting al-Shati camp since it was home to approximately 150,000 people. The area, however, proved to be a Hamas stronghold, “Inside the camp, there is a lot of enemy infrastructure and many forces of Hamas were concentrated there, including the al-Shati Battalion, which took a central part in the October 7 [attacks],” says one IDF representative. 



Danger to civilians


Israel often claims that Hamas “uses civilians as human shields.,”As the IDF’s presence on the ground increases, they are uncovering many instances where Gazan civilians are indeed used as tools by their own government instead of being protected. For example, many military weapons have been found in schools and private homes—even under the beds of children. 


Despite the IDF’s persistent warnings to evacuate civilians, Hamas steadfastly pressures Gaza residents to stay put. On October 13th, IDF expanded its operations north, warning communities above the Wadi Gaza to evacuate. Many controversies surrounding this order arose. Hamas officials warned Gazans not to leave their homes, even setting up roadblocks to stop Gaza residents from evacuating to the south.  


Many condemned Hamas for this as an ongoing part of their use of civilians as “human shields.” 

The IDF was also criticized by organizations like the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders, for not allowing humanitarian aid to enter the strip until mid-October, as well as setting unrealistic expectations with evacuation orders that were “outrageous” and “impossible.” 



Civilian cooperation 


The IDF repeatedly discovers new “out of bounds” places where Hamas stores its weapons.  Hamas places weapons and stockpiles of hidden RPGs and explosives in residential homes, UN facilities, children’s bedrooms, hospitals, and refugee camps. Since the release of Israeli and foreign national hostages, survivors testified about being held by civilian families during captivity, with even one claiming he was held by a UNRWA teacher in Gaza




Israel’s Ground Invasion Into Gaza: What’s Been Achieved So Far? 


The ground invasion in Gaza is described by Israel’s former director of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, as a low-intensity ground war—albeit an effective one. He told reporters.  “This is a low-intensity conflict. It is not a blitzkrieg, it’s inch by inch, meter by meter,” 


By October 10th, the IDF airstrikes killed Zachariah Abu Ma'amar, a senior member of Hamas who was a major decision-maker and known as a confidant to Yahya Sinwar. They also struck important Hamas operational and political centers, including nearly 20 military compounds and operational headquarters within the first hours of the war. 


Two days following this attack, the IDF commenced its ground invasion with Yoav Gallant, Israeli defense minister, announcing a total blockade of the Gaza Strip. By that time, the IDF announced that 426 Hamas targets had been hit, including bombing Hamas’s Nukhba forces (a special unit that claimed responsibility for the activities on October 7th).  


During the next three weeks, Israel set up the rest of its forces on the ground, placing thousands of troops on the borders while opening humanitarian corridors for evacuation. On October 27th, the second phase of the ground offensive started in Northern Gaza. Despite the risks presented in maneuvering in the urban neighborhoods, more than 20,000 IDF troops encircled Gaza City from the beach to the northern checkpoint in Beit Hanan. Here, soldiers on the ground disabled bombs and performed a naval raid, which cleared the path for a larger assault. This set up the next stage of the attack: cutting Gaza in half to push out Hamas from the south. After one month, over 12,000 targets were bombed. 


In late December, intensifying IDF efforts to kill top Hamas leaders led the military to expand their operations even further into the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis. Warnings to Palestinians to evacuate the area were pushed amidst increasing Israeli airstrikes. 

As of December 31, 2023, Israeli forces have withdrawn five brigades from within the Gaza Strip. Assuming, however, that this withdrawal means the ground operation will ease down is false. This move is consistent with the IDF”s  transition into the next phase of operations in Southern Gaza. 


Although few troops will remain in the north, the ground operation plans to expand toward the south of the Gaza Strip during the next phase of combat. On January 2nd, Defense Minister Gallant said that despite destroying 12 Hamas battalions already, “terrorists still remain,”. He added, “A few thousand of the 15,000 or 18,000 were in the [north]. A large number of them were eliminated, and others fled to the south.”  



 

Sources 




X (formerly Twitter), Benjamin Netanyahu status update, October 7, 2023


The Nation, The Catastrophe of October 7. Why Did It Happen?, October 12, 2023 





The Economist, The Gaza Strip: Who’s in charge?, March 9, 20124 



Institute for the Study of War, New interactive map of Israeli ground operations 



The Atlantic, Understanding Hamas’s Genocidal Ideology, October 10, 2023


 

X (formerly Twitter), Eretz Israel status update, October 15, 2023 


The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel’s War Aims and the Principles of a Post-Hamas Administration in Gaza, October 17, 2023 








Foreign Affairs, Hamas’s Asymmetric Advantage What Does It Mean to Defeat a Terrorist Group?, November 22, 2023 



IDF 2023 Resources, A terrorist ambush that used dolls as a lure, December 15, 2023 








 

Jenna Romano


Jenna Romano is a writer, editor and blogger. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Telavivian, Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, Portfolio, Wix Blog, and more.

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