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What Israel’s ground offensive can – and cannot – accomplish

OpinionWhat Israel’s ground offensive can – and cannot – accomplish

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Nearly three weeks after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks left 1,400 Israelis dead, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the start of “new stage” of its war in Gaza and the start of its much anticipated ground offensive. But what can such an operation hope to achieve and why launch such a campaign now?

For starters, a ground offensive offers Israel the chance to root out Hamas’ infrastructure in Gaza. Much public attention already has focused on the so-called “Gaza metro” – the vast subterranean infrastructure where Hamas allegedly keeps much of its weapons and personnel. Gaza’s Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, has boasted that Hamas has built over 500 kilometers of these tunnels under the Strip. 

Airstrikes alone cannot destroy a network that extensive. During Israel’s most recent clash with Hamas – Operation Guardian of the Walls, in 2021 – the Israeli military conducted over 1,500 strikes on Gaza, but successfully damaged only 5% of Gaza’s tunnels – at least, according to Sinwar.  

Israeli airstrike in Gaza Strip

Smoke and flame rise following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Nov. 2, 2023. (Ali Jadallah/Anadolu via Getty Images)

And while the current Israeli air campaign is already more than four times as intense as 2021’s, striking targets so deep underground, and from thousands of feet in the air, is quite technically challenging.  

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The ground offensive also offers Israel a chance – by no means a certain one – to rescue hostages. Israel has conducted rescue operations in the past, perhaps most famously during the 1976 Entebbe Operation, where Israeli commandos, led by Yonatan Netanyahu – the prime minister’s older brother – rescued Israeli hostages from a hijacked Air France airliner in Uganda. 

The older Netanyahu died in that operation, but the rescue remains enshrined in Israel’s military and cultural lore, and helped launch the younger Netanyahu’s political fortunes.

Hostage rescues are inherently risky, especially given that the 240 hostages are likely held in multiple locations throughout the Gaza Strip. But in this case, Israel may feel as though it has no other choice. 

While Hamas has released a handful of hostages, and promised to free 50 more, it also says it wants to exchange the bulk of the more than 200 hostages for 6,000 Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli custody. This is a nonstarter for Israel. 

In 2011, Israel exchanged over 1,000 Palestinian militants – some convicted of murder – in exchange for a single Israeli soldier. Israel alleges that some of these militants returned to the battlefield and killed more Israelis. 

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Given the ferocity of the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel is not likely willing to make a similarly lopsided deal again, leaving a military option as one of the few ways to get the hostages home. As Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said when hailing the recent rescue of one captured Israeli soldier, “This is further proof of our ability to reach the hostages [and] the importance of the ground operation [to accomplish this aim].”

A ground offensive also offers Israel the chance to wrest the Gaza Strip from Hamas’ control. Experts debate whether states can destroy terrorist groups through repression. Military force, however, can clearly dislodge a terrorist group from the territory that it controls, at least temporarily. 

The United States succeeded for at least two decades in breaking the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan. Sri Lanka crushed the Tamil Tigers after long and bloody offensive. More recently, the United States and its Iraqi partners eventually destroyed Islamic State’s physical caliphate, though not its ideology.

Denying Hamas a physical sanctuary would be no small victory. Even if Hamas is not destroyed but driven underground, the group would no longer have the same ability to plan and stage large scale terrorist attacks like those that occurred on Oct. 7. 

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Hamas would also lose the ability to syphon off aid and taxes from Gaza’s already impoverished population to fund its coffers – which it did for an estimated $450 million a year.

Perhaps most importantly, a ground invasion may be able to break the perpetual cycle of Israeli-Hamas wars that has plagued the region for almost two decades. 

Given Hamas’ entrenched commitment to destroying the state of Israel, a continuous drumbeat of ever-bloodier Gaza wars was, to a degree, inevitable. Removing Hamas from political power – even if such an operation does not destroy the organization itself – allows for the possibility for something better to come instead.

Whether Gaza becomes more peaceful and prosperous over the long-term, however, depends almost entirely on Israel recognizing what a ground offensive cannot accomplish. It certainly will not be able to break Palestinian nationalism, nor will it be able stamp out Hamas’ brutal ideology. 

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Indeed, it is easy to imagine how – in the aftermath of what has already been a destructive military operation, and promises to be only bloodier as the ground offensive picks up steam – Gaza becomes even more of a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism, if not by Hamas, then by another group.

Achieving a long-term solution in Gaza then will require that Israel’s ground offensive be followed by what will be an equally intensive and arguably more challenging task: rebuilding. Not just rebuilding Gaza’s destroyed infrastructure, but its society as well. That’s a lengthy and expensive task. And unlike ground operations, there is no doctrine for how to reconstruct an economy, to undertake political reforms, or to heal what will be a deeply traumatized and hostile population. 

The history of military-led reconstruction efforts are, at best, a mixed bag – a handful of notable successes, like post-World War II efforts in Germany and Japan; and equally infamous failures, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if Israel attempts such effort, it may still fail.

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But while the success of any reconstruction of effort is far certain, the likely outcome if there is no attempt to rebuild Gaza – growing extremism and a continuous drumbeat of these ever-bloodier Gaza wars – is all but guaranteed.

Netanyahu warned Israelis of a “long and hard” war ahead to destroy Hamas. Whether its quest will ultimately prove successful will depend as much on recognizing the limitations of its ground war as the operation’s success.

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