Israel staged tanks and troops along its border with Gaza ahead of an offensive that is widely expected to begin imminently, last indefinitely and involve brutal and bloody fighting.
Israeli forces prepared to storm into Gaza on Thursday, staging tanks and troops along the border ahead of what’s expected to be a brutal and bloody boots-on-the-ground operation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promising for days.
Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists for combat – with tens of thousands expected to cross the border – in order to “crush and destroy” Hamas, which launched a horrific Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israeli citizens.
“Every member of Hamas is a dead man,” Netanyahu said.
The tactical move comes after multiple days of unrelenting airstrikes from Israel – dropping 6,000 bombs that have reduced neighborhoods to rubble. Israel also doubled down on its blockade of Gaza in recent days, banning food and fuel imports and cutting the electricity supply in the densely populated strip.
As it stands, at least 1,300 people have been killed in Israel, including at least 27 Americans. The death toll in Gaza stands at roughly 1,400 people, including many Palestinians who are not aligned with Hamas. It’s also believed that Hamas is holding captive up to 150 hostages, including a handful of Americans.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced the formation of an emergency unity government in Israel amid surging public anger over what experts describe as staggering intelligence failures that led to the bloodiest attack in Israel’s history. The agreement, which amounts to a power-sharing deal with Benny Gantz, the head of the center-right National Unity party, suggested to many that the ground mission was imminent.
The Israeli defense minister pledged to wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth.”
Although Gaza spans just about 140 square miles – about the size of Detroit – analysts say a ground invasion could last months. That’s because over 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, and Israel is expected to try to mitigate civilian deaths as it sweeps the area searching for Hamas members.
The challenges of moving through densely populated Gaza will be enormous. Hundreds of tunnels under Gaza could help Hamas conduct surprise attacks. Israeli forces can also expect rockets, anti-armor attacks and even the use of human shields when they enter Gaza.
The last time that Israeli forces entered Gaza was in 2014, so Hamas and other groups have had nearly a decade to change and adapt its defense mechanisms in Gaza’s cities.
“With the high population and population density, it’s going to be extremely difficult and extremely bloody fighting,” says Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Both sides will take significant casualties.”
Anticipating the escalation, President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu on Wednesday to abide by “the rules of war,” while simultaneously offering his full-throated support for Israel’s right to defend itself and pledges to provide support in the form of aid, munitions and tactical support – though stopping short of offering the assistance of U.S. troops on the ground.
“I have known Bibi for 40 years and we have frank conversations,” Biden said. “I told him that with all the anger and frustration it is important that Israel operates in Gaza according to the rules of war.”
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated that sentiment in a direct plea to Netanyahu to use restraint in the forthcoming attack on Hamas, designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
“We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it’s difficult,” Blinken said. “That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”
Blinken said what makes this a particularly difficult situation for Israel is how Hamas uses civilians as human shields.
“I think it’s first important to remember the fundamental issue that makes this complicated,” Blinken said. “Hamas continues to use civilians as human shields – something that’s not new, something that they’ve always done, intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way to try to protect themselves or protect their infrastructure or protect their weapons.”
“Of course, civilians should not be used in any way as the targets of military operations,” he continued. “They are not the target of Israel’s operations. We did discuss ways to address the humanitarian needs of people living in Gaza – to protect them from harm while Israel conducts its legitimate security operations to defend itself from terrorism and to try to ensure that this never happens again.”
Blinken said he also discussed with Netanyahu the possibilities for safe passage for civilians – though stopped short of providing any specifics.
Blinken met with Netanyahu on Thursday morning at military headquarters in Tel Aviv – the first stop on a multi-country diplomacy tour through the Middle East for Blinken, who was deployed by Biden to try to broker the release of American hostages, to show continued support for Israel and to prevent the conflict from spreading.
Concerns have been mounting over whether Iran or any of the militia groups it supports might seek to escalate the war – a scenario that threatens to drag the U.S. into a more complicated and chaotic situation. Of particular concern is the northern border of Israel with Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militarized Shiite group committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, has been trading rocket fire with Israeli forces.
In an attempt to warn off any such attempts, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed on Wednesday that military aid began flowing into Israel, along with munition and interceptors to bolster the country’s Iron Dome – the defense system that intercepts and explodes rockets mid-air to prevent them from reaching their target.
Earlier this week, Austin ordered American military ships, including the Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, to move closer to the eastern Mediterranean in response to the brutal attack by Hamas.
With Israel set to invade Gaza, it has a huge decision to make: Will it stay? The Israeli government would need to decide whether to potentially leave a weakened Hamas behind in Gaza or to overthrow its de facto administration.
“Neither option is appealing,” according to analysis from experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If Hamas survives, it will claim a strategic triumph over Israel. If it is overthrown, no moderate Palestinian force exists to replace it.”
Without a replacement, “Israel will have little choice but to assume direct control over Gaza, which will most likely exacerbate Palestinian militancy, deepen the divisions within Israeli society, and tie up its military and economic resources in an open-ended counterinsurgency campaign,” according to the analysis.
– Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder contributed to this report