By now, Israel should have invaded Gaza again. The Great March of Return has won worldwide respect for Gazans and encouraged their resistance. This Israeli defeat in global opinion, along with the fires on the Israeli side of the border caused by Palestinian kites, should have already prompted a massive ground attack. Previous Israeli invasions, in 2008, 2012 and 2014, required fewer pretexts.
What’s more, Benjamin Netanyahu faces serious political threats, which must sorely tempt him to attack; he and his wife are under scrutiny in multiple corruption probes, and Israeli farmers near the Gaza border loudly hold him responsible for the damage caused by the burning kites. Netanyahu’s top concern is always his own political future, and a Gaza invasion would distract nicely from his problems.
But Israel’s ground forces stay put. Two respected analysts of Israel’s military explain why: the Hamas resistance movement has prepared strong defenses inside Gaza that have raised the costs of an invasion above an acceptable level. Amos Harel, who covers the military for Haaretz, is an unsentimental reporter with excellent sources. He outlined Israel’s weakness in a recent piece headlined, “If Israel had to enter Gaza today, the Israeli army would have a big problem.”
In the useful website War on the Rocks, a retired Israeli colonel named Shimon Arad has more details. He explains that during the 2014 invasion, Hamas surprised the Israeli invaders with “subterranean warfare from a developed tunnel system located in the towns and refugee camps inside the Gaza Strip.” Arad says Israel is successfully countering the Hamas-dug tunnels into Israeli territory, but has not found an answer to Hamas’s underground defenses in Gaza itself. He goes on, clearly a bit ruefully, that an invasion today means that
. . . Israel would now have to maneuver into the densely populated Palestinian cities and refugee camps, saturated with tunnels under houses and fighting positions, in order to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities. This is designed to make an Israeli maneuver costly, thereby deterring the operation entirely or cutting it short because of pressure from the Israeli public and regional and international actors to stop the fighting.
Max Blumenthal already reported this change in Hamas’s military strategy some years ago. In his valuable account of the 2014 conflict, The 51 Day War, he described a decisive clash at the beginning of that year’s invasion, in the Shujaiya neighborhood. Soldiers from Al-Qassam, the Hamas armed wing, “lured an [Israeli] M113 armored personnel carrier onto a field laced with improvised explosive devices. That the Israelis had invaded using a thinly-armored Vietnam-era American relic signaled their underestimation of Al-Qassam’s capabilities. The vehicle went up in a ball of flames, killing six soldiers inside. . .”
Blumenthal explains that the unexpected heavy losses prompted Israel to pull back its ground forces, and only continued the attack from the air, which is how most of the 2200 Gazans died, the vast majority of them civilians.
The absence of another invasion of Gaza is a reminder that Israel’s government only responds to real pressure. Israeli ground forces are not staying home because anyone has persuaded Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet that Gazans deserve to have their human rights respected. Israel is not invading because armed Palestinians are waiting to ambush them if they do.
Of course, real pressure on Israel does not have to be potentially violent. We can only hope that the campaign for Boycott Divestment Sanctions, as it continues to grow, will eventually make a comprehensive settlement more likely. The only alternative is more violence, extending endlessly into the future — because the Palestinian people will never give up their fight.