Israel’s army was still battling the final Hamas militants who remained on its territory on Sunday evening 36 hours after their devastating attack on the Jewish state. But the country’s leadership was already turning its attention to the next stage of the fighting.
Speaking after a security cabinet meeting, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country had now embarked on the “offensive phase” of the war, and pledged it would continue “with neither limitations nor respite until the objectives are achieved”.
As Netanyahu spoke, Israeli jets were pounding Hamas’s stronghold in the Gaza Strip. But given the unprecedented scale of the assault on Israel — during which militants killed more than 600 people, injured more than 2000, and took 100 hostage — Netanyahu and his far-right coalition was already facing a chorus of demands from supporters for far more aggressive action, including sending ground forces into the coastal enclave.
More than 400 Palestinians have already been killed in Gaza, and a further 2300 wounded since Israel began its retaliatory strikes on Saturday.
“We need to break the enemy’s bones,” ran a commentary in Sunday’s Israel rightwing Hayom newspaper. “We need to bring it to its knees until it begs us to stop, to strike at it mercilessly and to pummel it viciously.”
During his decade and a half as Israeli prime minister, which encompassed three previous wars with Hamas, Netanyahu built a reputation for relatively cautious leadership — despite his belligerent rhetoric.
Not since 2014, during the longest and deadliest of its wars with Hamas, has Israel sent ground forces into Gaza.
Former security officials said that if Israel’s objective was to cripple Hamas’s capabilities and prevent it carrying out another attack of the scale that it achieved this week — when hundreds of militants backed by rocket fire inflicted Israel’s worse death toll in a single assault since 1948 — it would have to put boots on the ground.
“I don’t see any way the Israeli government will be able avoid some kind of ground operation. How big, where, what the timing, I don’t know. But I don’t see a situation where we can do everything from the air,” said Itamar Yaar, former deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council. “It will have to be a combination of ground, air and sea.”
Others argued that sending ground forces was also necessary to deter Israel’s other enemies in the region, such as the Iran-backed Hizbollah group in Lebanon, from launching their own attacks on Israel, after its much vaunted military appeared to be caught unawares by Hamas’s assault.
“Anything less than invasion will be a grave mistake. We need to conquer Gaza, or at least most of it, and destroy Hamas. We cannot continue to do the things that we did before that are not working,” said Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military.
“Not doing that will be devastating for Israel’s ability to deter not only Hamas, but the whole region.”
But even after 2014, Hamas was able to regroup and maintain its control of the coastal enclave that Israel and Egypt have blockaded since 2007.
And any ground operation in the narrow streets of the densely populated enclave, where Hamas has spent years preparing for the possibility of an Israeli invasion, would be likely to result in a huge death toll: both for Palestinian civilians and Israeli forces.
“[Hamas’s] attack is a disaster for both Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas used the same type of barbaric tactics that we saw in the recent years by ISIS,” said Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer. “Now Israel will be able to commit terrible and extensive crimes and collective punishment while receiving total global immunity, even more than before.”
The situation has also been complicated by the 100 hostages — including women and children, civilians and soldiers, and US citizens — that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad, are holding in Gaza.
The number of Israelis being held presents Israel with an unprecedented challenge and securing their release will be a priority for the government. Locating the hostages in the enclave, beneath which Hamas has built hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, is likely to be difficult — raising the risk that Israeli forces could inadvertently kill hostages as they carry out operations.
“Hamas understand that every Israeli they keep with them makes our lives more complicated,” said Yaar.
Others argue that a ground operation is the only way to rescue the hostages. “The longer we wait the easier it is for Hamas to hide them,” said Yaakov Nagel, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies. “I don’t think they expected to get so many. Now is the time to do it.”
There has also been speculation that rather than deterring Israel’s enemies, an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza could lead Hizbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 and which has expressed solidarity with Hamas in recent days, to enter the conflict. On Sunday, its militants engaged in a brief cross-border exchange of fire with Israeli forces.
The biggest question is perhaps what Israel would do after it had completed an invasion. Except among the most fanatical hardliners, there is limited appetite for reoccupying the territory which Israel withdrew from in 2005. Officials are also aware that even if Israel was able to crush Hamas, leaving a power vacuum in the impoverished strip is not a recipe for stability.
“In the past few years, whether to take down Hamas was not really [on the agenda]. Today, it’s a big question,” said Zvika Haimovich, former commander of the Israel Air Defence Forces. “After [Hamas’s attack], these matters are on the table again.”
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava
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