The IDF’s war on Hamas is going better than it expected… for now
After a period of doubt as IDF troops idled on the Gaza border for weeks, Israel’s government has shown a serious commitment to the ground invasion of the Hamas-run enclave.
Three divisions are inside the northern half of the Gaza Strip, cutting the territory in half and making steady progress toward the heart of Gaza City.
A month into the war, launched in the wake of the Hamas massacres on October 7, the military and Israel’s political leadership boast of significant achievements against Hamas. Israel’s allies continue to support its attempts to destroy the terrorist organization, and the unity government running the war appears stable.
But there are reasons for concern, even if the war seems to have gone even better than expected at this point.
‘Very wisely, very carefully’
After October 7, experts warned that the impending ground invasion would be “very, very messy.” The US sent military experts to Israel to reportedly convince its leaders that urban combat would be too bloody, and that a more prudent path would be an operation consisting of airstrikes and special forces raids.
Israel instead went a different route, dispatching tanks, infantry, and combat engineers in deliberate maneuvers across the territory’s dunes and fields along the border before reaching Gaza City’s suburbs. Thousands of reservists joined much of the military’s active ground force inside the Strip.
Ten days in, some observers are breathing a cautious sigh of relief.
“I’m surprised by how well the ground invasion seems to be going,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “It seems to be going smoothly, progressing slowly. There has been no major mishap so far.”
“I think it’s going slightly better than I expected in terms of the rate of advance, the ratio of casualties,” concurred Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.
“Given the extremely complex conditions, they’re doing it very wisely, very carefully.”
Thirty-two IDF soldiers have died since the ground invasion began. Though every one of those deaths is felt deeply within an already grieving Israeli society, that figure is far lower than anticipated.
In 2014, the army told the government that retaking the Strip would cost hundreds of soldiers’ lives, and the Israel Defense Forces would face numerous abductions by Hamas. It would also take some five years, the military said.
A retired IDF general said that just taking Gaza City would cost the lives of up to 700 soldiers.
But in a week and a half of urban combat against an enemy that had more than 15 years to prepare its defenses, Israel has lost fewer soldiers than it did in the final act of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Even more importantly, the IDF seemingly has so far done what it wants, when it wants. Hamas can shoot off RPGs before rushing back into tunnels, but it has not shown itself capable of doing anything that would keep the IDF from reaching exactly where it wants to go.
IDF soldiers are able to calmly record videos of themselves dedicating the destruction of Hamas tunnels to slain relatives.
There are even reports of IDF assessments that Hamas’s will to fight is plummeting under relentless Israeli pressure.
Such assessments could be hyperbole, but there have been no Hamas surprises since Israel moved in. The terror group appears to have been set back on its heels, struggling to react as the IDF retains the initiative.
At this stage in the war and in the ground phase, the tactical and operational situation seem as good as Israel could have expected.
One important caveat: Israel’s leaders have insisted that the ground operation will hasten the release of the 240 hostages. In fact, only 1 soldier has been extricated, and Hamas is not showing signs of feeling pressured to release them.
Crucially, furthermore, even as Israeli forces move in on Hamas’s headquarters in Gaza City, a pressing question looms over the entire war — how much time does Israel have?
When Israel goes to war, a diplomatic clock starts ticking. The IDF has to reach its objectives before international pressure becomes so great that it has to agree to a ceasefire.
There was almost nothing Egypt could do to keep Israel from destroying its Third Army at the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but intense US pressure convinced Jerusalem to halt the offensive before it wanted to. In 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, Israeli shells struck a UN compound near the village of Qana, killing over a hundred civilians. International outrage forced Israel to wrap up the operation against Hezbollah.
“There’s an inherent contradiction for Israel,” noted Michael Makovsky, CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. “By being more careful, it can minimize not only IDF casualties but also civilian casualties in Gaza. But the operation also takes longer.”
“The world is very impatient already,” he warned.
The government does not agree with that sentiment, according to spokesman Eylon Levy.
“Democratic nations, the nations that suffered from ISIS attacks and from Islamist extremism, understand that this war can only end one way. It has to end with the defeat of Hamas,” Levy said.
“There is no international pressure to stop the operation against Hamas,” concurred Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat.
“Diplomatically, it’s a mixed bag,” Oren opined. “You have to distinguish between popular reaction and government reaction. Obviously, there are huge demonstrations in Europe, on American campuses, but the French government has been relatively good. The British government’s been good, the Italian government’s been good. And it’s all for the same reason.
“It’s because they know they’re next.”
Foreign Ministry polling backs up that assertion. It says it has found that 80% of the French public believes an October 7-style attack could happen in their country, and 65% support Israel’s operation.
The US is, of course, the key player in determining how much time Israel has to prosecute its wars. Though Washington is sensitive to pressure from allies, and to threats from enemies, it has the power to veto UN Security Council resolutions and limit the public statements in Europe and the Middle East.
“We need Biden against the ceasefire, which is the biggest threat to this country,” said Oren.
So far, Biden has stuck his neck out for Israel, holding the line at the UN and back home. White House staffers and State Department employees have protested Biden’s firm support for Israel, and his own 2024 campaign team is reportedly in turmoil over the issue. But he doesn’t look like he is about to budge any time soon.
“That tells you that we have space,” said Lerman. “However, you must use it wisely, both operationally and politically.”
“Two, three more idiocies at the level of Minister [Amichai] Eliyahu and we shoot ourselves in foot,” he continued, referring to the far-right heritage minister who caused an international stir by musing about nuking the Gaza Strip.
Even if he is not calling for a ceasefire, Biden is applying pressure on Israel. In his Monday phone call with Netanyahu, Biden asked for a “tactical pause” in the fighting to allow aid in and perhaps hostages out.
“He will continue to push for humanitarian measures,” said Daniel Byman, senior fellow at CSIS and professor at Georgetown University, “and this is likely to grow as Palestinian casualties mount and especially after any high-profile deaths of Palestinian civilians.”
Government officials also acknowledge that the rising death toll in Gaza will create growing challenges.
“Reinforcing that international alliance against Hamas is going to be difficult as images come out of Gaza,” said Levy. “But we know from statements made by world leaders right at the start of the war that they understand that this is a strategic imperative, not only for Israel, but for the whole world.”
But even though support for Israel remains firm where it matters, that can change in an instant.
“It’s not the incremental amount,” said Oren. “It’s the sudden, what I call the Kfar Qana Syndrome, which could happen anytime.”
“The international window of legitimacy can change very quickly,” cautioned Haiat.
In the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel struck near Qana again, this time bringing down a building on 28 civilians, including 16 children. Footage of the deaths forced Israel to halt operations for 48 hours, and increased pressure — including from Washington — for a ceasefire.
“If it had been our airstrike on the hospital, we might be in a different game right now,” said Oren, referring to the October 17 explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital that Hamas immediately blamed on Israel. Experts and Western countries largely agree a rocket misfire from within Gaza, and not an Israeli strike, caused the deadly blast.
“When you’re fighting in this type of dense, built-up areas,” Oren warned, “you’re only one tank shell or one JDAM away from Qana.”
Originally Published in Times of Israel.