Multiple times in recent days, Israeli tanks and armored vehicles penetrated the Gaza Strip, engaged Hamas militants and hit select targets in preparation for an inevitable, full-scale ground invasion.
“We are preparing,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, ominously hinting at what is to come. “I will not elaborate.”
Israel’s ally, the United States, has appeared steadfast in supporting Israel’s decision.
“They have a right and a responsibility to go after Hamas after what happened on October 7,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday, noting the Hamas terror attacks that massacred 1,400 people, the vast majority civilians.
The view is shared by multiple counterterrorism, intelligence and security officials, as well as by some experts, who argue there is a compelling case for Israel to take more drastic action to curtail the threat from Hamas — a U.S.-designated terror organization thought to command between 20,000 and 25,000 fighters as well as thousands more from other, smaller extremist groups in Gaza.
These former officials, however, cautioned that even though a ground operation may be justified, it comes with significant risks — to Israel, to Israeli forces and especially to Palestinian civilians living under Hamas rule in Gaza. And some also note, while Israel appears set on this course, it is not the only option.
Israel’s air campaign
The starting point for some of these former officials is Israel’s now three-week-old air campaign, in some cases carrying out as many as 250 airstrikes in a 24-hour period, against purported Hamas targets in Gaza.
The images of the aftermath of these strikes, including flattened neighborhoods, dead or wounded children and grieving families, are admittedly heart-wrenching, they say. But they also point out the Israeli air campaign has yet to stop Hamas from repeatedly launching rockets into Israel.
“You can see why they’re reluctant to leave it to airstrikes,” a former Western counterterrorism official told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the conflict.
“The airstrikes are insufficiently surgical,” the official added, arguing that from a counterterrorism viewpoint, the argument for Israel to agree to a cease-fire after airstrikes alone is weak.
“What you’re doing really is just inviting a return to the status quo and you may not do a great deal of damage to Hamas infrastructure because of a lot of it is hidden, a lot of it is underground,” the official said.
“Have you inflicted enough pain to make it less likely that that same thing will happen again?” the official asked. “Airstrikes have not done the job in the past.”
Daniel Hoffman, a retired U.S. clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA, agreed.
“Israel tried that. They tried to degrade Hamas with an air campaign and deter Hamas, but deterrence failed,” he told VOA.
“Israel’s concluded that they cannot allow Hamas to enjoy ungoverned space in Gaza to plot terrorist attacks, because they’ll do it,” Hoffman added. “So, Israel has to go and take the fight to the enemy, so to speak.”
Alternatives to ground incursion
A former Israeli security official who spoke to VOA said that at one point, Israel could have considered other options.
One would have been to secure the country following the initial Hamas attack and then use the military to create a buffer zone inside Gaza. This option, the former official said, would have pushed Hamas fighters farther back from the border with Israel and given Israel time to seek the release of the approximately 200 hostages taken by Hamas militants.
Israel then could have taken its time, methodically hunting down Hamas leaders and commanders.
But the former Israeli official cautioned that the brutality of the Hamas attack could have made that approach politically untenable.
“Hamas doesn’t view this as another round … Hamas decided to go all in,” the former official said. “This is the ultimate attack that Hamas can do.”
“We have to get rid of Hamas,” the former official said. “If we don’t do it now, when will we?”
As for eliminating Hamas from the air alone, “we cannot just do this from bombing from the air unless we inflict much more civilian casualties,” the former official added.
Already, the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry has blamed Israeli airstrikes for killing more than 7,000 people, including at least 2,900 children and 1,500 women.
U.S. and Israeli officials have publicly challenged those numbers, with Israeli defense officials contending they are targeting only Hamas fighters, weapon stockpiles, infrastructure and military capabilities. No one, however, disputes that the overall civilian death toll among Palestinians in Gaza is likely in the thousands.
Even the former Israeli security official who said a ground incursion would allow Israeli forces to be more surgical in targeting Hamas than an even heavier bombing campaign admitted a ground operation would see the civilian death toll rise.
“Of course, it will be bloody. War is bloody,” the former official said, describing Hamas as “very disciplined.”
“They have built up their defenses very well and very deep,” the former Israeli official said. “They mastered the ability to put a lot of their infrastructure in places where they know there are civilians.”
The Israeli military has sought to back up those claims, sharing intelligence alleging to show how Hamas uses hospitals, including Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, as command-and-control centers for its attack on Israel.
Current and former Israeli officials say those command-and-control centers are connected to bunkers, built underneath schools and mosques, connected by hundreds of kilometers of tunnels, with entrances to the tunnel system placed in civilian homes.
The former Israeli security official said Israel, in the past, has tried to destroy some of the tunnels using so-called bunker buster bombs. But he said the impact was limited.
Not everyone accepts the Israeli claims about Hamas’ widespread use of civilians as human shields.
“It’s preposterous,” said Tahani Mustafa, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Palestine.
“That has been debunked numerous times through numerous conflicts,” she told VOA in an interview shortly after Israel responded to the Hamas terror attack with the start of its air campaign.
“They’re targeting everything, even buildings that host reputable media offices. They’re targeting UNWRA [U.N. Relief and Works Agency] facilities,” she said. “To claim that Hamas is using human shields, that’s implying that UNWRA was complicit in allowing Hamas to use its facilities.”
Israel’s claims, however, have been backed by the White House.
And according to Hoffman, the former CIA official, high civilian death tolls will be a near certainty.
“That is going to be part of the war, because Hamas deliberately engages in military activity, whether it’s launching missiles or hiding themselves, in residential areas,” he said. “So, if you want to strike them, you’re going to run the risk of civilian casualties.”
Several of the former officials who spoke to VOA compared a ground incursion into Gaza to the nine-month-long battle by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State terror group that culminated in July 2017.
An Associated Press investigation found between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians were killed during that campaign, with at least one-third of the deaths caused by Iraqi or coalition forces.
And, in counterterrorism terms, high civilian death tolls come with other significant risks.
“Going house to house may be the only way to eliminate armed resistance to Israel,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a counterterrorism expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“But the question the Israelis must answer before any decision to conduct a ground operation is whether achieving certain conditions today — the elimination of Hamas —worsens conditions for the future whereby Israeli actions trigger radicalization within a next generation,” she told VOA.
Additionally, there are questions about whether Israel’s stated goal of eliminating Hamas as an entity capable of governing Gaza and waging war is even feasible.
“You talk about annihilation or whatever it is because it’s a good soundbite,” the former Western counterterrorism official told VOA. “But you can’t eliminate Hamas because Hamas is far too deeply ingrained.”
Other former officials told VOA that because Hamas is as much an idea as it is a terror group, a ground campaign against Hamas has to be just the start of Israeli efforts.
“You’ve got to drive a wedge between the irreconcilable Hamas terrorists and the regular folk,” said Hoffman. “This is going to be a counterinsurgency for a really long time.”