Israel has expanded its military operation in Gaza and has begun a ground invasion for the second time in five years. This will be a difficult, dangerous operation — and when the dust settles, it may do nothing to eliminate the threat of rocket attacks on the Israeli civilian population.
Israel didn’t want this war in Gaza. It had hoped to isolate events in the West Bank and Jerusalem from the Gaza front and attempted mediation through Egypt before the official operation began. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite taking heavy criticism from his right flank, has made it clear that his primary goal is to end the fighting as soon as possible. And yet the fighting continues and the number of civilian casualties continues to rise.
The modest, immediate Israeli goal of restoring calm threatens to evolve now into something wider, open-ended and quite deadly. With its ground invasion, Israel likely will aim to cut the Gaza Strip into two or three parts, limiting Hamas’ capabilities while destroying weapon stockpiles. Israel tried to strike at the Hamas tunnel infrastructure by air; now it’s hoping ground troops can do the job. While the Egyptian military has dealt a heavy blow to the tunnels between the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai, Hamas is still trying to dig beneath the Israeli border.
However, an Israeli ground incursion risks far greater casualties on the Israeli side as well as the Palestinian side. In the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, Israel, then led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, entered Gaza in what became, predictably, a gruesome and internationally-condemned operation.
In 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, led by Netanyahu, Israel — signaling its readiness to enter Gaza — called up very large numbers of reservists but held them back. Notwithstanding criticism from the right and the frustration felt by thousands of reservists over being used in a bluff, Netanyahu chose to be cautious. Netanyahu is Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister (after David Ben-Gurion) but he has only engaged in two relatively small military operations: the air operation in 2012 and the one we’re witnessing now. Despite his warlike talk, Netanyahu is actually a careful, conservative leader — in war as well as in peace. In this current operation, Netanyahu and his cabinet have decided to slightly broaden the military campaign to include a ground operation, rather than scale it down.
Meanwhile, the political leadership of Hamas seems to have been dragged into this conflict by the events that preceded it and by its own militants, who don’t always answer to the political wing. While it continues to fire rockets into Israel, it is now demanding that the Rafah border crossing with Egypt be opened. As part of its 10-year ceasefire offer to the Israelis, Hamas is also demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners who were let go in the Schalit deal (recently re-arrested by the Israeli police over the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli youths), the opening of Gaza-Israel border crossings to citizens and goods, and international supervision of the Gazan seaport in place of the current Israeli blockade.
Hamas finds itself in a very difficult situation. Since 2012, Hamas’ fortunes have declined rapidly as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow in Egypt. Moreover, Hamas is financially strapped due to Israel’s naval blockade and the hostility of the new Egyptian regime. Hamas operatives inside Gaza may have felt they had little to lose by joining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ government. Now they’re fighting a war against a powerful opponent because they lost control of their own cadres.
Given the risks and rewards, Hamas seems to have the most to gain from de-escalation — and the most to lose from a ground war. But both sides should understand that the risks go far beyond the lives of Palestinians and Israelis — that the risks include a wider, regional war. As the July 12 editorial in Lebanon’s Daily Star said, “the firing of rockets from southern Lebanon into Israel Friday should serve as a wake-up call to national leaders … about the sensitivity and volatility of the situation. Those who carried out the act didn’t do so out of a concern with the national interest of Lebanon, or even the interest of the Palestinian people. They were trying to sow further chaos by dragging Lebanon into the conflict raging further south, with little appreciation for the immense difficulties that this country already faces.”
A ground invasion endangers Israel, Gaza and civilians on both sides. More importantly, it risks bringing other countries into the fight — triggering a cascade of events that can’t be reversed. A ceasefire — not a ground invasion — is in Israel’s best interest. Quickly getting back to the negotiating table with Abbas and with his unity government is in its supreme interest.