Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 24 October 2023. © Richard Kemp
As IDF troops are poised to move into Gaza, rumours abound of dissent within Israel’s war cabinet over when the operation should be launched. Rumours of these disagreements have forced Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Chief of Staff General Herzi Halevi to issue a joint statement affirming their unity. But the reality is that there should be lively debate among those responsible for such momentous decisions: groupthink is the enemy of military success.
I have spoken to commanders and soldiers on the Gaza border in the last few days; they are clearly ready to attack when the orders are given. But despite impatience in the media and among the Israeli population, there are many more factors beyond just the readiness of the troops. Not least the prospect of fighting a multi-front war.
If the worst comes to the worst, Israel – given its military hardware, its determination, and knowledge it has acquired from historic invasions of its territory – would be able to deal with threats from multiple borders. Especially because in the time they have now, they will be prioritising intelligence gathering on these multiple threats.
Since 7 October, for instance, there have been intense missile and artillery duels between Iranian proxy Hizballah and the IDF across the Lebanese border. Hizballah is estimated to have 150,000 rockets in southern Lebanon and a highly effective terrorist army, tens of thousands strong. Israeli decision-makers will want to have as good a handle as possible on the terrorist group’s intentions before committing ground forces into the Gaza Strip.
Violence in the West Bank has also been on the rise, involving terrorist gangs armed and funded by Iran, as with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizballah. Ground operations in Gaza will further inflame that territory, thrusting the IDF into a third concurrent fighting front. Bloodshed could also spread into Israel proper, where in 2021 Hamas orchestrated an uprising by Israeli Arabs against their Jewish neighbours as well as security forces.
But despite these concerns, Israel’s primary objective remains conditioning the battlefield for the upcoming offensive that it can control. That means developing intelligence to focus the attacking forces, including aerial surveillance and special forces raids which are under way. It also means inflicting maximum possible damage on Hamas terrorists from the air. For more than two weeks the Israeli Air Force has been pounding terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, destroying equipment and killing large numbers of fighters. Only when sufficient damage has been achieved should ground operations be launched. Some say you can’t leave forces at a high state of readiness indefinitely, but the truth is you have to if delay buys time for the degradation of the enemy that will make a tough fight easier, as well as reducing casualties.
Israeli military and intelligence have been working flat out to find the 220 hostages Hamas is holding, dispersed around the Gaza Strip. Rescuing them is a primary objective and locating them takes time, a process that might further delay a ground offensive. Hamas’s uncharacteristic release of four hostages so far shows their leaders’ desperation in the face of an IDF assault of unexpected ferocity that threatens to annihilate them. Now they are attempting to dangle the prospects of hostage release over Israel’s head to prevent an IDF incursion altogether. Israel cannot allow that to happen: although getting the hostages back is a core focus, it will not take precedence over the need to create security for Israel’s entire population.
The IDF, in short, is prepared to deal with a multi-front war. But the labyrinthine military equation confronting the war cabinet is complicated even further by international opinion. Today, the UN Secretary General came close to accusing Israel of breaking international law in its operations inside Gaza. That is an accusation that Israelis are used to, despite their scrupulous adherence to the laws of war.
But as memories of 7 October fade, casualties mount and the humanitarian situation deteriorates, such accusations will proliferate and pressures on Israel to cease its attacks will mount, including from the US. The Israeli war cabinet will have to withstand such inevitable coercion. The last thing this region and the free world can afford is the defeat of another US ally, and that is what failure to crush Hamas would mean.