Israel’s Ground War Against Hamas: What to Know

In Brief

Israel’s Ground War Against Hamas: What to Know

A major ground campaign in the Gaza Strip will display Israel’s overwhelming military force, but the country faces a steep challenge in its goal of eradicating Hamas, as well as in finding a workable post-combat plan for the territory.

What does Israel intend to achieve with a ground war in the Gaza Strip?

Israeli officials have repeatedly said their goal is to eliminate Hamas. By crushing the terrorist organization, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to reassert Israeli deterrence and show Israel’s enemies the high costs of attacking it. Israel has already launched a massive bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip and, more recently, raids on the ground, while signaling that it will soon launch a major ground offensive.

More From Our Experts

In this phase of the war, Israel will face four principal challenges:

More on:

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Military Operations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Middle East

Urban warfare. This is an inherently difficult form of warfare because buildings provide fighting positions for defenders, and even reducing them to rubble can impede an offensive’s progress. Israel’s difficulties are multiplied in Gaza because of: (1) the presence of large numbers of Palestinian civilians who have no place to go; (2) Hamas’s seizure of at least 199 hostages, who could be used as human shields; and (3) all of the tunnels that Hamas has built underneath the Gaza Strip over the years, which allow Hamas fighters to hide from Israeli troops and emerge at unexpected moments.

Information operations. Israel usually comes under international pressure to end its offensives when they cause civilian casualties. But these are inevitable no matter the care taken by Israel’s military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), because Hamas hides among the civilian population. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Israel faced heavy pressure (including from the George W. Bush administration in the United States) to end its offensive against Hamas after it bombed an apartment building in Lebanon, killing twenty-eight people.

In the current conflict, Israel already suffered a significant information warfare defeat on Tuesday, when Hamas claimed that an Israeli air strike on a hospital in the Gaza Strip had killed five hundred people. Israel, backed by the United States and independent intelligence analysts, presented compelling evidence that the explosion was due to an errant Palestinian rocket. But by that point the damage had been done: the so-called Arab street had been enflamed, even moderate Arab regimes denounced Israel, and the leaders of U.S. allies Jordan and Egypt refused to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden during his trip to Israel. Israel, like other liberal democracies, will remain at a disadvantage in the “battle of the narrative” when fighting against illiberal adversaries who have no compunctions about lying.

More From Our Experts

A possible second front. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is poised on Israel’s northern border with an arsenal of some 150,000 missiles and rockets. So far, Hezbollah has not joined in a major assault on Israel, but Israeli analysts fear it could do so once Israeli ground forces enter the Gaza Strip. A two-front conflict would be a nightmare for Israel.

Post-combat stabilization operations. Known in the U.S. military as “Phase IV,” this is where U.S. efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq foundered badly for lack of preparation and resources. Israeli media have reported that the government has been struggling to come up with a Phase IV plan of its own. And no wonder: there are no good options. If Israel simply attacks Hamas and then leaves—as it has done in the past—the terrorist organization will be able to regenerate itself. But Israel has had little desire to reoccupy the Gaza Strip after exiting in 2005, and the Palestinian Authority seems to lack the capabilities and will to govern in place of Hamas. Trying to establish a Palestinian Authority government in Gaza, with help from Arab states, is probably the least-bad option. But if that fails, Israel may have no choice but to occupy Gaza itself. That, in turn, could leave Israeli soldiers vulnerable to a grinding guerrilla war of the kind they faced in Lebanon between 1982 and 2000.

More on:

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Military Operations

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Middle East

A Gaza map showing major cities, border crossings and data on population size and total area

How did previous Israeli incursions into Gaza in recent history fare?

The Israeli ground incursions into Gaza in 2008–09 (Operation Cast Lead) and 2014 (Operation Protective Edge) were much more limited in scope and duration. Israeli forces did not try to take Gaza City in either case. These operations were part of a strategy known as “mowing the grass,” which saw Israel try to reduce the threat from Hamas rather than seek to eliminate the group. In both instances, the IDF degraded Hamas infrastructure while also inflicting substantial collateral damage on Palestinian civilians, but Hamas emerged stronger than ever. The high cost of the October 7 terrorist attack—the greatest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the Holocaust—makes the “mowing the grass” strategy untenable from Israel’s perspective. Now it will struggle to make good on its goal of eradicating Hamas.

What sort of weaponry and fighting should be expected as the ground incursion gets going?

Israel has the best-equipped and best-trained armed forces in the Middle East. It has already called up more than 360,000 reservists (in addition to 160,000 active-duty service members) and the whole of its armored corps (reportedly, more than one thousand main battle tanks). Israel is likely to mount a combined-arms assault on Hamas utilizing every element of military power—infantry, armor, artillery, naval vessels, and aviation (fixed wing and rotary, manned and unmanned)—all backed by a vast intelligence-gathering apparatus (which, however, failed to detect the 10/7 attack).

Israeli soldiers patrol an area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
Israeli soldiers patrol an area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. Amir Cohen/Reuters

While Hamas lacks most of those high-end military capabilities, it does have rockets and drones. As a skilled guerrilla force, it will try to neutralize Israel’s firepower advantage by using hit-and-run tactics that employ improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, AK-47s, and potentially anti-tank missiles and even anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Hezbollah, which employs similar tactics, managed to fight the IDF to a draw in 2006. Hamas will try to emulate Hezbollah’s relative success, and it is estimated to have as many as forty thousand fighters under arms. (Hamas’s ally Palestinian Islamic Jihad is said to have another fifteen thousand combatants.) Israel will have one key advantage: the Gaza Strip is so small that Israel will be able to cut off Hamas from resupply from Iran or other outside supporters. But it is clear that Hamas has already stockpiled a formidable array of weaponry.

What are the biggest unknowns? What are some indicators to watch for?

There are many unknowns, including how Israel will deal with the Hamas tunnel network, how skillfully Hamas will fight, whether a growing civilian toll in Gaza will force Israel to suspend its offensive, whether Hezbollah will join the battle, and what Israel will do to stabilize Gaza post-Hamas. Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether this war will spread across the region to include Hamas’s sponsor, Iran. The United States has sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran and Hezbollah, but no one can foresee if that strategy will succeed.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Russia

Russia

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia does not appear as ironclad as it once did. Liana Fix and Maria Snegovaya recommend that the United States prepare for potential leadership change in Moscow and develop response strategies with its allies to mitigate fallout. 

China

A court in Hong Kong has ordered the liquidation of Chinese property developer Evergrande Group, once the world’s largest real estate company. The failure could pose obstacles to China’s economic recovery.