For days now, Israel has signalled that its massed forces are poised to go into Gaza with the aim of eliminating Hamas as a military force once and for all, following its raid into southern Israel on 7 October.
Over 300,000 reservists have been called up for the IDF (Israel Defence Forces). The farms, fields and kibbutzim on the Israeli side of the Gaza border are crowded with Merkava tanks, self-propelled artillery systems and thousands of heavily armed infantry in full battle dress.
The Israeli Air Force and Navy have been pounding every suspected Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad hideout and weapons store in Gaza, killing and wounding large numbers of civilians in the process, as well as a small number of Hamas commanders.
The massive number of casualties caused by Tuesday’s explosion at a central Gaza hospital, blamed and denied by both sides, will only have inflamed tensions in the region even further.
So why hasn’t Israel begun its promised incursion into Gaza?
There are several factors involved here.
The Biden factor
The hurriedly-planned visit of President Joe Biden to Israel this week is an indication of how worried the White House is about the deteriorating situation. Washington has two big concerns: the escalating humanitarian crisis and the risk of this conflict spreading across the Middle East.
The US president has already made clear his opposition to any Israeli return to an occupation of Gaza, which it withdrew from in 2005. This, he said, would be “a big mistake”.
Officially he has been visiting Israel to show strategic support for America’s closest Middle East ally and to hear of Israel’s plans for Gaza.
Unofficially, he is likely to be urging some restraint on the hardline government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The US would like to know how, if Israel goes into Gaza, it plans to get out, and when.
Any prospect of Israel launching a full-scale military invasion of Gaza while Airforce One is sitting parked on the tarmac in Tel Aviv would not be a good look, for either the US or Israel.
In a visit overshadowed by the deadly blast at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, President Biden publicly backed Israel’s version of events, that a mis-fired Palestinian rocket caused the explosion. Palestinian officials say an Israeli air strike hit the hospital. The BBC is working to independently verify the death toll, which is feared to be in the hundreds, as well as the cause of the explosion.
The Iran factor
In the last few days, Iran has issued stern warnings that Israel’s assault on Gaza cannot go unanswered. So what does that mean in practice?
Iran funds, trains, arms and to some extent controls a number of Shi’a militias in the Middle East. By far the most potent of these is Hezbollah in Lebanon, sitting just across from Israel’s northern border.
The two countries fought a damaging and inconclusive war in 2006 which saw Israel’s modern battle tanks knocked out by hidden mines and well-planned ambushes. Since then, Hezbollah has rearmed with Iranian help and is now thought to have close to 150,000 rockets and missiles, many of which are long-range and precision-guided.
There is an implicit threat here that if Israel invades Gaza then Hezbollah may open up a new front on Israel’s northern border, forcing it to fight a war on two fronts.
It is by no means certain, however, that Hezbollah wants this war at this time, especially with two US Navy carrier strike groups sailing just offshore in the eastern Mediterranean and ready to come to Israel’s aid.
This will give Israel some reassurance that any attack by Hezbollah could potentially invoke a devastating retaliation from US naval air power. It is worth remembering though that at the start of Israel’s last war with Hezbollah in 2006 the militants were able to hit an Israeli warship offshore with one of their sophisticated anti-ship missiles.
The humanitarian factor
The Israeli government’s concept of a humanitarian crisis tends to lag behind the rest of the world’s when it comes to rooting out Hamas from Gaza.
As the death toll amongst Palestinian civilians mounts as a result of relentless Israeli airstrikes, much of the global sympathy for Israel after the barbaric and bloodthirsty actions of Hamas on 7 October has been replaced by a rising clamour to stop the air strikes and protect ordinary Gazans.
If and when Israeli ground forces go into Gaza in strength, then the death toll will only rise further.
Israeli soldiers will die too, from ambushes, snipers and booby traps – much of the fighting may even take place below ground, in miles of tunnels.
But it is likely that, once again, it will be the civilian population that will bear the brunt of the casualties.
Huge intel failure
Israeli intelligence has had a bad month.
Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency, has taken the rap for the failure to spot Hamas’s initial deadly attack coming. It is supposed to have a network of informants and spies inside Gaza, keeping tabs on commanders from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yet what happened on that horrific Saturday morning in southern Israel amounted to the worst intelligence failure in the nation’s history since the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
Israeli intelligence will have been frantically trying to make amends over the last 10 days, helping the IDF identify names and locations of hostages as well as where Hamas commanders are hiding.
It is possible that they have asked for more time to gather more information so that if and when ground forces do go in, then they can head directly to a specific location, rather than wandering around the ruins and rubble of northern Gaza facing constant attack, amid rising condemnation from much of the world.
Those elements of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad that are still operational after the sustained Israeli bombing campaign will have planned ambushes and traps for any advancing Israeli troops. These will be particularly hazardous in the underground tunnels. Israeli intelligence will be keen to discover their locations and warn the IDF accordingly.
Source : BBC