Israeli tanks and armor rolled into Gaza over the weekend, beginning what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the “second stage” of his country’s war on Hamas.
The Israeli leader on Saturday told the public to prepare for a “long and hard” offensive in a war that threatens to pull in regional and global powers, notably the key backers of both sides, Iran and the United States.
“This is the second stage of the war whose goals are clear — to destroy Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and to bring the hostages home,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We are only at the start. We will destroy the enemy above ground and below ground.”
The humanitarian toll of Israel’s air strikes — in response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre that killed some 1,400 people — is already immense. Hamas-run health agencies estimated that 8,500 Palestinians have been killed so far, including over 3,500 children. And observers estimate that some 600,000 Palestinians have already been displaced.
A ground war would only compound the threats to Palestinians, especially since Hamas fighters are known to use civilians as shields. Still, there is broad support for Israel’s war within the country, with Israelis bent on revenge and fearful of future Hamas attacks.
The Biden administration has pushed for caution and clear goals, and has reportedly tried to steer Netanyahu’s government away from a full ground invasion. But it has not joined growing calls for a ceasefire.
The head of the United Nations agency tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, on Monday said a ceasefire “has become a matter of life and death for millions.”
Here’s what to know as Israel takes its war into Gaza on the ground.
What is Israel’s early strategy?
Israel has moved slowly in its initial operations into Gaza, largely to avoid clashes that could increase the risk to some 240 hostages being held by the militants.
Netanyahu has said freeing hostages is a top priority, and argued that the increasing pressure of a ground offensive would push Hamas to release more of them. Five have been released so far.
Israeli troops are conducting a slow incursion over Gaza’s northern border, with reports so far of limited fighting at the entrances of Hamas’s vast tunnel network. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said Monday its initial attacks targeted heavy Hamas weaponry.
“Over the last day, combined IDF struck approximately 300 targets, including anti-tank missile and rocket launch posts below shafts, as well as military compounds inside underground tunnels belonging to the Hamas terrorist organization,” the Israeli military said in a statement.
The IDF has also moved to take control of the Salah al-Din road, a key route between Gaza City and the country’s south, the Institute for the Study of War wrote in its Monday update.
Responding to rising calls for a ceasefire, the U.S. has focused its warnings to Israel on avoiding mass civilian casualties.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday that Hamas’ practice of “putting rockets and other terrorist infrastructure in civilian areas” created an “added burden for the Israeli Defense Forces.”
“But it does not lessen their responsibility to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians and to protect the lives of innocent civilians as they conduct this military operation,” he told CBS’ Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation.”
The Israeli military’s initial operations have been targeted, said Amos Yadlin, former chief of Israel’s defense intelligence.
“It is not a blitzkrieg. It’s inch by inch, meter by meter. Trying to avoid casualties and trying to kill as much as possible Hamas terrorists,” he said in a call with reporters on Saturday morning.
However, its long-term strategy is less clear. Fighting could become fierce if Israeli troops close in on Gaza City. And if Israel does rout Hamas, it will have to deal with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians still there.
An Israeli Intelligence Ministry “concept paper” proposed transfering the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, an idea that both Palestinian and Egyptian leaders staunchly oppose.
Mounting human toll and its consequences
The Biden administration concedes that Israeli air strikes have already killed thousands of Palestinians, but argues a ceasefire would only benefit Hamas.
President Biden last week called civilian deaths in Gaza the “price of waging war,” while also saying, “the Israelis should be incredibly careful to ensure they are focused on going after the folks that are propagating this war against Israel.”
Biden’s national security spokesperson, John Kirby, argued Monday that, “A cease-fire, right now, really only benefits Hamas.”
“It is ugly and it’s going to be messy, and innocent civilians are going to be hurt going forward,” he added.
Gaza’s population remains under a total Israeli blockade, with only a trickle of aid trucks allowed to enter the enclave so far. Israel has urged residents of northern Gaza, where the heaviest fighting is expected, to flee south, but thousands remain in Gaza City and surrounding areas.
Anwar Mhajne, an assistant political science professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts with a focus on Middle Eastern politics, said America’s calls for relative restraint from Israel and humanitarian access into Gaza were doing little to blunt the worst impacts of the war.
She noted the U.S. is applying little public pressure on Israel to allow fuel into Gaza, which is critical for hospitals and water pumps, but also used for ventilating Hamas’ tunnel network.
“If none of that is addressed … these are empty statements,” she said of U.S. calls to protect civilians. “My question is, where do we draw the line, right? How many civilians need to die?”
Israel’s strikes on Gaza are fueling anger across the Arab world, and the United Nations on Tuesday warned of growing volatility within Gaza, pointing to the raid over the weekend of a humanitarian warehouse.
The carnage being inflicted by Israel’s airstrikes also came into focus on Tuesday, when the IDF struck the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp in north Gaza. Palestinian authorities said at least 50 people were killed.
Mhajne said more civilian casualties are on the horizon, highlighting Israel’s warnings to evacuate hospitals in northern Gaza.
She also pointed to a video that emerged this week of an Israeli tank firing on a car in Gaza, and Israel signaling that it will be difficult to discriminate between militants and civilians in contested areas.
The consequences of a prolonged Israeli occupation of Gaza could invite unwanted consequences for Israel, cautioned Tuqa Nusairat, the director for strategy, operations, and finance at Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs.
“What will remain of Gaza’s population, and among Palestinians elsewhere in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem and inside Israel proper, will be a newly traumatized and radicalized generation of youth, none of whom were born or of voting age when Hamas was elected,” she wrote.
She said a broader ground offensive would lead to mounting Israeli losses as well, and the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the Israel-Palestine conflict since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
“As a result, Hamas’s self-declared raison d’etre—’resisting the [Israeli] occupation with all means and methods’—will only grow in the minds of Palestinian youth. This will render unsuccessful Israel’s attempts to eliminate Hamas militarily,” she added.
Growing fears of an expanded conflict
Israel’s ground invasion also risks inciting a response from Iran and its regional proxies that could open new fronts in the war and ultimately pressure the U.S. to expand its own involvement.
The Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, is already exchanging regular fire with Israeli positions on the border. A larger assault from Hezbollah, which is seen as a more powerful fighting force than Hamas, would stretch Israel’s defense capabilities.
There have also been rising attacks on U.S. troops deployed to the region, with the Pentagon on Monday telling reporters that U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Syria have come under rocket or drone attack 23 times since mid-October.
The U.S. has sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the Mediterranean, and reportedly asked Israel to delay its invasion partly to deploy additional assets to protect American bases in the region.
Sullivan said on Sunday “the risk is real” of an expanded conflict, “and therefore vigil is high and the steps we are taking to deter that and prevent that are serious, systematic and ongoing.”
“The president has been very straightforward on this — if American troops are attacked by Iran and its proxies, we will respond,” he added, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
Iran, too, has ramped up its rhetoric.
“Zionist regime’s crimes have crossed the red lines, which may force everyone to take action. Washington asks us to not do anything, but they keep giving widespread support to Israel,” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said Sunday on social media.
Mhajne, the Stonehill College professor, said mounting protests, both across the Arab world and in the West, showed the risks of Israel’s ground operation.
“You know, the more people see footage and images of kids dying and civilians dying, the more anger is going to continue boiling,” she said.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
This story originally Appeared on The Hill