Lives and Israel's image likely cost of land incursion
An opinion poll published yesterday in the Ha’aretz newspaper showed only 30 per cent of Israelis support a ground incursion into Gaza. It’s not difficult to understand why.
From the military perspective, such an operation is clearly within Israel’s means. The most powerful army in the Middle East could probably conquer the entire Gaza Strip in 10-14 days of fighting. But would such an operation bring closer Israel’s declared aim of restoring quiet to the south?
There is certainly little appetite in Israel for a long-term reoccupation of Gaza. Its presence ended in 2005 when the last soldiers and settlers left the area as part of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement.
After six days of operation Pillar of Defence, Israeli fatalities remain remarkably low. Three Israeli civilians have been killed and fewer than 50 people wounded, despite the fact that well over 500 rockets have landed inside Israel. The locally manufactured Iron Dome anti-missile batteries have proved a great success, intercepting the vast majority of incoming projectiles heading for urban areas.
As Israeli leaders ponder whether or not to order a ground incursion into Gaza, they know that fighting in the densely populated urban areas and refugee camps would inevitably lead to heavy casualties among the invading forces.
The terrain is ideal for sniper fire or firing of shoulder-held missiles by militants who can use a vast network of underground tunnels to escape.
During the last war in Gaza, in the winter of 2008-2009, Israeli military officials described how the militants simply booby-trapped everything in sight – streets, cars, entrances to buildings, bins, and even donkeys pulling carts.
Every movement by Israeli infantry troops was preceded by soldiers from the combat engineer corps who had to first detonate the militant explosives. The militants have had four years to prepare for this round of fighting.
Another serious problem facing an invading force would be the possibility that militants would attempt to seize soldiers. According to the terms of last year’s prisoner swap that saw the release of Cpl Gilad Shalit after more than five years in Hamas captivity, one Israeli soldier is worth the release of more than a thousand Palestinian militants.
Some 40,000 soldiers, comprised of conscript troops and 16,000 reservists called up last week, are surrounding the Gaza Strip, awaiting a decision from the political echelon to move. There is not a family in Israel that does not know at least one of those soldiers. The government has approved the drafting of up to 75,000 reservists.
A ground invasion would also result in heavy Palestinian civilian casualties, turning world public opinion against Israel. The Israeli leadership is facing a very difficult dilemma.