A week into Israel’s invasion of Gaza, few hostages have been recovered, while the death toll rises and the UN warns of a humanitarian crisis. By Jonathan Pearlman.

No clear end to Israel–Gaza ground invasion

Palestinians search for casualties amongst the debris of a destroyed neighbourhood..
Palestinians search for casualties after Israeli air strikes in Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.
Credit: Reuters / Mohammed Al-Masri

Last Friday night, a column of Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolled into the open fields on the sandy edges of Gaza as the next stage of this loud and frightening war began in darkness and silence.

The troops, it is believed, entered at two spots – in the north and centre of Gaza – and took up positions at the outskirts of Gaza City. This dramatic turn unfolded in secrecy: Israel had blocked internet and phone lines across Gaza, which, already suffering fuel shortages, was in an electrical and communications blackout.

It was hours before news broke that Israeli troops were on the ground. More than a week later, the extent and significance of this Israeli crossing into Gaza are starting to emerge. It reveals much about the war, the risks that it will spread and what may unfold in its aftermath.

In the 18 years since Israel withdrew its military from Gaza, it has largely avoided sending ground troops back over the border: conducting an all-out assault against an entrenched force that operates from one of the most densely populated areas on Earth could have devastating and unknown consequences.

But the Hamas massacre on October 7, which killed 1400 people across southern Israel, changed Israel’s calculations. By 11am that day, even as Hamas was still in control of Israeli villages and kibbutzim, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had committed to a ground invasion.

Within three days, Israel had mobilised more than 300,000 reservists and signalled plans for a full-scale offensive. The government declared it would not allow Hamas to remain in control of Gaza. Hamas, the cabinet decided, would “cease to exist”.

By the time the reservists were in place, however, the plans had begun to shift.

Israel delayed the invasion. Instead, it fought from the air, launching a massive bombardment that has included thousands of strikes and caused massive destruction in Gaza. As of Thursday, 8796 Palestinians had been killed, including 3648 children, according to officials in Gaza. Israel cut off fuel and other supplies, allowing limited amounts of aid to enter via Egypt. Water, food and medicine remain in desperately short supply, leaving the enclave’s 2.3 million residents in the grip of a humanitarian disaster.

These air strikes could not achieve Israel’s declared aim – to “eliminate” Hamas – especially as Hamas’s leadership, and many of its estimated 20,000 to 35,000 fighters, operate from a vast network of underground tunnels. Much of Hamas’s military infrastructure is believed to remain intact: it continues to fire rockets at Israel and has attempted several sea and land raids.

Yet various developments had made Israel reluctant to despatch ground troops.

When Israeli leaders first vowed to topple Hamas, they knew little about the number of hostages abducted by Hamas and other militants on October 7. In the month since, the estimated number of hostages has been continually revised upwards. It is now believed 249 hostages were taken. Dozens of people remain unaccounted for.

Israel is unlikely to recover these hostages in a ground invasion. Yocheved Lifshitz, an 85-year-old Israeli who was one of four hostages released by Hamas, later recounted being seized from her kibbutz and taken into Gaza on a motorbike before being led underground and walking several kilometres for two or three hours through a “spider’s web of tunnels”, including a “large hall” that held about 25 other hostages.

It is estimated Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, has more than 500 kilometres of tunnels under Gaza. Israel says the tunnels and command centres have been built under civilian buildings such as hospitals, schools and mosques.

Israel’s dual war aims – to free the hostages and to topple Hamas – appear to be irreconcilable. Freeing the hostages will require negotiations, which are being brokered by Qatar, as well as Egypt and the Red Cross. Toppling Hamas will require a ground invasion, which will endanger the lives of the hostages.

Another cause of the delay was the realisation that reconquering Gaza without considering the aftermath, and the question of who controlled the strip if Hamas was ousted, could prove disastrous. During a visit to Israel, United States President Joe Biden cited America’s experience after the September 11 attacks, saying an enraged Israel should be careful to avoid mistakes. “While you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” he said.

On top of this was the growing risk that a ground invasion could add to regional tensions and lead to an all-out war in the Middle East. Since October 7, tensions have flared between Israel and Hezbollah, which, like Hamas, is backed by Iran. Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, is far more powerful than Hamas. A full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah would leave Israel fighting on its northern and southern borders in a potentially existential battle that could draw in the US and Iran.

The US has deployed aircraft carriers to the region and, like Australia, has warned its citizens in Lebanon to “leave now”. Britain, Germany, France, Canada and others have deployed transport airplanes and special forces across the Middle East, ready to engage in evacuations and other operations. Meanwhile, Iran-backed proxies have attacked US forces in the region, and the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen this week launched ballistic missiles and drones across the Red Sea at Israel.

Hezbollah’s intentions remain unclear. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has been silent since October 7, although a photograph showed him meeting in Beirut with senior leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Iran-backed group in Gaza. Much of the region has been anticipating a televised address Nasrallah was due to give on Friday at a ceremony dedicated to the “martyrs who died on the road to Jerusalem”. An unnamed Lebanese official told The Washington Post this week the Lebanese government had warned Hezbollah the country, whose economy was in crisis, could not face a war. The official said Hezbollah’s response was: “We understand you. But we can also not take the fall of Hamas.”

Fearing the fate of the hostages, a power vacuum in Gaza and the risk of Hezbollah entering the war, Israel held off from launching its ground invasion for almost three weeks. When it entered, it did so quietly. Israeli forces at first took positions in largely unpopulated areas and rescued an abducted female soldier on Monday in circumstances that have yet to be explained.

Now it appears Israeli forces are trying to encircle Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold. Intense, close-fought, urban battles are under way, with growing tolls on each side and terrible consequences for the residents of Gaza.

These consequences were evident on Tuesday and Wednesday, as Israel launched air strikes on apartment blocks in the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza. Officials in Gaza said at least 80 people were killed. Israel said it had killed a Hamas commander who helped to plan the October 7 attack and hit a Hamas command centre. The United Nations human rights office said it had “serious concerns” the attacks were disproportionate and could amount to war crimes.

Further devastation seems inevitable as Israel’s troops press closer towards urban centres. On Wednesday, Israel said 15 soldiers had been killed in Gaza and 50 Hamas militants were killed, a number that is impossible to verify.

The worsening toll and suffering inside Gaza is adding to international calls for a halt to the fighting. António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, called for a ceasefire, saying the number of civilians killed in Gaza was “totally unacceptable” and that all parties had to comply with international law.

“A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in front of our eyes,” he said. “History will judge us all.”

Australia has backed calls for a humanitarian truce, or pause, which would allow safe flows of aid and people, but, like the US, has opposed a complete ceasefire.

The US has urged Israel to allow more aid into Gaza but says a ceasefire would be premature.

Appearing at a Senate committee this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Hamas’s torture and execution of a family on a kibbutz in Israel on October 7, saying a ceasefire would “allow [Hamas] to remain where it is and potentially repeat what it did another day. And that’s not tolerable.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu has rejected calls for a ceasefire, saying it would be a “surrender to terrorists” and would be equivalent to the US agreeing to a ceasefire after the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the September 11 attacks.

Israel, aware of the obstacles that delayed its ground invasion, has acknowledged its war against Hamas could take months. A senior officer told The Economist this week it could take a year.

Even if Hamas is removed from power, a plan will be needed for the rule of Gaza. Israel has said it does not want to reoccupy the territory. It could try to transfer control to the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, but the authority, which was ousted by Hamas from Gaza in 2007 and already faces criticism over its cooperation with Israeli security forces, will struggle for legitimacy if it is installed by Israel.

Another option would be to create an international peacekeeping force, potentially involving the US, Britain and France, as well as Arab countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Blinken said this week that control could then be handed to the Palestinian Authority, adding “whether you can get there in one step is a big question”.

The international community is unlikely to become involved in Gaza unless its deployments are part of a broader push to resolve the enduring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As the world’s attention swings back to the Middle East, pressure will mount on Israel to agree to follow its military offensive with diplomatic moves towards ending its occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza.

Already, Biden and others have said Israeli and Arab leaders will need to agree to a postwar process towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

“There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6,” Biden said.

This ambition is the hardest of all. Previous peace efforts repeatedly collapsed. The latest war will leave scant reserves of trust or willingness to compromise. Even before Hamas’s atrocities, Israel was ruled by its most right-wing coalition in history, led by Netanyahu, who has tried to avoid negotiations with the Palestinians.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, including violent elements who would resist moves to relocate them. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, is deeply unpopular and has avoided holding elections amid concerns he and his Fatah party would lose to Hamas. A two-state solution seems impossible, yet all other alternatives seem impossible too.

The ground invasion, however it unfolds, will change the reality in Gaza. Biden is right: the status quo is over. Nobody knows what comes next.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "No clear end to Israel–Gaza ground invasion".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription