On October 7, as the scale of the Hamas massacre became clear to the Israeli public, it would have been inconceivable to a stunned and horrified Israel that 19 days later, their forces are still idling outside the Gaza Strip.
Almost three weeks after the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, Hamas is still alive and kicking, able to send teams of naval commandos on suicide missions into Israeli territory and rockets through the south, center and north.
With substantial international support, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his vaunted war cabinet still have no significant military achievements in the same time it took for Israel to defeat Syria and Egypt in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
As it has done in the endless series of Gaza operations before, Israel continues to boast about the B-level commanders it eliminates, the number of airstrikes it carries out and the Hamas infrastructure it destroys. Hamas’s ability to threaten Israel is unaffected, and the overwhelming majority of its fighting force remains comfortably dug in.
In the meantime, Hamas can point at plenty of accomplishments since its unqualified “success” on October 7. Some 200,000 Israelis have left their homes, leaving the borders with both Gaza and Lebanon denuded for the first time in the country’s history. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been forced into shelters in massive barrages on Tel Aviv and its environs. Over 300,000 IDF reservists in the prime of their careers are out of the economy. Diplomatic initiatives with Muslim partners in the region are suspended indefinitely.
Slowly but surely, the focus of news coverage and diplomatic conversations is moving from Hamas’s evil, to the need to free hostages, humanitarian aid to Gaza and Palestinian casualties.
Israel simply cannot achieve its stated war aims without a massive ground operation into the Gaza Strip.
But Netanyahu dithers. It’s unclear exactly why.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the US asked Israel to hold off until it gets air defenses in place in order to protect US troops in the region.
The New York Times reported that the Biden administration wants more time to free hostages and get aid into Gaza. The White House is also extremely worried about civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and is trying to gain guarantees from Israel about minimizing collateral damage — a tall order in urban warfare.
There are also sensible Israeli reasons to move slowly. It is wise to make sure the troops are fully equipped before moving in (even if the logistical chaos is entirely unforgivable). And softening up Hamas defenses also makes tactical sense.
But most of the airstrikes seem to be aimed at Hamas officials, headquarters and launchers, and not at the defenses IDF troops will encounter as they hit the edge of Gaza’s cities.
And with every day that passes, the troops’ readiness drops. Filled with a burning determination to destroy the monsters who slaughtered their countryfolk, IDF soldiers were ready to head into the fight within days of the massacre. Now, they are heading home to visit families, organizing volleyball matches and texting friends that “we’re doing nothing.”
At the same time, there remains a more optimistic possibility.
The US and Israeli leaks to leading international outlets, and Netanyahu’s rather superfluous address to the nation Wednesday night, could all be part of a well-coordinated deception campaign.
US and Israeli officials could have agreed to get Hamas to lower its guard by making it seem like the White House was pushing Israel for a delay, and that the war cabinet was rolling over in the face of Biden’s demands.
“We are preparing for a ground incursion,” Netanyahu said in his national address, intimating that it was still some ways off. “I won’t specify when, how, how many. I also won’t detail the range of considerations, most of which the public is not aware of. And that’s the way it is supposed to be. This is the way, so that we protect our soldiers’ lives.”
If Israel is carrying out a ruse in concert with its superpower ally — one that fooled the Israeli public and hopefully Hamas — then perhaps the country is in better hands than many think.
But if the delay is the product of indecision, lack of will or a mistaken belief that there is a way to carry this out that will be relatively pain-free, then Israel is in more dire straits than we ever imagined possible.