How Israel's ground invasion of Gaza could play out

Soldier points gun with map of Gaza Strip
The number of Palestinian casualties could be unprecedented, with Israel potentially requiring up to 400,000 troops to carry out the offensive

A full-scale Israeli ground invasion of Gaza could require hundreds of thousands of troops and may only occur once Hamas has been brought to its knees by sustained airstrikes and a long siege.

Unsurprisingly, the Israeli military is not disclosing detailed plans for its invasion on security grounds, but it is clear that the task would require a monumental effort.

The number of casualties on the Palestinian side will be immense, perhaps even unprecedented: some 2,300 Palestinians were killed in the 2014 ground invasion of Gaza. There will also inevitably be heavy Israeli troop casualties.

This crisis, in contrast with 2014, involves the largest hostage situation in Israel’s history and poses a major risk of the country’s regional foes, such as Hizbollah in Lebanon, joining the fray. It may also last much longer than the 2014 operation – not just weeks but potentially months.

Presuming Israel needs to send in ten soldiers for every single Hamas fighter, a fairly typical military rule to achieve superiority, it would require between 300,000 to 400,000 troops to tackle an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 members of Hamas’ armed wing.

Multi-pronged assault

While a ground invasion seems the most likely option, Israel may combine this with an amphibious assault from Gaza’s western coastline.

Ground forces could be amassed from a single staging area and moved in, or they may be broken up into different battle groups for a multi-pronged assault that would echo Hamas’ own incursion on Saturday.

The Israel Defence Forces [IDF] have already called up 300,000 reservists on top of 170,000 active soldiers.

While Israel prides itself on maintaining a high-tech army, an invasion would likely involve sending infantry to overwhelm Hamas forces on the ground, as well as masses of tanks.

One problem with this approach is that Israel’s tanks – roughly 400 of the Merkava Mark 4 and approximately another 900 of different variants currently in storage – alongside their armoured vehicles, largely of US origin, are extremely vulnerable in urban settings.

This is primarily because their toughest armour is mostly located toward the front of the hull and turret – the areas expected to be pointing at the enemy most often.

However, in urban settings, defenders can easily position themselves above tanks, rendering it possible to fire down on the top of the turret, where the armour is weakest.

Likewise, sewer systems and communication tunnels provide hiding places for bombs that can blast into the belly of armoured vehicles, another area of weakness.

Then there is the question of whether Gazan civilians will take up arms to resist invading Israeli soldiers, something that could be called for by Hamas once an incursion begins.

All of this means that an urban assault must be infantry led, with tanks only called forward for specific tasks – such as destroying enemy-fortified positions – before being quickly pushed to the rear, away from the most dangerous positions.

Experience from Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Ukraine would suggest these infantrymen will be equipped with thousands of drones in order to spot the enemy and potentially drop munitions, or to carry weapons directly.

Thousands of drones will be needed, not only as the number of Hamas fighters is thought to be around 30,000, but also because the radio signals controlling the drones do not work very well in built-up areas.

This is in addition to Hamas potentially being supplied with electronic warfare equipment that is specifically designed to interfere with the control signal for drones.

Israel also has numerous elite and special forces squads at the ready, including its Ghost unit and the legendary SAS-style force Sayeret Matkal. Those troops may be used in parallel with a ground invasion to rescue hostages.

Israeli special forces have previous experience in hostage situations, such as the 1976 Entebbe raid on an Air France jet hijacked by Palestinian militants. But they have never faced anything like the current Gaza crisis, with at least 100 hostages scattered throughout the territory in apartment buildings, tunnels and across other sites, acting as human shields.

Moreover, this army was built primarily for local defence of the country, with very limited regional power projection, while the navy was specifically designed to stop illicit shipments of weapons, people and money from abroad. The air force, however, performing a regional role, has been updated to include almost the very latest equipment used by the US.

Yet the quality of the personnel available – both in regular and reserve service – is very high in terms of training and motivation. There are few armies on the planet as passionate about defending their land as that of Israel.

Combined assault risk

In recent years, the IDF has also sought to use technology to compensate for the limited pool of immediately available troops, with a five year ‘Tnufa’ (Momentum) programme adopted in 2020 to provide an additional push.

This programme has sought to emphasise technology and intelligence as a means of speeding up the decision-making process by military commanders.

However, events on Saturday showed how even the most sophisticated network can be undone in the right circumstances. If Israel intends to move into Gaza for attacks on Hamas fighters and infrastructure, military chiefs may have to reassess the IDF’s reliance on technology.

At the same time, the threat of an invasion from Hizbollah in the north – in retaliation for any ground offensive – plus the need to maintain order in both the south and the occupied West Bank, could create logistical challenges. Israel is a tiny landmass in the Middle East, and a combined assault from different directions could overwhelm its defensive capabilities.

Hugh Lovatt, a senior Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “An Israeli ground incursion will come at a tremendous cost in terms of Palestinian and Israeli lives. As past operations have shown, it will amplify Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and fan Palestinian and Arab anger against Israel.”

“It is also unclear what an Israeli victory would be like, beyond racking up a high Hamas body count. Even if it can eradicate the group, which is uncertain, what comes next?”

If an invasion were successful – and it could fail – the security forces would then need to remain in place for many years to enable political and social structures to develop, and to deny this space being happily filled by the men with guns.

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