A deadly new chapter has opened in the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel is amassing troops and calling up reserves in preparation for a ground invasion of Gaza as hostilities flare following Palestinian militant group Hamas’ surprise rocket attacks on Israel over the weekend.
The situation is escalating rapidly, sowing panic across Gaza. Israel’s military has ordered more than 1 million Palestinians living in northern Gaza to urgently evacuate further south as airstrikes continue to pummel Hamas targets. But Hamas is defiantly urging civilians to remain in place, dismissing the evacuation call as psychological warfare.
With an invasion looking imminent, Israel has several strategic reasons to launch a ground offensive in Gaza — even if they are lofty goals that have proven elusive in the past.
“Israel’s goal for a ground invasion is to destroy Hamas infrastructure and eliminate altogether [its] military capabilities to [ever again] launch anything that we saw on Saturday,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on Israel at the Chatham House think tank, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
But Israel likely aims to completely dismantle Hamas’ governing authority in Gaza, not just its fighting force, according to Nimrod Goren, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“Israel will aspire to change the equation and to reshuffle the dynamics in a way that Hamas would not be again in a position to govern,” Goren told Al Jazeera.
However, fully eliminating Hamas may be unrealistic. “It’s a complete impossibility because it’s not like you can distinguish fighters from civilians,” said Zoran Kusovac, strategic analyst and consultant, in an interview.
This is not the first time Israel has sought to wipe out Hamas’ military abilities and governing structures in Gaza through ground invasions. Israel withdrew without achieving those goals in previous offensives in 2008–2009 and 2014.
According to Sami Hamdi, MD of risk consultancy International Interest, this time Israel’s priority is restoring its image of overwhelming power after being caught off guard by Hamas’ attacks. Israel wants to inflict maximum damage to make resistance extremely costly for Palestinians in future.
But Hamas’ defiance so far, despite heavy airstrikes, shows the limits of Israel’s approach, Hamdi told Al Jazeera. “The stubbornness of the Palestinians [persists]. They’re continuing to resist, and the Israelis are unable to identify from where these rockets are being fired.”
A more extreme goal of Israel’s ground invasion could be emptying Gaza entirely through mass displacement, said Kusovac. However, this seems unlikely since Gaza’s population has nowhere to go, and Israel opposes a fresh influx of refugees.
According to Goren, installing a unified Palestinian leadership in Gaza is a more plausible endgame. If Hamas falls, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank could assume control of Gaza too, helping pave the path to peace.
But it is too early to say for certain what Israel hopes to achieve. “This is an unprecedented situation,” said Hamdi, noting Hamas’ surprise rocket attacks have shocked Israel.
Deep Hostilities Fuel the Conflict
This latest eruption of violence has its roots in longstanding grievances. Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by Israel and Western nations, has fought for decades to establish an Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel. Clashes frequently flare up, but this outbreak marks the worst fighting since the 2014 Gaza war.
Hostilities spilled over on May 6 when Israeli security forces stormed Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during prayers and fired rubber-coated bullets and stun grenades at Palestinian worshippers, injuring hundreds. This came amid protests over Israeli attempts to forcibly evict Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
In response, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem on May 10, prompting retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. Over 1,600 rockets have now been fired from Gaza by Hamas and other militant groups, killing 10 Israelis. Israel’s devastating air assault on Gaza has killed nearly 70 Palestinians, including 16 children, according to Gaza health officials.
Both sides have rejected ceasefire appeals from the international community. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue strikes “as long necessary” while Hamas threatens to fire rockets deeper into Israel if its demands for protections in Jerusalem are not met.
Civilian Suffering Deepens as Death Toll Mounts
The crisis has exacerbated dire humanitarian conditions in blockaded Gaza, which the U.N. warns could become unlivable by 2020. Power and water supplies have been disrupted and roads damaged. Gaza’s health system was already overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis and is now struggling to cope with the influx of wounded.
The U.N. secretary general has expressed grave concern over the large numbers of civilian casualties, especially children. Save the Children said that 14 children have been killed in Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza while rockets fired by Hamas have killed two Israeli children.
“Children are bearing the brunt of this escalation,” said Save the Children’s Gaza director. The organization called for an immediate ceasefire and more support for mental health services to address trauma.
Meanwhile, mob violence has surged within Israel between Jewish and Arab citizens, prompting emergency orders from police and political leaders pleading for calm.
International Community Pushes for De-escalation
World leaders are urging restraint by all sides and immediate de-escalation before the crisis deteriorates further and civilian suffering worsens.
The White House said that President Biden has pushed for a “significant de-escalation” in calls with Netanyahu while affirming Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks. U.S. envoy Hady Amr has been dispatched to urge calm in talks with leaders on both sides.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the conflict could unleash an “uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis” and urged Hamas and Israel to immediately cease fighting.
However, international peace efforts have so far made little progress in calming the unrest. The U.N. Security Council has failed to agree on a public statement due to U.S. objections over references to Jerusalem tensions as the spark for violence.
All parties must act urgently to halt civilian bloodshed before the crisis deteriorates into a full-scale war with horrific costs for both Israelis and Palestinians. But as long as underlying conflicts over land, sovereignty and identity remain unresolved, lasting peace will remain elusive.
Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction and is trying to present itself as the defender of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem to win Arab public opinion. Meanwhile, Israel sees no partner for peace in Hamas and is determined to destroy its military power.
Unless the root causes driving this perpetual cycle of violence are addressed — namely Palestinian demands for statehood and an end to Israel’s occupation — then further deadly conflagrations look inevitable despite short-term ceasefires. International mediators face an immense challenge in forging a just and lasting resolution to this decades-old struggle.