Israel And Gaza: The Cold Calculus Of A Ground Invasion
Sixteen days after suffering the loss of 1,400 of its citizens to the surprise daybreak attack by Hamas terrorists out of Gaza, Israel is facing a terrible dilemma: Do they go into Gaza with ground troops, and if so, how hard? Even after counting the bodies of the dead and enduring their funerals and hearing the stories of rape and torture and point-blank murder of young children and babies, deciding what kind of retribution you will exact on your enemies and how much is not an easy decision. As President Biden reminded the Israelis a week ago, our country made some very bad decisions after the terrorist attack on 9/11 that took more than 3,000 American lives. Due to those decisions, we went on to lose more than twice that many Americans in the wars we waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we caused the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
Military historians use phrases like proportional response to describe what is seen as the correct way to react to attacks by an enemy, especially when the targets of the attack involve civilians. In World War II, Nazi Germany was accused of war crimes when the entire French village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, 643 civilians in all, were massacred by a German Waffen SS company after partisans had captured and killed a Waffen SS Sturmbannfuhrer and bombed resupply trains headed north to reinforce German defenses along the French coast after the Allied invasion at Normandy. Two hundred and forty-seven women and 205 children were locked in a church, and the Germans set it on fire with an incendiary grenade. When the women and children tried to escape through windows and doors, they were machine-gunned by SS soldiers. Those not killed by bullets burned alive in the church.
So, the question for Israel is, what is a proportional response to the massacre of 1,400 Israelis, the great majority of them civilians, by Hamas on October 7? Israel is already rocketing and bombing the Gaza strip with so-called smart weapons capable of hitting pin-point targets on the ground. Israel says it is targeting Hamas weapons stores, headquarters, and places Hamas fighters are known to use as platforms to launch missiles into Israel. Hamas announced today that more than 5,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed in strikes by Israel since October 7, with 463 people killed last night alone in Gaza since Israeli airstrikes have increased recently. Casualty figures in Gaza are controlled by Hamas, and the New York Times reported today that Hamas has refused to back up its claims that more than 400 civilians were killed last week when a missile struck the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City.
Experts are now saying that the missile that struck the hospital was fired at Israel by Islamic Jihad fighters and blew up in the air over the hospital. Examination of the damage such as I did using photographs last week, shows that the explosion occurred in the hospital parking lot and that no damage was done to the hospital itself. The Times reports that American intelligence agencies now estimate that between 100 and 300 Palestinians were killed. The truth of what happened with the hospital explosion will never be known, because Hamas has done away with any fragments of the weapon that exploded, claiming falsely that it “vaporized” in the explosion. Experts say that it almost never happens that an explosion does not leave behind evidence that can be examined.
Do you see how quickly this war is devolving into “he-said, she-said” style charges and counter-charges in the fog of the war between Hamas and Israel? What is not foggy, however, is the fact that Hamas slaughtered 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and ever since, Israel has been hitting what it calls Hamas targets in Gaza with many, many airstrikes every day.
And now what? Israel has massed more than 300,000 of its troops and tanks and artillery on its border with Gaza in contemplation of a ground assault that has yet to happen. It was reported yesterday that President Biden has asked Israel not to go into Gaza on the ground until there has been more time to arrange for the 200 hostages Hamas is holding to be released and more humanitarian aid to be trucked into Gaza. National security spokesman John Kirby held a press conference at the White House today and said that the U.S. is not “dictating terms” to Israel’s military and telling them what to do or not to do to defend Israel, but the White House would not confirm or deny that Biden has asked Netanyahu to delay a ground invasion of Gaza.
These are delicate matters for both countries. Netanyahu, whose political career is said to be in ashes because of his failure to protect Israel from the Hamas attack, does not want to be seen as failing to exact an adequate revenge. The U.S. does not want to be seen as blindly backing everything Israel is doing, especially if a ground assault were to result in heavy civilian casualties. Every military estimate of what would result from a ground invasion of Gaza predicts that it would cost a huge number of civilian casualties. Israel runs the risk of losing the support it now enjoys on the international stage after suffering so many civilian losses in the Hamas attack. The U.S. runs an equivalent risk if Israel ends up invading Gaza and many civilians die.
The calculus for any sort of military action such as that which Israel is contemplating is grim in the extreme. If Israel launches an all-out invasion of Gaza on the ground, complete with infantry, tanks, artillery, and air support, thousands will die, both Hamas fighters and Palestinian civilians, while Israel’s military losses will be limited. If instead Israel were to decide on a limited invasion of some kind – say, leaving its tanks out of Gaza and using small units of infantry to move house-to-house looking for hostages and killing Hamas fighters, they know the number of Israeli military casualties will be much higher, while fewer Hamas militants would be killed. The number of civilian Palestinian dead would also be lower.
Every military action is a trade-off. The savage reality of war is that you trade the dead bodies of your own soldiers for a greater toll on the enemy, creating what is called a kill-ratio. This is just a blind estimate, but in any Gaza invasion, Israel would probably be looking for a 10 to 1 kill ratio, losing one Israeli soldier for every ten Hamas dead. But no matter the size of the invasion, Israel will lose hundreds if not thousands of its soldiers.
The final question is, in return for what? Israel has always used the slogan birthed by the Holocaust, “never again,” as the starting point for its own defense. Today, Israel speaks of Hamas in Gaza in terms of “once and for all,” as in ridding themselves of the threat from Palestinian terrorists forever.
Israel tried that strategy when they invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an attempt to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from its strongholds around Beirut. This is a rough distillation, but it didn’t work. PLO leader Yasir Arafat left Beirut and moved his headquarters to Tunisia, and Israel occupied West Beirut for a few months. Over the next three years, Israel did a phased withdrawal of its troops and formed what they called an Israeli Security Zone south of the Litani River in Lebanon, finally pulling out of Lebanon altogether. But read today’s headlines. Hezbollah is shelling and rocketing Israel from southern Lebanon, and Israel is retaliating almost daily.
There is no such thing as “once and for all” in the Middle East. I have written before at length about the thousands of years of war in the Cradle of Civilization. Three religions claim ownership of holy sites in Jerusalem, where many wars have been fought. But the thousands of years of wars pre-date all three religions, and if history teaches us anything at all, wars in that region will outlast them, as well.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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