Three days on from the devastating Hamas incursion into Israel, the most deadly assault on the Jewish state for 75 years, the country’s political and military leadership have vowed to respond with force that would “change the reality for generations”.
The brutality of Saturday’s Hamas attack — with more than 700 Israelis killed, some 2,000 injured and 100 taken hostage as fighters from the Palestinian militant group swept into southern Israel — has fed a chorus of demands for a harsh retaliation on Hamas and its Gaza Strip stronghold.
“The price the Gaza Strip will pay will be a very heavy one,” defence minister Yoav Gallant said from the southern town of Ofakim, one of those that suffered heavy casualties in the attack.
But the question is how hard and how far Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to go as Israel seeks to crush Hamas, secure the release of the hostages, and send a powerful message to the militants and other regional foes after its much vaunted military was alarmingly caught unawares by Saturday’s attack.
Many Israeli security analysts are already predicting that Israel will mount its first land offensive into Gaza since 2014. Netanyahu on Sunday pledged that Israel would continue “with neither limitations nor respite” until the objectives of its offensive had been achieved as the state formally declared war against Hamas. As he spoke, Israeli jets were pounding Gaza, the densely packed costal enclave controlled by Hamas that is home to more than 2mn Palestinians.
Almost 500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza and more than 2,700 wounded since Israel began its retaliatory strikes on Saturday.
“We need to break the enemy’s bones,” ran a commentary in the rightwing Israel Hayom newspaper on Sunday. “We need to bring it to its knees until it begs us to stop, to strike at it mercilessly and to pummel it viciously.”
Netanyahu has built a reputation for relatively cautious leadership during his decade and a half as Israeli prime minister that encompassed three previous wars with Hamas, despite his belligerent rhetoric.
When Israel last invaded Gaza in 2014, it led to the longest and deadliest of its wars with Hamas.
Former security officials said that if Israel’s objective was to cripple Hamas’s capabilities and prevent it carrying out another attack of the scale that it achieved on Saturday — when hundreds of militants backed by rocket fire swarmed into southern Israel — it would have to put boots on the ground.
“I don’t see any way the Israeli government will be able to avoid some kind of ground operation. How big, where, what the timing is, I don’t know. But I don’t see a situation where we can do everything from the air,” said Itamar Yaar, former deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council. “It will have to be a combination of ground, air and sea.”
Others argued that sending ground forces was also necessary to deter Israel’s other regional enemies, such as the Iran-backed Hizbollah group in Lebanon, from launching their own attacks on Israel.
“Anything less than invasion will be a grave mistake. We need to conquer Gaza, or at least most of it, and destroy Hamas. We cannot continue to do the things that we did before that are not working,” said Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division of Israel’s military.
“Not doing that will be devastating for Israel’s ability to deter not only Hamas, but the whole region.”
But even after 2014, Hamas was able to regroup and maintain its control of the Gaza Strip that Israel and Egypt have blockaded since 2007.
And any ground operation in the narrow streets, where Hamas has spent years preparing for the possibility of an Israeli invasion, would be likely to result in a huge death toll: both for Palestinian civilians and Israeli forces.
“[Hamas’s] attack is a disaster for both Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas used the same type of barbaric tactics that we saw in the recent years by Isis,” said Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer. “Now Israel will be able to commit terrible and extensive crimes and collective punishment while receiving total global immunity, even more than before.”
The situation has also been complicated by the hostages — which include women and children, Israeli soldiers as well as US and possibly other foreign citizens — that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad, are holding in Gaza.
The number of Israelis being held presents Israel with an unprecedented challenge and securing their release will be a priority for the government. Locating the hostages in the enclave, beneath which Hamas has built hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, is likely to be difficult — raising the risk that Israeli forces could inadvertently kill hostages as they carry out operations.
“Hamas understand that every Israeli they keep with them makes our lives more complicated,” said Yaar.
Others argue that a ground operation is the only way to rescue the hostages. “The longer we wait the easier it is for Hamas to hide them,” said Yaakov Nagel, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council who is now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I don’t think they expected to get so many. Now is the time to do it.”
There has also been speculation that rather than deterring Israel’s enemies, an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza could lead Hizbollah, which fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006 and which has expressed solidarity with Hamas in recent days, to enter the conflict. Its militants engaged in a brief cross-border exchange of fire with Israeli forces on Sunday.
The biggest question is perhaps what Israel would do after it had completed an invasion. Except among the most fanatical hardliners, there is limited appetite for reoccupying the territory that Israel withdrew from in 2005. Officials are also aware that even if Israel was able to crush Hamas, leaving a power vacuum in the impoverished strip is not a recipe for stability.
“In the past few years, whether to take down Hamas was not really [on the agenda]. Today, it’s a big question,” said Zvika Haimovich, former commander of the Israel Air Defense Forces. “After [the Hamas attack], these matters are on the table again.”
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava