Sometimes, the only choices available to strategic practitioners are bad options and worse options. Since the attack by Hamas against Israel on 7 October, Israeli decision makers have been confronted with just such a conundrum. If their response is too muted, Hamas will be encouraged to conduct further terrorist attacks to gain political leverage whilst regional competitors like Iran may perceive exploitable weaknesses. Conversely, if Israel’s response is too heavy handed, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) may find themselves stuck in a protracted asymmetrical conflict that could threaten Israel’s security. Moreover, concerns about human rights abuses may drive a wedge between Israel and its Western allies leading to diplomatic isolation.
Israel’s Primary Objectives in Gaza
The IDF’s announcement that is ready to initiate a ‘wide range of operational offensive plans’ in Gaza alludes to the now expected ground invasion. With 360,000 IDF reservists now poised to take action, the risks associated with a heavy-handed approach certainly now outweigh those posed by an excessively placid response. With that being said, what are Israel’s objectives in Gaza?
Senior Israeli politicians and military officers have spoken in plain terms about the objectives of Operation Iron Swords. Speaking to the media, IDF chief Herzi Halevi said ‘Yahya Sinwar, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, decided on this horrible attack, and therefore he — and the entire hierarchy [of terrorists] under him — are dead men. We will attack them, we will dismantle them, dismantle their system.’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a similar statement, saying that ‘Every Hamas member is a dead man.’
In strategic terms, these are ambitious objectives. Israel intends to decapitate Hamas’s leadership and completely degrade the ability of its armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, to conduct operations against Israel.
At the same time, Israeli officials have spoken of the need to save the 126 or so hostages taken by Hamas, with Halevi commenting that the IDF ‘will do everything to return the hostages back home’. With artillery fire, airstrikes, and rocket fire already being directed at the Gaza Strip ahead of ground operations, and no feasible signs that the two sides will negotiate, it seems that the Israeli government will pursue military means to rescue the hostages as a part of its broader operations.
The objective of militarily dismantling Hamas is a strategic one, with long-term implications, whereas hostage rescue is more of a tactical level concern, albeit with potentially larger symbolic political consequences.
Asymmetrical Urban Warfare
The IDF enjoy significant quantitative and qualitative advantages over Hamas. Israel’s professional and reserve soldiers are better equipped than their adversaries and enjoy access to armoured vehicles like tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), and infantry fighting vehicles (IVFs). The IDF also possesses artillery including howitzers and rockets, as well as a formidable air force with the ability to conduct precision strikes.
Hamas is one of the most heavily armed militant groups in the world, but it is decisively outmatched in conventional means by the IDF. In terms of small arms, militants are mostly armed with Kalashnikov variants, as well as rocket propelled grenades which can be used to take out armour. Vehicles are mostly limited to technicals (civilian vehicles with mounted machine guns) and the wide availability of drones in recent years has enabled Hamas to introduce a limited aerial component to its capabilities. In terms of long-range firepower, Hamas uses various iterations of the Iranian-manufactured Fateh-110 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. Israel has greater firepower and excellent air defence capabilities, but these rockets can still pack a punch.
Despite holding significant advantages on paper, the IDF must expect to encounter fierce urban fighting in Gaza if – or when – the ground offensive is initiated. Hamas is well aware that it cannot outpunch Israel in a conventional fight and will therefore avoid getting into one in the first place. The densely populated urban environment of Gaza will offer the militants ample opportunities to ambush IDF troops and the group’s network of tunnels could enable it to maintain unobstructed lines of communication and manoeuvre if Israel is not careful. The presence of hostages and civilians will further complicate the IDF’s efforts to avoid collateral damage during intense house-to-house fighting.
There are multiple avenues of potential success for Hamas. It cannot defeat Israel outright, but it may be enough to tie down Israeli forces into a protracted urban guerrilla war until the expenditure of manpower and resources grows too costly. At the same time, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the greater the toll of human suffering will be inflicted on the civilian population in Gaza, which will likely bring about increased condemnation and pressure on Israel to desist operations by the international community. Israel may therefore find itself diplomatically isolated with only marginal tactical gains if the ground offensive in Gaza progresses too slowly.
If Israel are committed to completely dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities, the risks of getting sucked into a protracted ground war are therefore far greater. Achieving this objective, is not necessarily impossible but it will demand a tremendous investment of manpower and military resources.
The secondary objective of saving the hostages is a difficult one. Hamas has only to kill the hostages and Israel has failed. Whilst one might expect this to backfire on Hamas, in the same way that inflicting collateral damage on the civilian population could pose grave consequences for Israel diplomatically; terrorist organisations like Hamas are simply not held to the same standards as a democratic state actor. In short, they can get away with far more and still retain support by those already sympathetic to their cause.
The strategic dilemma facing Israel is a familiar one for any state actor facing a conventionally weaker guerrilla force: the state actor must win outright to achieve victory, whereas mere survival over a long enough period of time is potentially all that is required for the guerrilla force to win. In other words, Hamas might win by simply not losing. Nevertheless, Israel does possess one advantage that other state actors in this position rarely do. It does not view this as a war of choice, but rather an existential one. Israel may therefore hold the strategic will to commit fully to achieving its objectives that would deter other state actors fighting a similar war.