Even though Israel had previously indicated the impending launch of a ground invasion of Gaza, it has now abstained from commencing such an operation for 18 days. This delay, as explained by experts in discussions with Al Arabiya English, is attributed to a combination of factors, including international pressure, concerns regarding hostages, and the need for time to train troops before deploying them to the besieged enclave.
This delay comes as Israel continues to reel from the deadliest attack ever launched by Hamas, and Gaza continues to be pounded by relentless retaliation bombardments. Israel has vowed to annihilate the Palestinian group, and the continuing conflict has claimed thousands of civilian lives on both sides.
However, the much-anticipated land offensive has yet to be unleashed.
Raphael Cohen, the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, spoke to Al Arabiya English about the delay, saying there are “several factors” at stake.
“From the Israeli perspective, they’re concerned about escalation,” he explained. “Once they launch a full-on assault, Israel is committed to a ground war with Gaza.”
A second factor is that Israel has taken groundbreaking action by activating 360,000 reservists and launching a ground offensive. This unprecedented move aims to dismantle Hamas’ military capabilities and end their control over the Gaza Strip.
“It is important to know that that mobilization has tripled the size of the Israeli Defense Forces,” said Cohen. “Now if you’re going to do that, so … you want to get them retrained.”
While these 360,000 reservists are trained, they still need to be equipped to deal with the expected forthcoming onslaught, said Cohen.
“It is easier, than say if this was a Western military because all those 360,000 folks have spent time on active duty. So they are coming in with a higher level of proficiency, but nonetheless, if your day job is working in an office in Tel Aviv, that’s still a far cry from (operating in) tunnels underneath Gaza.”
“You want to train them professionally before combat.”
A third factor, said Cohen, is that reportedly the Biden administration in the US has asked Israel to hold off any ground offensive to allow more time for negotiatons to release civilians held hostage by Hamas.
On Tuesday, Hamas freed two women, including 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, who said militants beat her as they took her into Gaza on October 7 but was then well-treated during her two-week captivity in the Palestinian enclave.
Three days earlier, Hamas freed American teen hostage Natalie Raanan and her mother after being abducted in Israel.
However, in a statement provided to Al Arabiya English, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Hamas continues to hold at least 222 abducted persons.
Cohen said reports suggest that the US is pressing Israel to hold back as they buy time to secure the release of more held captive in Gaza.
He said the Israel-Hamas war was likely to run into “weeks, even months.”
Cohen pointed to the 2014 Gaza War, also known as Operation Protective Edge – a military operation launched by Israel on July 8, 2014, in the Gaza Strip – which lasted more than 50 days.
That operation, he pointed out, had the “strategic intent of simply containing” Hamas. This is “a far cry” of what Israel said it wants to do nine years on, he said, which is to “destroy Hamas.”
“This will be a long and costly war,” he warned.
Patrick Bettane, an intelligence expert affiliated with the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Israel, also said there were factors at play regarding the potential launch of a ground offensive, pointing out that the situation is further complicated by the presence of hostages in the Gaza Strip.
“Israel is waiting to see how this problem can be resolved before it acts.”
There is growing pressure emanating from within Israel as well, with the families of hostages urging that the safe return of their loved ones becomes a top priority. Outside the Israeli military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, some relatives of the captives have coordinated sit-ins, appealing to their armed forces for negotiation.
Israel has imposed a “full siege” on Gaza for the past two weeks, cutting off food supplies, water, electricity and fuel. Humanitarian organizations have criticized the move as a form of collective punishment that may amount to war crimes under international law.
The Palestinian health ministry said on Tuesday that Israeli airstrikes had killed more than 700 Palestinians in Gaza overnight, and ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said it was the highest 24-hour death toll in Israel’s two-week-old siege of the narrow strip.
In a statement released on social media, the Palestinian health ministry said at least 5,791 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli bombardments since October 7 including 2,360 children. Some 704 were killed in the previous 24 hours alone, it said.