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What will Israel's ground invasion mean for Gaza?

What will Israel's ground invasion mean for Gaza?
7 min read
16 October, 2023
In-depth: Israel's ground invasion of Gaza could be unprecedented in terms of its scale, ferocity, and civilian casualties.

Israel has been heavily bombing the Gaza Strip for ten days following Hamas’ unprecedented attack on 7 October, with its forces now mobilising in huge numbers for an impending ground assault.

So far, nearly 2,800 Palestinians have been killed and more than 10,000 wounded by Israeli airstrikes, with Gaza experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe following Israeli measures to cut electricity and water, and impose a ‘total siege’.

Since the deadly attack on southern Israel – dubbed operation 'Al-Aqsa Flood' – which killed over 1,400 Israelis and saw Hamas fighters take nearly 200 hostages, Israeli officials have made clear that their military would strike Gaza harder than ever before.

An emergency government and war cabinet were set up last week to that effect, which includes opposition leader Benny Gantz. After its first meeting, Netanyahu vowed that “every Hamas member is a dead man”, promising to eliminate not only Hamas’ senior leadership but the entire organisation itself.

Militarily, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said he has “released all restraints” on Israel’s army in their fight against Hamas, saying that Gaza would “never go back to what it was”.

Given such rhetoric and the huge mobilisation of Israel’s military, rights groups and Palestinians are anticipating a catastrophe in Gaza.

'Second Nakba'

Prior to an expected ground invasion, Israel has already taken the extreme measure of imposing a “total blockade” on Gaza, cutting off all necessities such as water, electricity, food, and fuel to the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there. Israeli ministers have said aid and other goods will only be allowed once Israeli hostages are freed.

In addition, 1.1 million Palestinians living in the north of Gaza were ordered last Friday to move to the south within 24 hours, raising fears of a second ‘Nakba’ amid mass forced displacement. According to the UN humanitarian agency, OCHA, hundreds of thousands of civilians have already desperately sought shelter in UN schools, which are well over capacity. Following a ground invasion, the scale of displacement could be inconceivable.

The Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which is the only gateway in and out of Gaza was shut down after ongoing Israeli airstrikes hit the Palestinian side of the crossing. Egyptian officials have been wary of an inflow of refugees, while Palestinians fear any displacement into the Sinai Peninsula could become permanent, echoing past forced displacements of 1948 and 1967.

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Humanitarian catastrophe

Rights groups have multiplied pleas for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow aid into Gaza amid warnings over dwindling water, food, and fuel supplies amid ‘total blockade’.

Gaza’s only power plant has shut down, over-capacity hospitals are running out of life-saving supplies, and other vital services will soon stop functioning.

"A ground invasion of Gaza would lead to more destruction and killings and would exacerbate the humanitarian disaster that Israel has been inflicting on Gazans, who lost access to water, fuel, electricity, and food”, Nur Arafeh, a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, told The New Arab.

Health officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warn that the health system is on the verge of collapse. "Hospitals are fully occupied with their clinical capabilities, and the wounded and patients are on the ground due to the intensification of Israeli aggression," the Palestinian health ministry said in a Facebook post.

“Without electricity, hospitals risk turning into morgues,” Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC’s regional director for the Near and Middle East, said in a statement.

Israeli airstrikes have killed nearly 3,000 Palestinians in 10 days. [Getty]

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) warned that critical supplies were running dangerously low after Israel ordered a complete siege on the crowded territory. Before this latest outbreak of violence, 58% of Gaza residents required humanitarian assistance. With half of the population under 18, those needs will only grow.

Many residents are now desperately rushing to stockpile food, but most stores are empty. “I went to the grocery store today to stock up on essentials as Israel cut food supply to Gaza,” Maha Hussaini, a human rights activist based in Gaza, tweeted. “The store owner told me the empty shelves won’t be restocked”.

Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst, expressed deep concern to The New Arab on the looming crisis ahead, fearing that the ground invasion and siege imposed on Gaza will mean that people could soon be without food, and the Al Shifa hospital, which faces an Israeli evacuation order, may have to shut down.

“On a human level, this is beyond catastrophic”, Odeh told TNA. “On a political one, it’s the absolute act of cruelty that we’ll be talking about for generations to come”.

While thousands of Gazans have already fled their homes, others have refused to evacuate, with many more torn between the traumatic decision of leaving and the possibility of death if they remain.

“With a ground invasion, I can foresee all this carnage happening with civilians still trapped," Odeh said.

As hundreds of thousands flee their homes, the UN has explicitly said that mass relocation was “impossible” to implement and could have devastating humanitarian consequences.

“There is absolutely no safe place. I can’t even imagine what impact a full or partial ground invasion would have,” Heba, an activist from Gaza, told TNA. “It will be ugly, devastating, and many more innocent lives will be lost.”

Such vast movements of people ahead of a ground invasion could actually invite mass casualties among civilians, with the scale of the impending destruction far worse than any military offensive Gaza has witnessed in recent years.

“You could get up to 10,000, 20,000, there’s really no limit to the amount of people that could be harmed,” Frank Lowenstein, former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, told BBC Newsnight, indicating that thousands of Palestinians could die in Israel’s ground assault.

In 2014, Israel’s 52-day ‘Operation Protective Edge’ killed more than 2,000 people, and saw 19 days of a ground invasion. The death toll from Israel’s bombardments since Saturday has already exceeded that figure.

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Urban fighting

Despite past ground invasions, Israel’s military will still face considerable operational challenges in densely populated areas, with the possibility of huge civilian casualties.

Considering the nature of urban warfare, it could well turn into a prolonged ground campaign for Israel. Hamas has also likely been preparing for such a possibility and will be organised for urban combat.

“This will be essentially an infantry battle with a lot of complications for the Israeli assailants,” Frank Ledwidge, a former UK military intelligence officer and currently a senior strategy lecturer at Portsmouth University, told France 24. He said that once Israeli troops enter Gaza, they will face IEDs, booby traps and Hamas’ network of tunnels.

Additionally, the fate of hostages who are likely scattered across Gaza complicates a land assault and exacerbates the risks during ground operations. Hamas, meanwhile, could use the captives as a deterrent against Israeli actions.

With its highly advanced capabilities Israel will likely succeed militarily, but even if Hamas is defeated on the battlefield the Israeli occupation will ensure that its reason for existing continues.

Israel has summoned over 360,000 reservists as it prepares to launch an unprecedented ground invasion of Gaza. [Getty]

Previous offensives on Gaza in 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 saw Israel destroy vast swathes of infrastructure in Gaza and kill thousands of civilians, but Hamas remained in power.

“The Israeli strategy of undermining Hamas has been a total failure while imprisoning 2 million civilians in a tiny plot of land. Now after 16 years of failed policy, Israel is pursuing a costly ground invasion. This is their Afghanistan,” political scientist Robert Kubinec wrote in a tweet.

But regardless of how the coming invasion will play out militarily, civilians in Gaza will pay the heaviest price. Even before the current escalation it had the highest unemployment in the world, with 80% of Gazans living below the poverty line, and only up to six hours a day of electricity.

In both 2012 and 2015, the UN urgently said that Gaza could become ‘unliveable’ by 2020 due to the 16-year Israeli blockade. Israel’s impending ground invasion could further determine its long-term future, potentially with unthinkable consequences.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec