October 28, 2023 - 8:00am

Three weeks after Hamas’s murderous rampage across southern Israel, with barrages of Hamas rockets still striking Israel daily, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has found itself in a strategic bind. If Israeli forces enter Gaza to deliver the overwhelming military response to Hamas’s terrorist atrocities, they will find themselves facing a motivated enemy far more capable and better trained than Israeli planners assumed, deeply embedded within the enclave’s two-million-strong civilian population. A miles-long network of fortified tunnels extends beneath the Gaza Strip, ensuring the urban battle will be difficult and bloody. Israeli officials have braced the public for a campaign that may take months or even years to complete.

Yet Netanyahu must also balance his political need to destroy Hamas with the fear that a full-scale invasion of Gaza would cause Hezbollah to escalate its current tit-for-tat campaign of missile, drone and artillery strikes on Israel’s northern border. The Hamas rocket barrages are already thinning out Israel’s stockpile of Iron Dome missile defence munitions, and Hezbollah’s vast supply of around 150,000 rockets and missiles threaten to overwhelm Israeli defences, risking mass casualties among the civilian population and a further erosion of the country’s deterrent prestige. US and Saudi missile defences have already intercepted long-range missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi militia towards Israel, and American forces across the region are hunkering down beneath a wave of rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups.

According to US officials, the Biden administration has pressured Israel’s government to pause its Gaza invasion until American missile defence systems can be rushed to the region to protect US troops from an escalated Iranian response. Yet the enforced pause can also be read as a means to limit Israel’s retaliatory operation until Netanyahu’s government, domestically unpopular and floundering over its war plan, can devise a workable strategy for Gaza. As the regional security analyst Michael Young observes

What seems to be happening […] is that the US is slow-walking Israel away from a full Gaza invasion, because they don’t feel it will work, its objectives are unclear, civilian deaths will turn opinion against the US and Israel, and it may spur a regional war.
- Michael Young

Yet a limited Israeli response, such as the clearing of a secure zone within Gaza’s borders or brief incursions into Gazan territory, which would leave the Hamas leadership intact, would be difficult to portray domestically or internationally as anything other than a strategic defeat. More, it would encourage Israel’s enemies towards further provocations. 

In the meantime, as the region teeters on the edge of a wider war and Netanyahu’s divided government struggles to devise a workable plan, Israel’s punitive air campaign in Gaza is rapidly eroding international sympathy. Around 7,000 Palestinians, including 3,000 children, are claimed to have been killed so far by Israeli airstrikes. The footage coming out of Gaza is as awful as anything from Syria at its worst, and despite Biden’s awkward shrugging off of the civilian casualties, both domestic and international pressure will eventually force Israel to dial down its aerial campaign.

All the choices now facing Israel’s planners are terrible. The window of opportunity opened up by international revulsion at Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians is rapidly closing, and civilian casualties in Gaza have forced Israel’s government onto the back foot in justifying its campaign. Rhetorically in lockstep with Israel, in practice the Biden administration appears to be deeply sceptical of Israel’s capabilities and seeking an off-ramp away from full-scale war. American public opinion is far more divided on the Israel-Palestine question than ever before, and Washington’s unlimited support can no longer be taken for granted

If Israel invades Gaza, it will both incur and inflict horrendous casualties, with no realistic plan for what comes after victory. The Jewish state fears a wider conflict it may no longer be able to adequately sustain, yet inaction will itself encourage further attacks. Fifty years after the Six Day War that established overwhelming deterrence and limitless US support as the twin pillars of Israel’s security, both have been revealed as shakier than anyone expected. Before the full-scale Gaza War has even begun, with Netanyahu checkmated by rapidly shifting international dynamics, it already looks like Israel has suffered a strategic defeat.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.