There are many reasons why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered a ground invasion of Gaza. He wants to ensure that Hamas can never again murder 1,400 Israelis. He needs to take bold action to restore the confidence of his people in their nation’s security. He may also believe that his political survival depends on erasing the shame his government faces following the most consequential security failure in Israel’s history.
None of that makes a ground invasion of Gaza the right thing to do.
We must begin with the most obvious point. There are more than two million Palestinians now trapped inside a war zone with nowhere to go. Nearly half of them are children, to whom no one can assign even indirect blame for Hamas’ mass murder. Yes, Israeli forces will take steps to minimize civilian casualties, but with so many people trapped inside one of the world’s most densely populated areas, those precautions won’t be nearly enough.
Beyond the moral problem, Netanyahu should understand that the invasion of Gaza will make Israel less safe.
Inside Gaza, with Hamas dug in, even an Israeli victory would prove extraordinarily costly in Israeli lives too. With so many people trapped inside an area that measures around 140 square miles, it will be too easy for Hamas to use blameless Palestinians as human shields, slowing Israel's ability to respond. The group has a vast network of tunnels in which to hide that Israel has not been able to map. Israel is much more likely to be sucked into a long and brutal war than to score the hoped-for decapitation of Hamas anytime soon.
It also now appears inevitable that the large-scale killing of Palestinian civilians, even if inadvertent, will force a regional escalation of the war and a much higher risk of terrorism against Jewish targets around the world. Violence is already rising in the West Bank, which may force Israel’s security forces to split their focus even further. That doesn’t mean Lebanon’s Hezbollah, much less Iran, will fully enter a war with Israel. But we’re seeing rocket attacks from Hezbollah and other Iranian-funded proxy groups, including Yemen’s Houthis, and provocative acts from militias in Iraq and Syria.
Israelis may well wonder why so much of the world seems not to understand their shock and anger at the mass murder of citizens that triggered this conflict, but we must all remember that much of the world receives news coverage that is focused far more closely on Palestinian deaths than on Israelis. That is a reality that is shaping world opinion in ways that does not favor Israel.
Finally, even if Israel could somehow “subdue” Palestinian resistance in Gaza, someone will have to control security in that territory over the longer term. The war is radicalizing far more Palestinians than Hamas propaganda ever could. Egypt and the wealthy Gulf Arab states, whatever their past failures to help Palestinians, have no intention of helping Netanyahu solve this problem. How will the next attack be prevented if the war leaves a vacuum of power in Gaza? A long-term Israeli reoccupation of the territory would only add to the human and material costs.
The Biden Administration wants to support Israel in its hour of need, but the U.S. is aware of all the problems detailed here. The president has warned Netanyahu that Americans understand all too well the cost of responding to a massive terrorist attack with a plan that has no credible ultimate objective.
No one can fault any Israeli for wanting to scotch the terrorist snake that killed 1,400 of its men, women, and children. But Israel will not be made safer by a full invasion of Gaza and a plan that can only kill more innocents.
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