Israeli troops are massing around the Gaza Strip, poised for a ground invasion that could involve heavy urban combat in the densely populated territory. The buildup of force comes after attackers from the militant group Hamas, which controls the enclave, crossed into southern Israel, killing at least 1,400 people and taking more than 200 hostages.
The Israel Defense Forces have already pummeled the Strip with airstrikes, killing more than 3,000 Palestinians, according to Palestinian officials.
Israel withdrew troops from Gaza in 2005. In 2008 and 2014, Israeli forces entered the territory in multiweek campaigns that Israel said were aimed at impeding Hamas’s capabilities.
Map of past movements of Israeli troops into Gaza.
The fighting killed more than 3,500 Palestinians and more than 70 Israeli soldiers in total.
This operation may be much more extensive. Israel has vowed to “destroy” Hamas.
“Basically what the Israelis are aiming for is complete regime change in Gaza, which is a notable break from” past campaigns, said Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp. He expected a long, brutal fight. “If you want to root out Hamas, it’s going to last a lot more than 50 days like Protective Edge,” said Cohen, referring to the IDF’s 2014 operation.
Many civilians have already been killed in Gaza and one million have been displaced according to the United Nations.
“A ground campaign will inevitably have grave implications for civilians in Gaza,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The dense urban nature of the [Gaza Strip] will ensure that such an operation will face fierce resistance and will require massive use of force by Israel.”
He added that “Hamas’s practice of storing and using rockets and military assets among civilians and in humanitarian facilities will further increase the exposure of civilians to risk.”
A dense battlefield
To dismantle Hamas, the IDF, one of the world’s most powerful militaries, would have to fight in Gaza’s dense neighborhoods with limited space to maneuver.
Hamas, which analysts say spent at least two years planning the rampage that caught Israeli forces by surprise, is likely to have prepared for a large-scale retaliation.
Diagram of buildings and roads in a city highlighting large piles of rubble in the streets.
An overhead view of the city has a zoomed in circle of where a barricade is set up between buildings
An overhead shot of the city. A zoomed in circle reveals two tanks and several fighters moving with the tanks
Intense Israeli bombings have already transformed Gaza’s buildings and streets into a maze of rubble. Further strikes may be limited once the ground offensive begins to avoid endangering Israeli forces.
The piles of rubble, along with barricades, could provide cover to Hamas fighters. The militants could also try to redirect IDF forces into areas Hamas has mined with explosives.
The IDF might employ a combined arms tactic, using infantry, armor and other support elements to advance on their enemy.
Unlike battles in open fields, fighting in urban neighborhoods requires navigating three-dimensional terrain. Military-grade suicide drones might be used for precision attacks, while commercial quadcopters — which Hamas militants used on Oct. 7 — could be operated to watch enemy movements or rigged to drop explosives.
Threats could come from any direction. Snipers could be positioned in the upper floors of buildings.
Armored vehicles would be important to provide cover and firepower for infantry but could also be limited by narrow streets and vulnerable to antitank weapons.
Ultimately, many objectives might only be attainable with infantry fighting in close quarters, requiring troops to go door to door, and floor to floor to clear buildings.
Mouse holes made in walls, between buildings, would allow Hamas fighters to quickly move to different positions.
According to military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak, some tunnels “house relatively sophisticated rocket-assembly lines, motor-assembly works, sheet metal and explosives’ stores, and warhead-fabrication workshops.” Others hold command posts and smaller arms. And the deepest tunnels are where Hamas leaders live and meet.
Destroying tunnels from the air could once again mean putting civilians in harm’s way.
Clearing out tunnels with infantry can also be dangerous. The IDF might use robots to lessen the risk.
The civilian toll
A ground offensive into Gaza could compound the already catastrophic humanitarian crisis there.
An Israeli siege on the enclave has meant almost all its fuel and power are gone. Food, drinking water and medical supplies are running out.
“It seems that major ground operations are likely to focus on Gaza City, at least initially, with perhaps limited ground incursions elsewhere,” said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But air and naval artillery strikes are likely to continue against targets throughout the Gaza Strip.”
Israel has urged Gazans to evacuate to the south, away from Gaza City, before a ground incursion, but on Tuesday the United Nations cited reports “that civilians attempting to relocate to southern Gaza were struck and killed by an explosive weapon.” The southern Rafah crossing into Egypt remains closed.
“What makes this round even more concerning is that it is likely to extend for an unprecedented period of time, where civilians will not only be exposed to direct risk of death and injury from the fighting, but also to protracted, severe shortages of basic humanitarian needs,” al-Omari said.