Hamas vs. Israeli forces: Is a ground offensive coming?

Will Israel send in ground troops as it did with Operation Cast Lead in 2009? Or, will this be a relatively short air-strikes-only operation, like the 2012 Pillar of Defense? On Saturday, Israel added another missile battery to its Iron Dome.

(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Israeli infantry soldiers walk to their armored personnel carriers to take up new positions on the Israel-Gaza border, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes overnight targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque its military says concealed the militant group's weapons, in an offensive that showed no signs of slowing down.

As Israel's military proceeds with Operation Protective Edge, there's a sad déjà vu quality about it.

We've been here before.  And the question looms: Will this be another Operation Cast Lead or Operation Pillar of Defense?

In other words, will Israel go after Hamas again by sending ground troops into Gaza as it did with Operation Cast Lead in 2009? Or, will this be a relatively short air-strikes-only operation, like the 2012 Pillar of Defense?

In the previous Israeli military operations, as well as the current one, the goal seems similar: Stop Hamas rocket attacks and carve out a period of peace.

What's different this time around?

From a purely military standpoint, both sides are better prepared. Hamas has stockpiled more and better rockets. It has also built a network of tunnels so that it can launch the rockets with less chance of detection. Israel's Iron Dome has been upgraded and is more effective, especially against the longer range rockets Hamas has been lobbing. So far, no Israeli citizens have died from Hamas rocket attacks. By the time the rain of Hamas rockets ended in 2012, four Israeli civilians and two soldiers had died.

[On Saturday, Reuters reported that Israel added another missile interceptor battery.  "In the past week, we carried out a very complex technological exercise to deliver the eighth (Iron Dome) system," a Defence Ministry official said on Israel Radio.]

During the eight-day Pillar of Defense operation in 2012, Gaza officials said 133 Palestinians were killed, including 79 militants, 53 civilians. The UN put the total at 168 killed. So far, as Operation Protective Edge reaches Day Five, the Palestinian death toll has reached 125, according to the Associated Press.

The Israeli military says that it has struck more than 1,100 targets in Gaza, so far. During Pillar of Defense, the IDF claimed to have struck more than 1,500 sites in the Gaza Strip.

What's similar this time around?

Once more, both sides are fighting a war of global perceptions and moral justification. On Saturday, the lead news was that Israeli missiles had hit a mosque. "Officials in the territory said that besides the mosque, the strikes also hit Hamas-affiliated charities and banks, as well as a home for the disabled, killing two women," reported the Associated Press.

Israeli officials note that they are doing everything they can to avoid civilian casualties.

On Friday evening, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) released black-and-white video of a site in the Gaza Strip which was marked as a target.

As the Israeli pilot closed in on the target, he radios that he can see what appear to be civilians nearby.

“There are people, there are people close to our target,” he could be heard saying in Hebrew.

“It looks like there are people, possibly children, in our targeted area.”

After a moment, he receives a reply from ground control: “We are not going to strike this target now,” says the female voice. “Let’s move on.”

Israeli officials note that civilian casualties are part of the Hamas battle plan: Tunnels and munitions are purposely place within or near mosques, schools, and hospitals. Such military tactics are a violation of international law and considered a war crime. A Human Rights Watch report on the 2012 conflict stated that Palestinian groups endangered civilians by "repeatedly fir[ing] rockets from densely populated areas, near homes, businesses, and a hotel."

The attacks on Palestinian civilians in 2012 by the IDF were also criticized in a report by the UN High Commission for Human Rights for failing to "respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions, as required by international humanitarian law."

Beyond the framing of events, there's an uncertainty around escalation. It's not clear yet whether the latest Israeli military operation will evolve into a ground offensive, similar to the 2009 Operation Cast Lead.

The Israeli cabinet has approved calling up 40,000 reservists. But as one writer at the Israeli news site Haaretz noted, that may not be a telling development. In 2012, some 75,000 reservists were called up but a ground offensive never materialized.

One argument against a ground offensive is that finding and clearing out the underground tunnels where Hamas rockets are stored and launched could take weeks or months. Is the Israeli public – or the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – prepared for a long slog, with likely Israeli casualties? As Haaretz notes:

The government doesn't look like it has the stamina required for this. This complex reality is the cause of tensions between the military and political leaderships, surfacing after weeks of close coordination and a good atmosphere. Netanyahu's circle is starting to complain about IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and the major-generals who aren't suggesting original solutions to the situation. Within the IDF, particularly in divisions on the ground, they don't entirely understand what the politicians want and why they aren't giving clearer orders.

If the current IDF air strikes don't reduce the frequency of Hamas rocket attacks, or the Hamas leadership shows no interest in mediation by outside actors such as Egypt or the US, pressure will likely build on Netanyahu and his generals to take further action against Hamas.

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