Doubts in Israel over a ground assault on Gaza

Residents leave Gaza border amid concerns over invasion, but in Israel there's little appetite for it, with memories of backlash the last time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 3:05am

The olive orchards and wheat fields lining the Gaza Strip border with Israel were always sparsely populated, but the area is now a virtual no man's land.

Fearing an Israeli ground invasion of the coastal strip, hundreds of families have fled.

"I don't worry so much about the air strikes, but I don't want to be here when Israeli soldiers come," said Iyad Badawi, 40, standing about 1.5 kilometres from the border during a quick visit to his home to make sure everything was OK. During the last Israeli ground operation four years ago, a neighbour was killed, he noted. "No one's coming back until there's peace again."

Gazans aren't the only ones anxious about a possible Israeli ground incursion. Even as ceasefire talks continued in Cairo, a growing chorus of Israeli politicians, ex-military commanders and pundits voiced doubts about the wisdom of expanding Israel's six-day air operation to include soldiers on the ground.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has signalled that a ground invasion could be imminent if the talks falter. More than 45,000 reservists have been called up and troops are massing along the border area in southern Israel.

But many Israelis asked whether a ground operation would be worth risking the lives of their nation's soldiers.

Though rocket attacks into Israel by Gaza militants continued Monday, most Israelis view the Gaza campaign so far as a resounding success. Israel has killed dozens of Hamas militants, including several high-ranking commanders. The dead have included Ahmed Jaabari, head of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Gaza's ruling Hamas movement.

The campaign also has depleted Hamas' cache of Iranian-made Fajr-5 long-range rockets and forced the militant group to expose some of its new offensive capabilities, such as a homemade long-range rocket dubbed the M-75 and a drone-making factory, which Israel destroyed.

"It would be a mistake if the achievements of this operation, which are considerable, are lost or minimised by the ground phase," said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. "There are always things you can't hit from the air, but you have to ask yourself: are there enough ground targets to justify expanding the operation?"

Former Israeli Defence Minster Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the threat of a ground operation might have been helpful in bringing the militant Islamist group Hamas to the negotiating table, but he questioned the need for an invasion of troops.

"A ground operation is unnecessary," he said on Israeli television on Sunday night. Former national security chief Giora Eiland voiced similar skepticism, saying Israel would gain little from getting dragged into a ground fight that would drive up the casualties on both sides.

Even some in Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet were privately expressing reluctance to approve a ground operation for fear it might turn into a military quagmire or hurt Israel's diplomatic relations, Israeli media reported.

The high civilian death toll four years ago during Israel's last ground attack on Gaza led to an international backlash that damaged Israel's global standing. The United Nations' Goldstone Commission concluded that Israel may have committed war crimes by targeting civilians in that conflict, which left more than 1,200 Palestinians dead in 22 days. Israeli officials rejected the commission's findings.

A poll released on Monday found 84 per cent of Jewish Israelis support the current Gaza operation, but only 30 per cent want to see a ground invasion.