The “new phase” of Israel’s war on Hamas, explained.
Since Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, conducted a brutal terror attack on Israel three weeks ago that killed more than 1,400 people, Israel has been expected to launch a ground invasion meant to eliminate the group. That ground incursion is now underway — though for now it looks less like a full-on invasion and more like a phased assault.
While it may take some time for the assault’s full scope to become clear, this conflict has already dramatically exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza, who for years have been subjected by Israel to living conditions likened to an “open-air prison,” and to political repression from Hamas, are weathering Israel’s devastating bombardment campaign. That bombardment, human rights groups say, has likely included war crimes.
Israel has thus far declined to call the new operation an invasion (though, to be sure, it has both political and tactical reasons to obfuscate). Instead, leaders have described this as a “new phase.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address Saturday that the war had entered a “second phase,” and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would “destroy the enemy above ground and below ground,” referring to Hamas. He warned the country to prepare for a “long and difficult” war.
The IDF described the operation on X (formerly Twitter), saying that combat forces including infantry had been involved in a ground operation in northern Gaza since Friday night local time. “This is a war with multiple stages,” IDF Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said in a video address posted to X. “Today we move to the next one.”
Hamas confirmed that members of its armed wing were fighting IDF forces in the northern city of Beit Hanoun and in Al-Bureij in central Gaza, according to Reuters, and intended to fight the Israeli forces. “Al-Qassam Brigades and all Palestinian resistance forces are fully prepared to confront the aggression with full force and thwart the incursions,” Hamas’s armed wing said.
The escalation follows Israel’s highly criticized effort to evacuate civilians from northern Gaza and a weeks-long bombing campaign; then, earlier this week, a series of nighttime raids indicated that a ground assault was growing closer. The ground assault appears to be a phased assault, in which the IDF will push increasing numbers of soldiers into Gaza over time to accomplish different military objectives.
At the same time, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is worsening; Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 7,000 Palestinians so far, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. And supplies like fuel and clean water are running perilously low because so few aid trucks — 94 since the beginning of the war, compared with hundreds each day prior to the current conflict — have been able to enter the territory Israel has blockaded for 16 years.
This war will have lasting impacts on the relationship between Israel and the Gaza Strip, a 140-square-mile territory of more than 2 million people that Israel has occupied in an outright or de facto capacity since claiming the territory after a 1967 war with Egypt and Syria.
Why details about the operation are so hard to come by
Israeli military and political leaders have been circumspect about the details of the new operation, and that might not change anytime soon. “Israel has [an] interest to keep it vague,” Natan Sachs, director of the Middle East program at the Brookings Institution, told Vox.
After Hamas’s attack, which included widespread targeting of civilians, the mutilation of dead bodies, and the taking of over 200 hostages, Israeli officials repeatedly vowed to “destroy” Hamas. Netanyahu said Israel would turn Gaza into a “deserted island,” for example; Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said they would wipe Hamas “off the face of the earth.” That rhetoric and goals had not just human rights groups alarmed about the devastating consequences for civilians, but even reportedly US officials who worried that Israel was not adequately planning for a long-term stable future.
On Saturday, in his first press conference since the October 7 attack, Netanyahu continued to frame the war in existential terms, calling the operation Israel’s “second war for independence.” Even as he specified the goal was to destroy Hamas’s “military and political capabilities,” he still at other times used sweeping language, saying “our objective is singular: to defeat the murderous enemy. We declared ‘never again’, and we reiterate: ‘never again, now.’” Eventually, the Israeli government’s goal is to create “a new security regime in the Gaza Strip, the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip, and the creation of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel and the residents of” the area surrounding Gaza, Gallant told a meeting of the Knesset’s foreign affairs committee on October 20.
In the short term, though, “Israeli leaders have publicly stated their goals are to destroy Hamas’s capacity to govern Gaza and attack Israel (which is not the same as destroying Hamas, of course), and to release the hostages,” Sachs said.
How the military plans to accomplish those objectives is tightly under wraps, though some details are emerging and analysts are better able to deduce the military’s activities, as well as short-term goals.
So far, we know that the ground effort has grown since Friday. “We are gradually expanding the ground activity and the scope of our forces in the Gaza Strip,” IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari told reporters Sunday. Analysts told the Washington Post that forces in northern Gaza are likely moving slowly, dismantling booby traps, destroying Hamas’s tunnel network, and creating pathways for tanks and other military vehicles to get to Gaza City. They are also likely gathering intelligence about Hamas’s improved capabilities and tactics.
Mobile, landline, and internet services in Gaza were shut off starting Friday evening local time, not long before the invasion began, though service has been sporadically restored as of Sunday. But the blackout has made it extremely difficult for information not filtered through either the IDF or Hamas to get out, and the Israeli government announced Friday that it could not guarantee the safety of journalists in Gaza who are covering the conflict. Thus far in the war, 29 journalists have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The ambiguity caused by the communications blackout and the IDF’s circumspection also serves Israel internationally — in terms of both security and public perception.
“It’s not meeting … the media threshold of a ‘new Normandy invasion,’” James Jeffrey, former US special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told Vox in an interview. That strategy “poses a problem for Iran,” he said, as Iran threatened to take hostile action against Israel in the case of a ground invasion. By not calling the operation in Gaza an invasion outright, Jeffrey said, Israel could ostensibly keep Iran guessing whether something bigger — the “real” invasion — is yet to come.
“They’re now doing it by stealth,” Jeffrey said of the Israeli invasion, “and it’s going to be hard for Iran to put a finger on things.” The communications blackout further complicates Iran’s calculus; without non-IDF images and video of the ground operation, it’s hard to tell the scale. “It’s going to be harder for Iran to say, ‘This is the moment.’”
According to a New York Times analysis based on open source information, Israeli troops entered Gaza in two areas far to the northwest of the territory, as well as in central Gaza near the village of Juhor ad Dik, just north of the evacuation boundary. IDF troops remain in Gaza as of Sunday, according to IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.
According to Hecht, “the IDF struck over 450 terror targets over the past day, including operational command centers, observation posts, and anti-tank missile launch posts.” Hecht also said that combined forces — ground and air — identified and struck Hamas fighters that “attempted to attack the forces. They also targeted terrorist cells planning to execute anti-tank missile launches.”
Fighting is also intensifying somewhat between Israel and Hezbollah in the north. The IAF also announced Sunday that “warplanes attacked military infrastructure of the Hezbollah terrorist organization in response to launches carried out from Lebanese territory earlier today.” UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, announced via Telegram that shells have hit its facilities in southern Lebanon twice in recent days, and urged an immediate ceasefire.
No matter what, the humanitarian consequences will be massive
Israel sees this war, and eliminating Hamas’s military capabilities, as an existential requirement — and trying to do that before Iran and Hezbollah open up a second front in the north or international calls for a ceasefire become difficult to ignore will be a challenge.
What Israel has to balance is “as much military success as necessary to restore deterrence, to restore Israeli security — and within that necessity, as much hostage return and managing civilian casualties, and keeping … the Arab countries under control, and avoiding escalation as possible,” Jeffrey said.
But there are also experts who argue that framing it as an existential fight is counterproductive.
“What led to October 7 had more to do with failures of Israeli intelligence and defenses than it did with Hamas,” Richard Haass, the former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Financial Times. “These failures can and should be learned from and rectified. Hamas will not change its ways, but what can and must change is Israel’s ability to curtail the ability of Hamas to inflict meaningful harm.”
Moreover, Netanyahu’s existential framing — and statements from Israeli politicians and officials both before and after the October 7 attack — raises fears among Palestinians that this war will lead to their permanent displacement. As Vox’s Sigal Samuel explained, the three factors together are leading to discussions of a “second Nakba.” (The Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from “their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war that led to the country’s creation.”)
Though Netanyahu and the Israeli government have declined to call this operation a ground invasion, it will still have dire consequences for Palestinians in Gaza. The lack of fuel in Gaza — which Israel has cut off during the siege because Hamas could use it for military purposes — means that hospital generators will soon be unable to power facilities where people are sheltering and the injured and sick desperately need care. People are already drinking untreated water with a high salinity, which could spread diseases like cholera, because there’s not enough fuel for the territory’s six water filtration facilities. Some facilities have been able to operate in a limited capacity, and Israel has restored access to some of the clean water it pipes in to the region and said it will allow the flow of aid trucks into the territory to “increase significantly”— but it may not be enough to meet people’s basic needs.
Hamas likely has hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel, as well as stocks of weapons, food, medicine, and water hidden in its network of tunnels. It is probably using these supplies sparingly, in the hopes that its armed wing can sustain three or four months of fighting, a senior Lebanese official told the New York Times, and would not consider giving them to civilians facing humanitarian catastrophe, or to the aid organizations desperately trying to save people’s lives in shelters and hospitals.
“The Hamas movement cares only about the Hamas movement,” Samir Ghattas, an Egyptian strategic analyst focusing on Gaza, told the Times. “The public of Gaza mean absolutely nothing for Hamas.”
The humanitarian situation in Gaza could potentially affect Israel’s ability to fight this war, Jeffrey said, because public opinion about the humanitarian toll on Gaza, as well as the safety of the more than 200 hostages Hamas is holding there, “is very important for Washington.”
Israel must, he said, “really care, as a strategic military issue, [about] civilian casualties and humanitarian issues because that will determine how long you have American support. They only have so much time, even if it’s an existential battle.”
Already, the images and stories trickling out of Gaza over the weekend are devastating. Emergency services said the communications blackout had prevented ambulances from effectively reaching the injured; Palestinians resorted to digging through demolished buildings with their bare hands to search for those trapped under the rubble; and people around the world mourned loved ones they found out had been killed only after communications were restored.
US President Joe Biden called Netanyahu Sunday, reiterating the US’s firm support of Israel’s “right and responsibility” to pursue this war against Hamas, according to a White House summary of the call. Biden also “underscored the need to do so in a manner consistent with international humanitarian law that prioritizes the protection of civilians.”