But Daniel Hagari, a military spokesperson, later framed the operation more modestly to reporters, saying the Israel Defense Forces would be “gradually increasing its ground activity in the Gaza Strip and the scale of its forces.”
The careful wording belies reports of heavy fighting by relatively small IDF units who have pushed into Gaza, supported by tanks, helicopters and air strikes. While intense, the runs are not the massive invasion the IDF has positioned itself to launch and indicate the war might be fought in smaller, targeted engagements rather than a massive push through the densely populated enclave.
Israeli officials over the last 24 hours signaled that the incursion into northern Gaza will be the first step in a multi-part operation to dismantle Hamas’ military capabilities. “The campaign will continue until further notice,” Gallant said.
The Biden administration has studiously kept quiet since Israeli forces entered and stayed in Gaza on Friday afternoon. During a news conference as the move was underway, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby repeatedly declined to confirm that a new operation was happening, pointing reporters to official Israeli statements. Moments before those remarks, IDF spokesperson Maj. Nir Dinar told POLITICO that “there are forces inside Gaza as we speak.”
Much hangs in the balance: global perceptions of Israel as it wages urban warfare that further imperils civilians; the resiliency of Hamas, which has had years to booby trap the enclave it rules; the effectiveness of President Joe Biden’s plan to back Israel publicly while pushing for a more limited military operation privately; and the fate of 230 hostages held in Gaza.
The U.S. has asked that Israel not launch an all-out invasion, fearing that it risks hostages’ lives and could lead to a spike in civilian casualties. The opening moments of the apparent campaign seem more limited — though Israeli officials insist that the war will eventually expand.
Israeli officials internally and with foreign partners discussed the possibility of delaying a large ground invasion to negotiate more hostage releases. But Gallant pushed that idea aside: “As we hit the enemy harder, there’s a better chance that the enemy will agree to solutions to return the loved ones.”
Little is known about the operation so far. An increased rate of Israeli airstrikes took telecommunications in Gaza offline, Palestinian companies said, leading to a blackout that has made it hard for residents to connect and for humanitarian organizations to coordinate aid deliveries. Most of what is known comes from official statements by the Israel Defense Forces, which deny they’re responsible for the blackout.
“Since early Friday evening, combined combat forces of armor, combat engineers and infantry have been operating on the ground in the northern Gaza Strip,” the IDF said in a statement Saturday morning. “As part of the operation, IDF soldiers identified terrorist cells attempting to launch anti-tank missiles and mortar shells and struck them. IDF soldiers also identified and destroyed a booby-trapped structure.”
The IDF also said it killed the head of Hamas’ Aerial Array, Asem Abu Rakaba, and Ratib Abu Tzahiban, commander of Hamas’ Naval Forces of the Gaza City Brigade. The military added that it had struck 150 tunnels and bunkers belonging to Hamas.
“What we are seeing now in Gaza is what is termed a ‘Reconnaissance Pull,’” said Mick Mulroy, formerly a top Pentagon official for the Middle East. “This tactic is applied to large unit formations in which small elements locate and rapidly exploit enemy weakness. Once the weakness, seams and gaps are discovered, they bring in the parts of the main body of the assault.”
“Over time, we could see the entire ground force in Gaza fully engaged in fighting Hamas by this effort,” Mulroy continued.
The former head of the U.S. Central Command, retired Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, said that purposeful movements into Gaza — as opposed to a full-scale invasion — also ensure the IDF doesn’t get stretched thin.
“This is an infantry fight,” he said. “A lot is going to be put on people on the ground, not just on the front lines, but behind the front lines, ensuring that you are secure [and] that Hamas is not going to pop up in your rear and attack your command posts, your medical aid stations and your all your logistics elements.”
Hamas is equipped with thousands of gallons of fuel that can be used for vehicles and rockets, ammunition, plenty of food and water and medicine — an indication of just how long it has had to prepare for a fight like this. Before this new phase, the Gaza health ministry claimed nearly 8,000 Palestinians had been killed during Israeli retributory strikes and the siege of Gaza, which followed Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that saw 1,400 Israelis slain.
In his own remarks Saturday, Gallant couched the operation in stark terms, saying, “This will not be a short war. It is a long war that will require us to be strong, as individuals, as a society, as leaders. Above all, our security forces will be strong. This is a war on our home. This is a war we didn’t choose. It’s either us or them.”