A few days before the launch of the ground phase of Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, I observed an exercise by soldiers of Israel's Southern Command. They were from the Givati Brigade, the main regular infantry force of that command, and they were practising fighting in built-up areas.
The exercise took place in central Israel, at a facility maintained by one of the country's largest defence companies. There was a series of concrete structures arranged to resemble the tightly packed houses and alleyways one would find in a densely populated Middle Eastern city.
The soldiers, all in their early 20s, practised methods they would use to cover each other as they moved into such an environment; moving in pairs, entering and exiting rooms, identifying targets. There was the curious mixture of youthful lightheartedness and deadly seriousness of purpose with which I associate such environments.
As we watched, I asked the young man from the Israel Defence Forces Spokesperson's Unit who accompanied us whether he thought there would be a major ground incursion into Gaza, given the delays and uncertainties, and the fear of what such an invasion might mean for the more than 230 Israeli hostages held in the Strip since October 7.
"The ground operation's coming," he said, with absolute certainty. "I don't know exactly when. But it's coming."
He was right. Some or all of the young men (and one young woman) we observed taking part in the Givati exercise are now inside the Gaza Strip, using the skills they polished that day, now in deadly earnest.
The third chapter of the war that began on October 7 between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza has started.
The first phase was the Hamas incursion and rampage of October 7, and the subsequent, belated efforts by the Israeli security forces to re-secure and seal the border. The second was the subsequent air campaign, designed to strike at Hamas infrastructure and facilities in the Strip, and accompanied in its final days by a series of raids and incursions.
These, it is now clear, were intended to probe vulnerabilities in Hamas's defences and test the responses of its forces.
Ground manoeuvre begins
The third phase, the ground manoeuvre, began on Friday, October 27, somewhat belatedly, three weeks into the war. The thousands of reservists mobilised after the Hamas massacre had settled into an uneasy routine on the dusty border, cleaning their equipment, dealing with the monotony of combat rations and the unseasonally hot days.
The IDF had maintained a shroud of secrecy over the timing of the ground operation. At first it wasn't clear that it had, in fact, begun. Raids and incursions had taken place in previous days. The moves on that Friday evening might have appeared at first to have been just a larger-scale raid of this type. But when Israeli forces were still present on Gaza's soil at dawn the following day, it was clear the new phase had begun.
Still, there has been no pouring of troops into Gaza, no thunder run by IDF armour to Gaza City, with the intent of a swift decapitation of the Hamas administration that has held power since 2007. Rather, the move so far has been slow and systematic. The IDF has made no announcement of intentions.
Israel's political leaders also have various, not entirely consistent, formulations regarding the strategic goal of the campaign. Sometimes, unambiguously, the objective described is to "bring down Hamas" in Gaza; that is, to end the government of the Islamist movement in the area. At other times, the stated objective is to destroy the military capabilities of Hamas. These do not mean the same thing.
Observation of the movement of forces since October 27 would appear to suggest the IDF is in this phase of the operation seeking to close in on Gaza City, the main urban area, from two directions and to cut the Gaza Strip into two.
Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip from both the north and the east. They have now reached the Salah al-Din road, the main north-south thoroughfare in Gaza, and are operating in the outskirts of Gaza City. Israeli forces have begun to engage Hamas fighters in parts of the vast tunnel network built by the Islamist movement beneath the city.
Both sides are claiming initial tactical successes. The Telegram channel of Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades noted on Tuesday morning that "the mujaheddin of al-Qassam are now engaged in a clash with enemy forces invading northwest Gaza. Two vehicles were targeted with al-Yassin 105 shells, setting them on fire and killing one of the soldiers."
Battle has only just been engaged and it is too soon to draw any firm tactical conclusions. But at present Israel appears to be advancing methodically at its own chosen pace, taking and securing limited areas and then reinforcing these with larger numbers of troops. The claims by al-Qassam that it is defeating or foiling the IDF plan seem as of now to have little merit.
The most notable element of the Israeli ground manoeuvre so far visible is this slow and methodical tempo. Israeli officials have cautioned that the operation may take weeks, if not months.
What is the reason for this slow pace? Partly, this probably derives from a desire to limit casualties among Israel's troops and among the civilian population of the Strip. The Hamas authorities are claiming 8000 Gaza civilians have died since the Israeli counter-action began following the October 7 massacre. Figures emerging from the same terrorist body that ordered the massacre on October 7 should be treated with the appropriate caution. But undoubtedly civilians have died in Israel's air actions against the Hamas infrastructure in recent days in Gaza. This infrastructure is woven tightly into the civil population in the densely packed Strip, with the result that it is impossible to entirely avoid such casualties.
There is undoubtedly an additional calculus. Somewhere above 230 Israeli civilian hostages remain in captivity inside Gaza. Contacts between Israel and the Hamas rulers of Gaza, mediated by the emirate of Qatar, are taking place. An all-out armoured and infantry assault on Gaza, with the intention of rapidly destroying Hamas rule, would almost certainly have the effect of ending these contacts and consigning the Israeli hostages to death, or a fate worse than death.
Israel is not a society capable of such a decision. There are societies and leaders who it is quite easy to imagine pursuing such a path. Indeed, such examples are close to hand. Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk, for example, in a recent interview on Russia Today's Arabic channel, told an interviewer that his movement had not built bomb shelters in Gaza for its population because it was the job of the UN and the "occupation" – that is, Israel – to look after the civilians of the Strip. But in Israel, even the rescue of a single hostage, female soldier Ori Megidish, earlier this week led to nationwide rejoicing.
A couple of nights after the initial attacks, an Israeli colleague of mine, Naveh Dromi, knowing her society well, told me that while the talk at that time was all of a counter-strike, within a few days the fate of the hostages would become the central item of discussion in Israel. And so it has been. The message from the Israeli authorities appears to have been that the slow-moving offensive is intended to place pressure on the Hamas rulers of Gaza, inducing them towards greater flexibility in the hostage negotiations. It is a tidy formula but also a questionable one.
At present, it appears that Hamas regards the presence of the hostages as a tool by which it can itself place pressure on Israel to limit the scope and timing of the offensive.
The dilemma for Israel is that regarding the timing of the operation, there are three clocks ticking, and they are not in synch with one another. The first of these is the military clock, by which Israel will seek to continue its offensive deeper into Gaza, destroy the Hamas tunnel system, dismantle the central systems of Hamas rule in the Strip and then, presumably, remain in occupation until such time as it can hand over the area to a successor authority. This task, as Israeli leaders have made clear, may be a matter of weeks or months.
The second ticking clock is that of the hostages and the negotiations for their freedom. It makes no sense to think that Hamas will close an agreement to free the hostages while facing a threat to its own existence. Rather, the obvious objective of Hamas will be to string out the negotiations, knowing that its presence at that table is essential for their success, and to thus seek to frustrate the goals of the Israeli ground operation.
For reasons explained above, Israel cannot make a hard choice in this regard. But that inability may impose a cost, of which policymakers should be aware.
The third ticking clock is that of diplomacy and the international stage. Recent history shows that Israel will not be afforded unlimited time for the achievement of its military goals. In the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, for example, the US bought Israel time to continue its campaign, but after a couple of weeks pressure for a ceasefire began to grow and the war ended with the inconclusive and unsatisfactory UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The resolution failed to resolve the underlying issue that had caused the war – namely, the capacity of the Iranian proxy militia Hezbollah to continue to arm itself on Israel's border and to maintain control of Lebanon.
There is a distinct possibility, with which Israeli decision-makers must surely contend, that the current tempo of military actions could result in a situation where the issue of the hostages prevents that gathering of speed on the ground that would be necessary for the destruction of the Hamas regime.
US and international pressure for a ceasefire, meanwhile, would increase, resulting in an unprecedented amount of damage being inflicted on Hamas without entirely destroying it, a deal of some kind or ongoing negotiations regarding the hostages, and a messy and unsatisfactory ceasefire agreement. An outcome of this kind is not inevitable. But Israel's obligation to operate simultaneously according to a number of contradictory timeframes makes it possible.
The regional dimension
As the offensive in Gaza grinds on, meanwhile, the regional dimension remains crucial and may yet transform the whole picture. In this regard, Hamas's status as a client of Iran is the crucial element.
Tehran and its various proxy militias across the Arabic-speaking world have moved into position to assist their Palestinian ally, but the starting gun has not yet been fired. Iran's proxies are not silent. Lebanese Hezbollah is continuing to carry out antitank guided missile, mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli targets along the border. These attacks have emptied out Israel's northern border communities. Israel has struck back and about 50 Hezbollah men have been killed.
In the West Bank, the Jenin Battalion, associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and armed by the Iranians with improvised explosive devices smuggled in from Syria via Jordan, is increasing its activities. In Yemen, the Ansar Allah or Houthis launched a medium-range ballistic missile attack on the southern Israeli city of Eilat on Tuesday. It was intercepted by Israeli air defences. This was the third attack on Israel by the Yemeni group since October 7.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran-supported militias are carrying out nearly daily attacks on US forces in Conoco, Tanf, the Ain al-Asad base and other locations.
Israeli and US deterrent power appear to be sufficient to keep Iran and its proxies from fully taking the plunge in support of their partners in Gaza. But it cannot be assumed that this will continue to hold.
Two days after the launch of the ground offensive into Gaza, a colleague and I drove down to the town of Sderot and made our way to the farthest point forward permitted to civilians before the Gaza border. Gazing into the darkness, we saw the red flashes of Israeli artillery landing on its targets, accompanied by a loud boom; then a few moments later the sudden illumination made by a flurry of Hamas rockets, launched at the town of Ashkelon. They were indications of fierce combat taking place inside the Strip.
The next day, inevitably, the first Israeli casualty figures began to come in. The names of the first two IDF soldiers to die in the ground manoeuvre were authorised for publication. They were sergeants Roi Wolf and Lavi Lifschitz, both 20 years old, both of the Givati Infantry Brigade. The war initiated by Hamas on October 7 is far from over and may well not yet have reached its height.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).