Alan Johnson – @Fathom_Journal – is the editor of Fathom and of Mapping the New Left Antisemitism: The Fathom Essays (Routledge 2023). He writes here in a personal capacity
After what has happened anyone should be able to understand the case for an Israeli ground invasion to remove Hamas and PIJ from the Strip once and for all. But as every invasion and occupation in recent decades has seen the results of the invasion radically diverge from the intentions of its architects and, not to put too fine a point on it, end up an utter disaster, it is important to weigh the following.
First, Hamas’s pogrom was meticulously planned over years, with multiple misdirections, and likely coordination with the ‘resistance axis’ of Iran and Hezbollah. To assume there has not been meticulous planning and preparation for a ground incursion by Israel would be unwise. Drawing Israel into the strip is likely to have been among the very purposes of the 7 October pogrom. Given all that, is it wise to be drawn into a battle with (a hitherto radically underestimated) Hamas on their dense, urban, home turf, and on their timetable?
Second, Israel plainly has no intelligence assets in Gaza, human or technical, or else what just happened – think of its scale, think of the numbers involved, then think of the total surprise – would not have happened. That lack would matter hugely if the IDF were to enter Gaza.
Third, a protracted ground invasion, in conditions that likely guarantee huge IDF casualties and huge numbers of Palestinian civilian deaths (civilians who often detest Hamas, remember), as well as being a catastrophe in itself, risks drawing in other actors, including Hezbollah in the North, West Bank Palestinians, and possibly some among the East Jerusalem Arabs and the Arab citizens of Israel. As David Horovitz of The Times of Israel writes, ‘It is worth noting, in this context, that Hezbollah has also been openly preparing for cross-border incursions, drilling to burst through the border and seize control of border-adjacent communities.’ And in the background, as a funder, a directing influence and an intelligence source, is Iran.
Fourth, a ground invasion could put at risk the Abraham Accords – a diplomatic breakthrough of great import that strengthened Israeli security and opened the way for – albeit under very different circumstances – an all-Arab approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And an invasion would obviously make the inclusion of the other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, impossible, at least for the near future.
Fifth, global public opinion would likely soon be lost, and not only among the pogrom-apologists of the anti-Israel ‘left’. In our 24/7 online political and media culture, the discourse of ‘disproportionate’ would soon take over, news programmes and social media platforms would fill up, day after day, with scenes that would revolt, and diaspora communities would likely be attacked. Israel, I fear, would find it near-impossible to make the case that restoring deterrence and ensuring there is no repeat of 7 October requires the rising death toll.
Sixth, the presence inside the Strip of 150 or more Israeli hostages, toddlers, the elderly and rape victims among them, makes the dilemmas any ground invasion will face all the more excruciating.
Seventh, there is the ‘and what next?’ question. This was the question not asked – or asked only light-mindedly – when the coalition invaded Iraq. I have read glib suggestions that ‘Fatah’ will be invited to take over, or the Palestinian hard-man Dahlan can be made to step in. It seems to me impossible to imagine either agreeing to take over the Strip after what would have just happened. So a longer stay by the IDF may be unavoidable. And that would without any doubt lead straight into a grisly guerrilla campaign, suicide bombings, the attrition of Israeli soldiers, and home front morale, and perhaps with no clear end in sight, and no exit strategy.
I appreciate there are other, and some would say overriding, concerns: the need to restore deterrence in a brutal neighbourhood; the need to restore trust between people and the government and security services after a near-inexplicable failure by the latter to protect the former. And then there is the fundamental thing: the existential need to ensure 7 October never happens again.
But I have lived through a long period of botched invasions and the least we can do is take a backward look. I opposed the Iraq invasion but worked in the aftermath with the Iraqi trade unions, and in that capacity spoke to policy-makers in the US and UK, in No 10, in Parliament, in the DoD, in Congress. Again and again, I and my Iraqi comrades were astounded at what we heard in those conversations: impatience, hubris, ignorance and, this above all, a relentlessly peppy ‘can-do’ attitude that routinely prevented sober assessments of the reality on the ground. Israelis, one hopes, will not repeat all that, but I raise the concerns because, well, if Israel does avoid those mistakes it will be a first time anyone has in recent times.
Is there an alternative to a ground invasion? For now, extensive targeted airstrikes on Hamas members and infrastructure, the radical transformation of border security in the south, the permanent stationing of force prevention around the Gaza envelope, the continued provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza, the urgent expansion and deepening of the Abraham Accords, and – without any illusions as to where things currently stand – policies that preserve the paradigm of a future division of the land, and so of a political horizon. And while the policy offer of ‘reconstruction for demilitarisation’, long pushed by this journal, will not be taken up by Hamas, just making it messages something loud to the world.
Perhaps there is no alternative to a ground invasion. But I know that it was under the banner of ‘there is no alternative’ – and the chilling impact on debate that slogan had – that those earlier, rushed and disastrous invasions were carried out, with all the consequences, at once catastrophic and unintended, we are still living with today. All I am saying is do not assume an invasion won’t make everything worse. They usually do.