With Their Soldiers Poised to Attack, Israelis Try to Decipher the Delay

For 17 days, Israeli ground troops and tanks have been on standby, idling in the dusty fields around Gaza. Their stated mission: to invade the Palestinian coastal enclave and destroy the military capabilities of Hamas, the armed Islamist group, and its ability to rule there.

More than two weeks after hundreds of Hamas gunmen surged across the border into Israel, killing more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and taking more than 220 hostages back to Gaza, many Israelis have been asking what the government is waiting for.

Various explanations have been put forward.

The United States has been pressuring Israel to hold off to allow more time for hostage negotiations and aid deliveries, and for more U.S. military assets to be deployed to the region. The Israeli news media is filled with reports of differences within the government and between the political leadership and the military. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long viewed as cautious about military adventures, is thought to be still deciding when — or if — to go ahead.

So pervasive is the pall of infighting, paralysis and chaos that Mr. Netanyahu, his defense minister, Yoav Gallant — whom Mr. Netanyahu tried to fire in March — and the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, issued an unusual wartime statement on Monday evening assuring a traumatized public that the three were “working in close and full cooperation, around the clock, to lead the state of Israel to a decisive victory,” and professing “total and mutual trust” among them.

The Nuseirat Market, in the central Gaza Strip, was bombed by Israeli warplanes on Monday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Then they appeared together ahead of a security meeting and made more statements — without giving any hint of the timing of a ground invasion.

The show of unity came a day after Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief military spokesman, said in a televised briefing that the army was awaiting a green light from the political echelon to invade Gaza.

With the initial urgency for a ground invasion appearing to have waned, supporters of Mr. Netanyahu have begun a campaign to put on the brakes, spreading a slick, anonymously produced video on social media calling for soldiers’ lives to come first by allowing extra time for the air force to destroy Hamas’s treacherous tunnel system before troops enter Gaza.

Some commentators said that could mean never, since it would likely be impossible to destroy all the tunnels from the air.

Experts say that the Israeli government and military are struggling with competing considerations and real dilemmas.

“It’s a delicate balance between the advantage of letting the air force do what they do best, and how long you can delay the ground offensive,” said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The more tunnels the air force destroys, he said, “the easier it will be for the forces on the ground.”

An Israeli jet fighter above Sderot, Israel, last week.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Beyond that, Mr. Yaari said, Israel has been using the time to expand its roster of targets in Gaza by gathering more intelligence and interrogating the scores of Hamas operatives who were captured in Israeli territory.

There are risks to waiting, however.

As the days pass, Israel may encounter an erosion of international support for its actions, as the Palestinian death toll rises and a humanitarian crisis grows still worse in the besieged enclave.

Then there is the morale of the soldiers and reservists being kept in limbo to consider, as well as the impact on the Israeli economy and the state-funded evacuation of tens of thousands of Israelis from the border areas around Gaza and in the far north, where cross-border skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah, the heavily armed Lebanese Shiite organization, have been intensifying.

“This is not something that can go on and on endlessly,” Mr. Yaari said of the waiting game and the fighting still to come.

The Israeli military, caught off guard by the Oct. 7 attacks, released a statement of its own on Monday evening saying its conscripts and reservists were “conducting a variety of training exercises in order to improve the forces’ readiness and capabilities for ground operations” in Gaza, perhaps in an effort to bring the military more in line with the government in the eyes of the public.

Israel has also been trying to assess the chances of Hezbollah setting off a full-blown conflagration on the northern front once the Israeli military is bogged down in Gaza, or even a broader conflict involving Iran and its proxies in the region.

Mr. Netanyahu came into this crisis at a low point in his career, fighting corruption charges in court as his far-right and religiously ultraconservative government sought to curb the powers of the judiciary, spurring months of mass protests in the deeply divided country.

Families evacuating Sderot this month.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

He has since brought political rivals into his government to bolster public confidence and has formed a small war cabinet that includes more experienced and professional decision makers.

Still, there is bad blood between the senior members. In March, Mr. Netanyahu fired Mr. Gallant, the defense minister, after he openly criticized the government’s judicial overhaul plan. He reinstated the defense minister weeks later under intense public pressure.

Benny Gantz, the leader of a centrist party and a former military chief who left the opposition to join the war cabinet, has his own unhappy history with Mr. Netanyahu, who reneged on a power-sharing agreement with him in 2020.

“He was always risk-averse,” Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, said in an interview of Mr. Netanyahu, who has been in power for 16 years altogether. “He is in the worst place in his political life, and going into Gaza is the biggest strategic gamble ever,” he added.

Recent opinion polls have shown that the Israeli public has far more faith in its army than in the government. There is a consensus among Israelis after the atrocities of Oct. 7 that they will not feel safe until the threat of Hamas is removed from their doorstep, even if the details of how to achieve that remain vague.

On a recent weekday, Itai Indig, an English teacher, was staging a one-man protest opposite the military and Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, with a homemade sign with a caricature depicting President Biden pressing Israel’s leaders into submission. The American president, he suggested, had nixed a ground invasion.

“Biden is now running our cabinet,” Mr. Indig fumed. “If we don’t go into Gaza now, it will be 10 times worse the next time.”

Representatives of hostages’s families gathering in Tel Aviv on Saturday.Credit…Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A passer-by, Elisheva Picker, stopped to argue with him. “To go in now will mean so many more dead,” she said. “And what about the hostages?”

Many Israelis dread a ground invasion but view it as inevitable.

Mr. Harel said the shock of Oct. 7 had heightened public tolerance for the prospect of Israeli soldiers coming home in coffins. “People are more willing to risk a massive military operation, even if it means an unusual number of casualties,” he said.

“On the other hand,” Mr. Harel said, “I’m not sure they could stomach another failure.”

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