Israel continued its ground action inside the Gaza Strip on Sunday, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “the second phase”.
Semantics aside, the not-quite-big and not-quite-rapid move that has been going on for three days is a step up from the previous two quick in-and-out night-time incursions. But not an all-out invasion.
Soldiers call this reconnaissance-in-force. In preparation for an offensive, smaller units attack to probe the positions, strength, tactics and operational readiness of their foes. Initial battle plans are then adapted using the knowledge obtained.
Even so, Israel’s ground advance looks timid: it is smaller and slower than the big push the ministers and generals boasted about.
Some pundits may see it as a sign that the Israeli army lacks sufficient weapons reserves. But that cannot be, because it is continuing relentless aerial bombing and long-distance shelling of Gaza that has not abated for more than three weeks now, causing massive indiscriminate casualties.
Hamas casualties are unknown, but it is likely that the ratio of those killed in Gaza is hundreds of Palestinian civilians for each Hamas fighter killed.
Israel’s sluggish advance may be deliberate, to allow for diplomacy, secret talks and clandestine deals. Its neighbours – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – do not want the conflict to escalate and are taking care not to fuel it in any way. Qatar is leading diplomatic efforts for the release of captives held by Hamas and to avoid further escalation.
The position of two big regional powers with strong armies, Turkey and Iran, is quite peculiar.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticised Israel on Saturday, calling it an occupier in his address to a massive rally in support of Palestine a day ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic.
Turkey’s criticism of Israel is almost certain to remain political, but Iran’s position is more complex, and what it might do remains an enigma.
Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel. It set up, trained, organised, armed and continues to support a series of sub-state armed groups in the region. The biggest and best-known among them is Lebanon-based Hezbollah, but Iran has also been present through proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, lands where bloody conflicts were or are being fought.
The big question is whether Iran will – directly – join a war over Gaza.
Analysis suggests that Tehran would lose more than it would gain by getting involved in a major war. There are only two ways in which Iran could take the fight to Israel: overland and ballistically.
Overland, it would have to cross through Iraq and Syria. Both are Iranian allies but neither would willingly allow the use of its territory, even if the move was militarily plausible. The United States, which still maintains a security presence and has interests in Iraq, would be less than happy. The government in Damascus, which controls the areas Iran would need to go through, knows that even a temporary presence of the Iranian army could easily reignite the Syrian conflict.
Such an adventurous march through the deserts is not militarily plausible – it would mean crossing 1,000km (620 miles) from Iran to Israel, under the skies in which the US and its allies have unquestioned aerial supremacy.
Iran’s other option could be to launch its formidable long-range ballistic arsenal against Israel, whose Iron Dome is already struggling to counter crude but deadly Hamas missiles.
But Tehran’s generals have for decades been trying to predict possible responses to their use of missiles – and apparently, they concluded most would be unfavourable for Iran.
If any among Tehran decision-makers thought that their missiles could somehow overwhelm their enemies’ defences, they were cruelly brought to reality on October 19, when a US Navy destroyer deployed in the Red Sea intercepted and shot down no less than four cruise missiles launched against Israel from Yemen by Iran-backed Houthi fighters. The USS Carney also downed 14 drones. It is not known if the Houthis independently decided to take on Israel, or if Tehran had a say in it, but the fate of those missiles was a message to both.
The US Navy demonstrated a 100 percent success rate against missiles en route; in Israel, the Iron Dome is believed to consistently intercept more than 90 percent of incoming projectiles. Faced with that, it would make military sense for Iran to pass on the missile war.
So how will the situation develop? As hard and risky as it is to make such a bold claim, I think the US has reason to believe that no state actor will join in the fighting in Gaza. Unless there is a major escalation of force or a move for total expulsion of the Palestinians from the Strip.
The current, geographically limited “war” should thus not turn into a wider regional conflagration, a message that will have been made clear to all countries through diplomatic channels and intermediaries who have contacts with both sides. US President Joe Biden has reiterated American support for Israel, but also made several statements asking for de-escalation and that hostage release talks be given a chance. But if there are talks, wouldn’t at least some participants try to take them further?
The real reason for the unprecedented level of deployment of US forces in the region – with an aircraft carrier battle group in the Mediterranean and another in the Gulf and the strengthening of reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic intelligence assets as well as a small ground force – is to discourage any foolish moves by rogue generals or non-state armed groups like Hezbollah.
For the plan to stand a chance, every avenue towards defusing the conflict must be explored – including asking US ally Israel to slow down enough to keep face domestically, but nevertheless give time for negotiations that may secure the release of some or all hostages.
Whatever the numbers involved and the timeline, it would be an encouraging step.