Israel launched a massive military siege of the Gaza Strip Monday aimed at dislodging the Hamas militia and political leadership in an operation officials warned could take months and test the long-term commitment of the U.S and other Western allies to the Jewish state’s defenses.
Early Israeli operations focused on air sorties that targeted Hamas’s military infrastructure and military commanders in Gaza, a land sliver abutting the Mediterranean Sea. The Israel Defense Forces also said it was cutting off food, water, and electricity into the Palestinian enclave.
Israel also called up 300,000 reservists and started moving many towards the Gaza front, signaling the initiation of a ground invasion that could take months and result in substantial deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians. These moves came just two days after Hamas, a U.S.- and European-designated terrorist organization, launched a surprise attack across Israel’s southern border that has left at least 700 Israelis dead and thousands more injured.
“It wanted a war, it will receive a war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of Hamas in a speech Monday. “We are all united, and we will win.”
The Biden administration said it’s “surging” munitions and air defense support to Israel to bolster its military operations against Hamas. This includes rockets for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile batteries. The Pentagon also said it’s deploying the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group, which possesses both extensive intelligence and offensive military capabilities, to the Mediterranean.
“This is ISIS-level savagery that we have seen committed against Israeli civilians,” said a senior Pentagon official Monday, referring to the Islamist terrorist group. “We think it’s incredibly important that this message of support for Israel’s defense be underscored across the region.”
U.S. and Israeli officials said Hamas is believed to be holding American citizens as hostages inside Gaza. They declined to say whether U.S. Special Operations personnel could get involved in freeing them.
Hamas’s assault on Israel this weekend was unique in both its scale and sophistication. And Israel’s response could eventually move beyond the Gaza Strip to target Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Both U.S. and Israeli officials said Monday they’re also vetting intelligence to gauge Iran’s potential involvement in planning the assault, though they said they’ve seen no direct evidence so far. Tehran is the primary financial backer and arms supplier to both Hamas and Hezbollah.
An extended Israeli military operation against Hamas and other Iranian-backed factions, particularly with the expectation of high civilian casualties, will test a Biden administration and Europe already focused on securing Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
The U.S. may face challenges in concurrently supplying arms and other military support to both Israel and Ukraine, though Pentagon officials said Monday they have the necessary stockpiles. An extended Mideast war could also undercut the Biden White House’s desire to focus most of the Pentagon’s attention on countering China’s growing military dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
Israel’s war, and its potential expansion, will pose other diplomatic and strategic challenges for Biden’s national security team. Previous Israeli military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah — and the resulting high death tolls — fueled outrage in Europe and the Mideast and pressure on Washington to constrain its close ally. Attacks on Hamas and Hezbollah also risk dragging Iran more directly into the conflict, something U.S. officials say they want to avoid.
Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, which I covered from Beirut, illustrated the pressures Washington faces during extended Israeli military campaigns. The Bush administration initially offered Israel unlimited support to conduct both air and ground operations in Lebanon. But as the war extended to more than a month, and the death toll in Lebanon grew, the U.S. entered diplomatically and ultimately negotiated a cease-fire through Egypt and other countries. Many Israeli leaders at the time said the Israel Defense Forces weren’t given enough time to more permanently degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities — a message that could apply to Hamas today.
The Biden administration has also given some mixed messages on its support for Israel’s military operations over the past two days. While President Biden announced his unflagging support for Israel this weekend, his State Department issued — and then retracted — two statements that suggested Washington was interested in a quick cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. “We urge all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory strikes,” read a Saturday statement from the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, which was subsequently recalled.
The Biden administration’s deployment of a carrier strike force on the waters off Gaza and Lebanon also raises the prospects of the U.S. more directly engaging in the conflict. Coordinated attacks in the coming weeks by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed militias in the West Bank and Syria risks overwhelming Israel’s defenses. President Biden would then need to decide on whether to deploy American assets to aid Israel’s defense.
Room for Disagreement
Some of Washington’s closest Mideast allies, particularly Qatar and Turkey, have sharply broken with Washington on the war and largely backed Hamas. Qatar on Saturday issued a statement holding Israel “solely responsible” for the conflict and called for an immediate cease-fire. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry “stressed the need for the international community to act urgently to compel Israel to stop its flagrant violations of international law.”
The Biden administration condemned Qatar’s position. But the oil rich Gulf state may play a central role in negotiating the release of kidnapped Israeli and American citizens being held in Gaza, similar to ways it helped free Americans held by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021. Qatar could use this influence to press for a shorter Israeli war against Hamas, something Netanyahu’s government will likely oppose.
Some liberal activists inside the Democratic Party have also been campaigning for an immediate end to the Israeli campaign against Hamas. And their voices are likely to grow the longer the fighting continues and the death toll rises. “An immediate ceasefire and de-escalation is urgently needed to save lives,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said in a statement on Monday.