Nearly three weeks after Hamas’s barbaric invasion and slaughter of innocent civilians and children, Israel has yet to launch a full-scale ground operation into Gaza’s dense urban environment. This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formally announced that Israel is preparing for an invasion, and over the last two nights, Israeli troops launched ground raids into Gaza. The larger ground mission, however, was delayed to allow the U.S. to place additional missile-defense systems in the region and to try to secure the release of the more than 220 hostages taken by Hamas. Far from a sign of weakness, the pause shows that Israel’s government and armed forces are treating the situation with the responsibility and prudence that urban warfare warrants, in accordance with international law.
Under foundational principles of international law and the United Nations Charter, Israel is fully justified in taking necessary steps to exercise its right to self-defense against Hamas. Unlike its opponents, Israel has rightly stated that it is bound to follow international humanitarian law (IHL), or the law of armed conflict. Drawn from sources including the Geneva Conventions, the fundamental principles of IHL—humanity, distinction, proportionality, and military necessity—operate to minimize civilian casualties and needless destruction. Though critical for Israel’s ground operation, these principles will prove extraordinarily difficult to realize for two main reasons: Gaza’s highly urban environment and Hamas’s leveraging of the Palestinian civilian population as human shields.
The principles of distinction, proportionality, and military necessity can be briefly summed up as the obligation to attack combatants, and only combatants, in a way that balances military advantages against collateral consequences, and for purposes essential to legitimate military goals. Gaza’s density makes collateral civilian casualties inevitable, even with the use of precision weapons. Israel has ordered Gazans to evacuate, but not everyone will be willing or able to leave their homes, especially as other Arab nations have been unwilling to accept Gazan refugees.
Hamas deliberately makes abiding by these three principles harder for Israel in numerous other ways. It locates military infrastructure near civilian facilities or in buildings that serve dual civilian purposes. Hamas terrorists disguise themselves as civilians. Hamas’s rocket operations often occur near locations like schools, mosques, and even United Nations facilities. Propagandists can easily spin Israeli strikes to eliminate these operations as ruthless and illegal attacks against civilians. Hamas thus weaponizes IHL, and the resulting international condemnations, for its own ends—a tactic known as “lawfare.”
The IHL principle of humanity flows from a recognition of the intrinsic value of human life, prohibiting the infliction of unnecessary suffering on those who do not or no longer pose a threat. Israel demonstrated its respect for this principle, even in the earliest days of the war, when its civilian hospitals treated Hamas terrorists, until a public uproar demanded that they instead be treated at prison-service medical facilities. When dealing with Hamas’s tactics, however, this norm is regrettably bound to appear idealistic. Hamas fails to abide by it, even with respect to the Palestinian population, when, for example, the group fires rockets known to malfunction and fall in Gaza, sometimes with devastating consequences, as in last week’s stray hospital strike.
Gaza’s urban environment multiplies these challenges. Some of the very dynamics that allow cities to bring out the best in human ingenuity also enable some of the bleakest forms of combat. The bloodiest battles of World War II bear the names of urban death traps—Voronezh, Stalingrad, Berlin, Manila—as do more recent conflicts in Huế , Grozny, Falluja, Mosul, Aleppo, Mariupol, and Bakhmut. Ambush points and booby traps abound. A city’s innumerable windows, which might ordinarily allow glimpses of families hosting neighbors and workers exchanging ideas, can quickly transform into reconnaissance posts and sniper nests.
A city can thus give a defending army a force greater than the sum of its individual soldiers. Hamas counts as many as 40,000 fighters in its ranks. A single sniper can cause numerous casualties and slow advances. Couple that fact with the potential for ambushes from the hundreds of miles of labyrinthine tunnels under Gaza (tunnels built partly with humanitarian aid), and it is evident how a ground assault could turn nightmarish for attacking Israeli troops.
These grim realities cannot diminish Israel’s right to defend itself from the threat of Hamas’s continued existence, which seemingly requires a ground operation. At the same time, the risks to all involved, including Israeli military personnel and hostages, are rightly cause for Israel’s pause and prudence. Many attackers have entered a city’s gates only to leave in regret.
Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images