Israel’s Gaza Ground Invasion and the Return of “Strategic Depth”
On Oct. 28, the Israel Defense Forces entered the Gaza Strip and ended weeks of speculation over when, how, and if Israel would re-occupy the coastal enclave. Eschewing a rapid shock-and-awe style offensive, the Israeli military has instead bisected Gaza and encircled the territory’s urban areas, suggesting that Israeli forces are settling in for a prolonged siege of Hamas’ strongholds. These operational choices reflect the Israeli leadership’s political declarations. Government ministers have repeatedly warned that the fighting will take months, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared that Israel will “indefinitely” control and oversee Gaza’s “security.”
Despite both sides agreeing to a temporary cease-fire, Israeli forces have not withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. Israel’s government is adamant that the truce will be a temporary one and that its military operations will shortly resume and even expand to southern Gaza.
That the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in Gaza appears open-ended and increasingly entrenched makes it all the more important to address the “how does this all end?” question. It was the Israeli government’s internal dissensus and its lack of coherent answers to this question that delayed the Israeli military’s Gaza intervention, with the Biden administration pressing the Netanyahu-led government for answers.
The government’s indecision is both surprising and unsurprising. On the one hand, its unusually salient modern history of occupations makes Israel well-placed to learn from these diverse experiences. On the other, that the Israeli government has repeatedly failed to do so suggests it could make the same mistakes today. Israel’s two most recent territorial withdrawals were from southern Lebanon in 2000 and — most presciently — the Gaza Strip in 2005. In both these occupations, Israel pursued “strategic depth:” the indefinite control of foreign territory in order to enhance its national security. But in neither case did Israel achieve its objectives and then withdraw from a position of strength. Instead, in Gaza and southern Lebanon alike, Israel sank into what I term the “occupation trap,” where an occupier indefinitely prolongs an occupation even though they recognize the status quo not only no longer serves their political or security interests but actually harms them.
The Logic of Strategic Depth
Territory is a finite resource for Israel. A country barely bigger than the U.S. state of New Jersey, Israel is only 15 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. Half of its population and the vast majority of its industrial, commercial, and societal hubs are concentrated in a slender coastal strip of around 100 kilometers.
It is therefore unsurprising that multiple governments have pursued a policy of strategic depth. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured the Gaza Strip. It later also occupied 1,100 square kilometers of Lebanese territory in its so-called “security zone” from 1985. In Gaza, Israel imported over 8,000 civilian settlers, whereas its Lebanese allies were Christian-led indigenous militia groups. But in both cases the strategic logic was identical: The Israeli military prefers to conduct wars outside of its own territory. It occupied foreign territory to contain the threats emanating from those territories, while pushing the fighting away from its vulnerable urban heartlands.
After it withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel replaced strategic depth with a new policy, which tacitly accepted Hamas’ rule over the coastal enclave. Instead of advocating regime change, Israel sought to deter Hamas by “mowing the grass:” regularly and periodically responding to any provocations with a significant show of force. By primarily using air and artillery power to do so, Israel avoided a perceived need for a prolonged physical presence within Gaza itself.
But Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 and the unprecedented number of casualties led to a perception that neither “mowing the grass” nor keeping the Israel Defense Forces east of the Israel-Gaza border can guarantee Israel’s security. This is not a fringe view. Foreign Minister Eli Cohen openly declared that Gaza’s territory would “shrink,” whereas Defense Minister Yoav Gallant explicitly called for an indefinite buffer zone within the Gaza Strip that would push the border away from Israel. In short: Mowing the grass is out, strategic depth is back in.
Lessons From Gaza and Southern Lebanon
The problem with strategic depth is that it at best constitutes conflict management and at worst exacerbates Israel’s security threats. The southern Lebanese “security zone” sought to displace Palestinian militant groups who employed the territory as a base to infiltrate into Israel. Similarly, the Israel Defense Forces’ counter-insurgency campaign in Gaza targeted secular nationalist Palestinian organizations that had launched cross-border raids into Israel for decades.
Both occupations successfully degraded these hostile groups. But friction between occupier and occupied created new violent rivals: Hizballah and Hamas. In Lebanon, Hizballah increased their political power because of the security zone, not in spite of it. The occupation also failed to blunt Hizballah militarily, with the group’s attacks only increasing in their frequency and lethality until Israel withdrew in May 2000. Many Israelis wrongly believe that Hamas first exercised political and military power in Gaza after the Israeli military left the territory in 2005. In fact, long before this event and while Israel continued to occupy parts of the Gaza Strip, Hamas had already created a state-within-a-state inside the territory’s dense, impoverished urban cityscapes, which the Israeli military failed to curtail.
Israel, on the other hand, found that both occupations sapped its military power, stymied its operational freedom, and divided the country domestically. While the Israel Defense Forces faced the logistical nightmare of protecting 8,000 isolated civilian settlers inside Gaza, Hamas’ rockets flew over the soldiers’ heads into Israel itself. Successive Israeli governments balked at losing around 25 soldiers a year in Lebanon and sought to drive this number down by curtailing the Israeli Defense Forces’ operational freedom. This in turn only emboldened and strengthened Hizballah by ceding control of more territory to the Islamist group. In both cases, the international community saw the Israeli military as an illegal occupier, meaning that any kinetic responses to enemy violence faced rapid condemnation and calls for a cease-fire, which Israel’s governments soon relented to. As a result, both these occupations began as a policy that most Israelis supported, but ended when a critical mass of public and elite opinion backed an exit as an alternative to the status quo.
Avoiding the Occupation Trap
Israel’s historical experiences in Gaza and southern Lebanon are thus cautionary tales of strategic depth failing to provide security. Shlomo Brom, former director of the Israel Defense Forces’ Strategic Planning Division, argues that Israel sought to “protect our borders around Gaza by providing Hamas with more convenient targets: the soldiers and settlers of the Gaza Strip.” Former prime minister Ehud Barak claims that: “We were protecting our front line in southern Lebanon as if it were the walls of Jerusalem. We brought in heavier weapons and more troops and without even noticing we were not defending anything strategic.”
These quotes capture the flaws of re-instituting strategic depth in the Gaza Strip today. Strategic depth may push the fighting away from the Gaza border. But Israel’s experiences within Gaza and Lebanon illustrate that each occupation only served to provide hostile groups political legitimacy and easy targets for their attacks. Correspondingly, after it left the territory in 2005 up until the Oct. 7 attacks this year, Israeli casualties from Gaza-based attacks declined significantly. Israel may soon establish a buffer zone along the territory’s borders, but this policy will not end the enduring rocket threat emanating from deeper within Gaza.
Critically, Barak’s quote illustrates that Israel risks sinking into the occupation trap, where an occupier perpetuates its control and even entrenches itself in that territory despite the fact that the status quo fails to provide security. Occupiers often perceive that having spent so much in time, blood, and treasure, a withdrawal is neither a viable nor a desirable option. This problem of path dependency is a timeless one: George Orwell recalled a British officer in colonial Burma in the 1920s making the contradictory assertion and plea that: “We’ve no right to be in this blasted country at all. Only now we’re here for God’s sake let’s stay here.”
Hamas’ shocking brutality and the scale of its attacks on Oct. 7 ensured an Israeli ground invasion and military occupation of at least parts of Gaza was inevitable. Nevertheless, Israel cannot and should not rely on strategic depth to achieve its long-term security needs. Strategic depth is a poor substitute for a coherent plan to convert any Israeli military victories into a long-term political endgame to simultaneously disarm and rehabilitate the Gaza Strip.
How This Could All End
This begets the obvious question: Does this alternative exist? Any viable substitute to strategic depth must fulfill two goals: (i) demilitarize Gaza to allow the Israel Defense Forces to withdraw from the territory and to prevent a future Israeli re-occupation; and (ii) rapidly rebuild civilian and governmental infrastructure to delegitimize and disincentivize any further Palestinian violence. To say that achieving both in tandem is tricky is a significant understatement. Yet, a substitute to indefinite occupation does exist: handing policing to a multinational, Arab-led force, whilst ceding political and administrative control over Gazans’ daily lives to the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli military would maintain control over the Israel-Gaza border. At the same time, Israel would need to end its blockade of the territory to permit reconstruction.
To maximize its legitimacy, this effort would be U.S.-sanctioned but Arab-led, with these actors and others — such as the European Union — providing funds for reconstruction. Israel could gradually cede security control to a multinational peacekeeping force, before exiting the territory entirely. In the longer term, the multinational force would itself incrementally hand security responsibility to the Palestinian Authority. Eventual Palestinian control in Gaza is a must for legitimacy and security alike. Given that the Palestinians have fought years for a state, they are unlikely to endorse an indefinite foreign presence in Gaza. Concurrently, foreign control of the territory’s security is necessary, given that the Palestinian Authority currently lacks the means to police the West Bank. As such, adding Gaza to its responsibilities in the near future is a non-starter. This endgame may be risky, but it is rapidly becoming the preference of the Biden administration, who will have to work hard to induce and incentivize Arab states to overcome their reluctance to become involved directly.
Yet the key stumbling block is not the U.S.-aligned Arab states: Israel’s governing coalition will almost certainly reject this plan, because it would lead to a Palestinian state. Illustrating how entrenched this opposition really is, a leaked document from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence suggested that ethnically cleansing Gaza by forcibly removing its Palestinian residents to Egypt was politically preferable to the “existential threat” of Palestinian statehood. Activists from Israel’s far-right coalition government have held rallies in Tel Aviv under the ominous slogan of “Occupy, Expel, Settle.” But re-settling Gaza is a fantasy, which the Biden administration has frequently warned would constitute a red line. Without a radical plan to remake the status quo, a more likely scenario is an indefinite Israeli occupation that fails to achieve its goals, followed by a hasty, controversial withdrawal and a return to the status quo ante — Afghanistan is but the latest example of this persistent trend in the history of occupations and exits.
By blocking meaningful political change in the Gaza Strip, Israel appears to be headed for an indefinite holding strategy that doesn’t replace mowing the lawn with strategic depth but instead combines these approaches. Israel wants to have it both ways: achieving strategic depth by indefinitely occupying small parts of Gaza, whilst staying out of the territory’s urban areas. Netanyahu has refused to cede any power over Gaza’s civilian, political, or bureaucratic affairs to either the Palestinian Authority or a multinational force. Yet, one thing that unites Israel’s divided political and military elites is that no-one wants to govern and police Gaza’s urban areas. This would create a power vacuum that Hamas could exploit to regain power and re-arm. If Israel really does want to create a new reality in Gaza that diverges from the pre-Oct. 7 status quo, this would be the wrong way to go about it. Instead, Israeli policy would directly facilitate a return to a familiar pattern of fortified borders and buffer zones, whilst its military intermittently raids and bombards the parts of Gaza that it does not control directly.
If Israel wants to create security and stability on its southern border, it needs a plan to leave Gaza, not to aimlessly entrench itself within it. In the words of Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council: “withdrawal is like having life-saving surgery: even though it is very painful right now, you need it to cure you in the long run.” The longer Israel prolongs its occupation of Gaza with no coherent plan for exit and a political vision for the territory’s future, the more painful an eventual but inescapable withdrawal will be.
Rob Geist Pinfold is a lecturer in Peace and Security at Durham University’s School of Government and International Affairs and a research fellow at Charles University’s Peace Research Center Prague. This article employs data from his book, Understanding Territorial Withdrawal: Israeli Occupations and Exits (Oxford University Press, 2023).
Image: Israel Defense Force