Israel’s Looming Ground Invasion

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on October 24, 2023

The entire J Street community has been profoundly, deeply and often personally affected by the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7. In an unspeakably painful moment, we’ve rallied together to support each other and to support communities on the ground.

In this exceedingly dark hour, we’ve been deeply moved by the support from President Biden and leaders across the political spectrum.

When the President visited Israel last week, he delivered a strong, heartfelt and meaningful show of support for Israelis at a time of immense national grief and trauma. His visit and his words were warmly received by Israelis and by the American Jewish community.

In the days and weeks since Hamas’ heinous attack, J Street has strongly supported Israel’s right to defend its citizens in accordance with international law and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The hostages remain at the forefront of our concerns, and we urge accelerated efforts by the international community to ensure their safe and speedy return. Images of families filled with relief as the first hostages were released have provided a rare glimpse of hope in an otherwise dismal moment.

We’ve also borne witness to immense destruction and suffering in Gaza. Families desperate to find shelter from air strikes, cut off from access to food, water, medicine and electricity. We are deeply concerned by the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe developing for its civilian population, and are pressing for American leadership to save lives and prevent further suffering.

The days ahead pose challenging decisions for Israel and for the United States. There aren’t easy answers, or fully satisfactory ones.

However, we must recognize that decisions made now – in the heat of the reaction to this horrific terror attack – will impact the safety and security of Israelis, Palestinians, the Middle East and the world for decades to come.

Below are considerations in the near-term regarding Israel’s response. In a few days, I’ll share more thoughts about the longer term.

Undoubtedly, for days now, you’ve been seeing the same blaring headlines that I have: “Ground Invasion Imminent.”

The Biden administration – wisely, I believe – has reportedly been stressing caution and patience. We know that whatever course of action Israel takes next will have significant ramifications for the safety of hostages in Gaza, potential escalation on other fronts and, of course, the safety and wellbeing of Palestinian civilians.

Many with direct experience making tough decisions in such situations have written wise commentaries in recent days urging caution and thoughtfulness, reflecting on the US experiences during the “War on Terror”: Former President Barack Obama. Israel’s most senior retired military commanders. Members of Congress with direct experience in Iraq like Seth Moulton and others.

As journalist Zack Beauchamp recently wrote in Vox: As a true friend of Israel, the United States should help Israel “make the right choice where America made the wrong one.”

So, what does that look like?

First: As President Obama wrote this week, every conceivable effort must be made to avoid civilian casualties, support humanitarian assistance, and fully abide by international law.

“Upholding these values is important for its own sake, because it is morally just and reflects our belief in the inherent value of every human life,” the former president wrote. “Upholding these values is also vital for building alliances and shaping international opinion – all of which are critical for Israel’s long-term security.”

Inflicting unnecessary suffering on civilians in Gaza is morally wrong and deeply upsetting. Many of the scenes that we have seen from Gaza so far – of residential buildings and city blocks destroyed, of entire families killed, of hospitals barely functioning without sufficient electricity, medicine or water – are horrifying to all of us. The prospect that the toll taken on civilians could grow even worse going forward under an intensified military operation is heartrending.

We also know, from America’s own experience, that continued devastation and suffering in Gaza will also weaken support for Israel when it needs it most.

J Street strongly supports diplomatic efforts to protect civilians and deliver a much-needed “humanitarian surge” – including unimpeded humanitarian corridors, turning water and electricity back on, designating safe zones and heeding the advice of aid agencies.

We agree with Secretary of State Blinken, who told the UN Security Council this week that “humanitarian pauses must be considered” for purposes of protecting civilians, ensuring them access to vital aid and helping them get out of harm’s way.

As President Obama noted, the Netanyahu government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population is wrong on its face and threatens to backfire – not only worsening the growing humanitarian crisis, but eroding regional and global support for Israel while playing into the hands of its enemies.

The appalling rhetoric from senior Israeli leaders who have called for “bombing without distinction,” “destruction rather than accuracy” or even that the children of Gaza have “brought this upon themselves” must also be forcefully rejected.

Given that many members of the current Israeli government have consistently promoted extremist and incendiary rhetoric, ideology and policy during their tenure, a strong tempering influence from the United States is vitally important.

As President Biden has made clear: The civilians of Gaza are not responsible for the actions of Hamas and must not be made to pay the price for their crimes.

Second: We must be clear-eyed that wars – once started – can be difficult to contain. Every effort must be made by the US government and all parties concerned to prevent the conflict from spiraling.

No matter how well planned, a large-scale invasion risks triggering a spiral of escalation that could lead to a multi-front war: Gaza in the south, Hezbollah in the north and explosive violence in the occupied West Bank. Other regional actors could be drawn in. Most unhelpfully, we hear right-wing forces in the United States – determined not to learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan – continuing to press for escalation with Iran.

The United States is rightly working urgently to prevent and deter regional escalation. We strongly support those diplomatic and other efforts.

J Street has also urged Israeli authorities to do more to stop a brutal and reprehensible surge in settler and military violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank – including over 120 violent settler attacks and 28 children killed – which risk triggering further chaos.

This is the moment for the United States to make clear that it expects Israel to intercede to prevent settler attacks against civilians, to ensure that live ammunition is not used against civilian protesters and to ensure security forces do not participate in revenge attacks against civilians.

Third: As former Marine and current Congressman Seth Moulton wrote for CNN: “The lesson America quickly learned in Iraq and Afghanistan was that you have to have a plan for the day after.”

If the Israeli military “simply kill a lot of Hamas terrorists and leave Gaza a smoldering mess,” he wrote, “they’ll have the same problem they do today” – and may succeed only in radicalizing more terrorists. It’s a lesson we learned painfully with both the insurgency in Iraq that metastasized as ISIS and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Nobody wants to see five-year-old Palestinian kids killed in the crossfire with Hamas, especially if their deaths only recruit more terrorists,” Moulton wrote. “And nobody wants to see five-year-old Israeli kids dying, in the same forever war, 20 years from today.”

The United States – as Israel’s central security partner – can and must use our influence to guide Israel’s leaders toward sober judgments, to protect the safety and freedoms of Israelis and Palestinians and to chart a better course forward.

In the view of many experts, the short-term tactical goal for Israel’s military should be a focused, targeted counterterrorism operation aimed squarely at the Hamas leadership and fighters responsible for the October 7 attack. Such an operation would aim to incapacitate Hamas, bring the perpetrators to justice and minimize civilian and IDF casualties by limiting the scope of ground operations.

In the next few days, I will share further specific thoughts on what the President could do to articulate a vision for the future that is realistic, principled and strategic.

As Israel grapples with ongoing grief and trauma, hostages remain in captivity, Israeli soldiers prepare for a possible ground operation and those with loved ones in Gaza remain terrified for their safety, our shared pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy voice is more important than ever in shaping the United States’ response.

We’ll continue to support and listen to each other as we share perspectives and ideas, striving for grace and respect. We’ll continue working to support communities on the ground in Israel and our pro-peace, pro-democracy allies in the region.

And we’ll continue to bring expert voices, nuanced analysis and considered policy recommendations to leaders in Washington.

A better future is still possible. J Street will continue to dedicate ourselves to the hard work necessary to get there.