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From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. And this is The Daily.
Almost immediately after Israel was attacked on October 7th, it began preparing for a ground invasion of Gaza. But more than two weeks later, that invasion hasn’t happened. Today, I talk to Jerusalem Bureau Chief Patrick Kingsley about why.
It’s Wednesday. October 25th.
So Patrick, it’s 6:30 in the evening in New York, and it’s 1:30 in the morning where you are in Israel. We know you’ve had a really long day. Tell us where we’re reaching you right now and what you’ve been doing.
You’re reaching me on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve spent the last nine hours watching security camera footage from a kibbutz in the South called Kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 100 people were killed on October 7th during the Hamas terrorist attacks. And I’ve been trying to research exactly what happened that day to try and piece together the events of the day. And it’s been a long few weeks, as it has for everyone here, Israelis and Palestinians.
It has been a long and horrible few weeks. And I wanted to call you, Patrick, because I wanted to hear what you had to say about the next few weeks, the next phase. And the thing that’s really been a central focus, I think, for everyone and certainly in our coverage, has been a ground invasion. That was something that we were hearing about really from the very first days after this horrific attack on Israel.
And we keep hearing that it is about to happen and it is imminent. There are currently tens of thousands of troops amassed at the Southern border with Gaza. We’ve had colleagues there, photographers taking photographs of tanks arrayed in fields, really contributing to this feeling that this thing is about to happen, right? But it hasn’t. So let’s start to unpack the reasons why.
Well, one reason why they might be delaying is the fact that there are more than 200 mostly Israeli hostages now in captivity in Gaza. It’s believed that most of them are being held underground in Hamas’ network of subterranean fortifications. And there are intense negotiations going on, not directly between Hamas and Israel, because they don’t have formal relations. But mediated by Qatar, and to some extent, Egypt.
There are talks to try and get some of them out. And we’ve already seen four released. There were two — mother and daughter were released a few days ago and then yesterday. Two elderly women were released to the Egyptians over the border between Egypt and Gaza. And there have been reports that maybe there could be 50 more on the way in the coming days. Reports of maybe women and children could be released. None of these have been confirmed. But while those negotiations still have a chance of liberating some of the people who’ve been captured, it is thought that Israel is holding back from a ground invasion, lest it harm the chances of winning those people’s freedom.
And as we know, getting hostages out is pretty complicated. It takes time. So hostages is one of the reasons for the wait.
It’s one of the factors. But there are others. One is that if Israel invades Gaza, it is feared that that will then open up a second front with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that dominates Southern Lebanon, which is allied to Hamas. And Hamas is backed by Iran. So there’s a fear that they might get involved even more than they already have done.
Then there’s the fact that Hamas is very well dug in underneath its stronghold of Gaza City. It has hundreds of miles of tunnels that it’s burrowed away over the last decade and a half. And it’s very hard to get to them there, and it’s very easy for their fighters to pop up through openings in the ground and ambush the incoming Israeli army. And there’s a sense that this could become a kind of urban quagmire, cause huge loss of life to Gazan civilians, and to the Israeli ground forces going in and trying to edge their way towards Hamas’ stronghold in Gaza City.
Right. I mean, cities are notoriously impossible to conquer, right? And Gaza is this extremely densely populated place. Armies go in, they get stuck. I mean, this is something that the Americans experienced in Iraq, in Fallujah in 2004, and in the northern city of Mosul in 2016. I know that our colleagues in Washington have been talking to American officials and Tuesday morning in the paper had a big story about how American officials were actually quite worried that the Israeli military wasn’t prepared for this. Hadn’t quite taken onboard just how difficult this fight would be and might not be ready for it. How does that factor in?
Well, I think that’s not only an American concern. There’s talk in Israel that the Israeli army needs to gather more intelligence about exactly where different Hamas fighters and different Hamas fortifications are situated. And there’s a sense that also Israel isn’t in a rush. It doesn’t need to charge in immediately. And the extra time, though nerve wracking for its forces, it also gives them more time to train. Remember that a lot of the people that are massed on the Gazan border are reservists who’ve been called up, several hundred thousand of them.
And I think crucially, it gives the Air Force more time to try and take out Hamas fighters and tunnels from the air. There are some who think maybe they’re trying to clear certain routes, creating a kind of corridor or corridors that will allow their troops to enter Gaza and reach the center of Gaza City via slightly less obstructed route.
And of course, there’s another layer to the planning here, and we also know this from Iraq. And that’s of course the question of, if you do go in, what do you do after that? Do you actually try to run it?
That’s the million dollar question. Because if and when Israel does retake the Gaza Strip, it’s going to have to decide whether it wants to govern the enclave as it did between 1967 and 2005, or whether it wants to relinquish control of it, at least nominally, to some other party. It cannot do that to Hamas. The whole point of going in is to destroy Hamas.
And then that probably leaves the Palestinian Authority, which is the Palestinian body that administers parts of the occupied West Bank. But if it did that, the Palestinian Authority would face a real crisis of legitimacy, because it would be perceived by many Gazans as having rode back to power on the back of an Israeli tank. And it may find it would lose control of the enclave as quickly as it did in the 2000s, when it was given control of Gaza for two years between 2005 and 2007 before being forced out by Hamas.
So yes, there are the hostages. Yes, there are fears over a second front opening up with Lebanon. But also there’s the big question of, what will Israel do with Gaza after it captures the territory? And it’s a difficult choice. And that is what we presume is partly why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader, he’s taking his time to issue an invasion order.
Yes. As you say, ultimately, that decision, the decision of whether to invade and all of the consequences it brings, rests with one man.
Yes. Benjamin Netanyahu.
We’ll be right back.
So Patrick, bring me inside the calculations of Benjamin Netanyahu at this moment. I mean, initially, of course, he declared there would be an end to Hamas with this great urgency. And now there’s what appears to be a delay in the ground invasion, one of the principal ways that he would reach that objective. How does he see all of this?
I think the first thing to remember is that historically, he’s always been quite bad at making big decisions. He tends to prevaricate and delay and try and push things off until the next day. We’ve seen that all this year with his domestic policies. Very controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary. No one’s ever really been sure what exactly his plan has been. His plan is seen to change on a day by day basis.
And that also seems to be the case with this planned invasion of Gaza. But in a sense, that’s Netanyahu’s trademark. He pushes off big decisions until the very last moment. And partly that’s because it is a big decision. If he goes in, there could be a big loss of life or Israeli soldiers, just as there will be an even bigger loss of life for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza. And he knows that that will bring pain to a lot of Israelis, a lot of voters. And it’s not a decision that he or any Israeli leader is going to take lightly.
There’s another factor that some political analysts have been talking about, which is that the failure of October the 7th, the collapse of the Israeli military defenses in the South, ultimately, in many people’s eyes, is on him. The buck stops with the prime minister of the day. And he is the Israeli leader who presided over that failure. And so while Israelis are relatively united at the moment because it’s a war and because they’ve just experienced this huge trauma of October 7th, after the war, it will be a completely different case. There’s bound to be a national inquiry. And that probably isn’t going to look good for the people who are in charge, and that includes Netanyahu.
It could collapse his government. That would then lead to a new election. And if the current situation remains the same, then he would struggle to win that election. And he’d be out of power. So there are some people who think that he’s in no rush to start a ground invasion. Because the sooner the invasion begins, the sooner the war ends. And the sooner the war ends, the likelier it is that there will be a threat to his political power.
So in other words, the decision is also a political one for Netanyahu. I mean, potentially a matter of his political survival.
Yes. And that’s partly why he was keen to bring in members of the opposition into his government. A couple of weeks ago, he formed a unity government, bringing in some members of the centrist opposition, including two former senior generals that gave his cabinet more experience, more military heft. But it also meant that he can spread responsibility. Whatever happens now is not just going to be on him. It’ll also be on those two generals who he brought into his war cabinet.
And that’s both a security minded decision, but it’s also being construed by some analysts as a very political decision. Because after the war and when assessments are made of how the war went, he won’t be alone on the stage in front of critics who will be analyzing his performance.
And Patrick, what is the public sentiment here? I mean, is there a chomping at the bit to invade? How does the Israeli public see this?
I think the bottom line is this polling shows that a majority of Israelis do support a ground invasion. And there’s a sense that after what Hamas did on October 7th, there’s no way that Israel could really countenance keeping us in its leadership on their doorstep. But underneath that headline, there’s a lot of nuance. For a start, there’s a small and not particularly vocal minority that doesn’t want to invade at all. And even among the people that do want an invasion, there are a mixture of positions.
There are certainly those that sound very vengeful. There are people on the far right who are calling for the expulsion of all Palestinians from Gaza. But then there’s also probably a much bigger group that just wants to get rid of Hamas and is wary of the pain and loss that a ground invasion will bring. It will be bloody. It will likely involve great loss of life, mostly on the Palestinian side. But also for the Israeli soldiers. And all across Israel, there are families, probably the majority of families, that have someone who is at the front or preparing to go to the front.
And those families know that their loved one might not make it back. And so the whole conversation about an invasion is tinged with a sense of necessity, but also a sense of anxiety and danger.
And in the meantime, the Israelis have launched this relentless series of airstrikes over Gaza. You’ve been reporting on that. Tell us what you’re learning, Patrick. What are you hearing in your reporting?
I think the bottom line is it’s the most intense Israeli bombing campaign on Gaza, ever. The military said today that they had hit 7,000 targets in Gaza in just over 2 and 1/2 weeks.
Wow, 7,000 targets.
Exactly. And the Hamas run health ministry in Gaza said yesterday that nearly 6,000 people had died during that bombing campaign. That isn’t a figure that we’ve been able to verify. But if it’s anything close to it, then it’s quite a staggering number.
Whole neighborhoods have been leveled, including in the wealthier parts of Gaza City. Areas that typically have not been damaged or only lightly damaged in previous rounds of conflict between Hamas and Israel. Israel says that it only targets militants and military infrastructure. And that any civilian loss of life is because the militants Hamas burrowed themselves into civilian areas in order to give themselves human shields.
But to Palestinians, the bombing campaign, Israel’s bombing campaign, feels like it’s targeting civilians themselves, because there has been such a high death toll across civil society. Medical workers killed, journalists killed, bombs on marketplaces, mosques, and so on. And coupled with that is a rising humanitarian crisis that has been set off by Israel’s siege of Gaza. It’s cut off water, it’s cut off electricity. It’s cut off almost all food supplies.
And it’s encouraged hundreds of thousands of Gazans to move from the north of the strip to the south, which means that Southern Gaza is very, very overcrowded. People are scavenging, essentially, every day to find food and water. And life has become extremely difficult for Palestinians in Gaza. Not that it was easy before the war, but it’s been taken to another level now.
So Patrick, is there a risk here with these civilian casualties mounting and this deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, that the longer the airstrikes continue, the more Israel risks losing support for its ground offensive?
I think that’s about right. In the opening days of this particular conflict, Israel had just experienced what its president has called the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust. And it felt like there was broad global support, particularly from leaders if not citizens for Israel taking essentially defensive action against the group that had enacted all these massacres in Southern Israel, Hamas.
But as time has gone on and the air raids have increased and the loss of life in Gaza has grown and grown and the narrative has shifted away from the villages that were raided in Southern Israel earlier this month to the crowded urban areas of Gaza where thousands of Palestinians have been killed in bomb strikes, as a result, you’re starting to see different messages come out from global leaders, one in which they talk about Israel needing to respect international law, avoiding loss of civilian life.
You’re not quite seeing Western leaders coming out strongly against an invasion in and of itself. But there seem to be more qualifiers and qualifications attached to the West’s expression of support for Israel. And that rhetorical shift may accelerate and morph into something stronger. For example, an outright rejection of an Israeli invasion of Gaza.
So Patrick, there have been a lot of comparisons in recent days to the US after 9/11. And this idea that the US was in this fog of anger and emotion after the attack and made some real strategic errors in the wake of it, namely, invading Iraq. Has this come up at all in your reporting as you’re talking to Israelis, people in the government, Israeli citizens? Is anybody talking about Israel and how it might be about to make a strategic mistake if it does this ground invasion?
I think that the 9/11 comparison has been made frequently, both in Israel and outside. And to begin with, I think Israelis thought it was a useful comparison to make. Because by comparing it to 9/11, they could convey to the world just what a big deal it was for terrorists to come and slaughter around 1,400 Israelis, many of them in their homes.
But as time has gone on, it’s taken on a double meaning. Because as you say and as Joe Biden has said, what America did in the aftermath of 9/11 in the heat of its emotion was not necessarily the wisest, including the invasion of Iraq and the quagmire that that became. And certainly there are plenty of people in Israel and outside who acknowledge that making decisions in the heat of the moment is not the best plan.
But at the same time, other people say, well, hang on, Iraq was thousands of miles away from America. But Gaza is right on Israel’s doorstep, and it doesn’t have the luxury of not taking the threat of Hamas seriously. It has to do something. And far from being irrational and emotional to respond to what Hamas has done, it’s actually the most logical thing, to try to remove this organization that just led these bloody massacres in Southern Israel. And then there’s another group of people that zoom out even further.
And they’re looking beyond what happens if you root out Hamas. And they’re saying it’s all very well to get rid of Hamas, but if you don’t have a wider plan not just for who runs Gaza, but what to do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how to address the long running challenges and imbalances that have created this conflict, then a certain point down the line, there’s going to be just another explosion and a repeat. And the cycle will go on and on.
So Patrick, from everything you’ve said, there are, of course, enormous risks if Israel goes ahead with a ground invasion. But there’s also an enormous human toll if Israel continues with these airstrikes while they delay. But is there also a third way that we’re not talking about here, which is just calling it off? Is there any chance that that’s where we’re headed? That a ground invasion may not happen at all.
It’s always possible. And people are voicing that suggestion a little bit more vocally than they were a few days ago. But I think if Israel didn’t launch a ground invasion, many Israelis would see that as a capitulation to a group that’s just killed 1,400 Israelis in a single day. That sets a bad precedent. That makes Israel seem weak and would cause them a massive loss of face.
So the idea that Israel would not respond to something of that magnitude and would just call off a ground invasion and let the group that perpetrated that massacre remain on its doorstep feels a little bit hard to believe.
So does this mean we’re going to be in this place for a while? Anticipating a ground invasion with really no end in sight of these airstrikes?
Well, anything’s possible. But us reporting on the ground certainly aren’t standing down anytime soon ourselves.
Patrick, I don’t hear the sound of the car behind you. You’re home.
Yes, that’s right. I am home, and I’m looking forward to going to bed.
I’m going to let you go to do that. Thank you so much, Patrick, for talking to me.
Thank you, Sabrina. Speak soon.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you should know today. A third lawyer who tried to help Donald Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election has pleaded guilty in a Georgia racketeering case and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors building a case against Trump. The lawyer, Jenna Ellis, now joins Sidney Powell and Kenneth Chesbrough in flipping on Trump. In a tearful statement to the court, Ellis said she regretted her involvement in Trump’s campaign to steal the election.
- archived recording (jenna ellis)
If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse.
And in a dramatic day on Capitol Hill, divided House Republicans nominated another candidate for House Speaker, watched him drop out hours later, and then nominated yet another candidate for the job. The first nominee of the day, Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, withdrew after facing a backlash from right wing house members who feared he was insufficiently conservative.
After that, Republicans nominated Mike Johnson of Louisiana, a more conservative figure than Emmer. But it’s unclear whether Johnson has broad enough support to actually win the speakership during the vote on the House floor.
Today’s episode was produced by Stella Tan, Asthaa Chaturvedi, and Mooj Zadie. It was edited by Michael Benoist and Liz O’ Baylen. Contains original music by Diane Wong and Pat McCusker and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Rundberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.