The Israel Defense Forces launched a ground incursion in the Gaza Strip today just before 4:00 pm Washington time. Its stated purpose is to target tunnels that run between Gaza and Israel, one of which was used this morning by thirteen Palestinian militants.
The incursion, which comes after a failed Egyptian attempt to broker a cease fire (Hamas rejected it) is a significant escalation in the Gaza-Israel situation and the biggest military event during Prime Minister Netanyahu's tenure. The incursion will likely have three outcomes:
First, more Palestinians are going to die. Already, Operation Protective Edge has killed over 240 Palestinians, with indications that number has increased since the start of the incursion. While Hamas operatives will be included in the body count, many more are likely to be civilians, including children. International outrage at an airstrike killing four children on a Gaza beach - close to a hotel housing a number of international journalists - has damaged Israel's political capital and inflamed Palestinian suspicions that Israel is targeting civilians.
Second, the security benefits of the incursion will be limited and temporary. While in the short term Hamas is likely to see significant reductions in its supplies and capabilities to strike Israel, all of these losses can be overcome in the span of a few years. Mishandled donations from the international community and major donor states like Qatar will accelerate this recovery. At present, Hamas retains a significant number of rockets and attacks on Israeli civilian centers are likely to increase over the next 24 hours. Despite narratives to the contrary, these rockets are dangerous and they have injured and killed Israelis since before the start of Operation Protective Edge.
Third, the incursion will burn political capital Israel does not have. While there is almost nothing at this point that would turn international public opinion towards Israel, it must manage carefully the steady leakage of political capital. Contrary to what some may believe, Israel can become more unpopular if it continues to kill innocent civilians in airstrikes, no matter how virtuous its intentions may or may not be. In a world where the US Secretary of State is willing to use the word "apartheid," opinion does matter, no matter how much hawkish analysts wish it did not.
These concerns about the efficacy of Israeli tactics must be separate from the question of whether Israel is entitled to use military force to defend itself from rocket attacks. The primary purpose of any government is to defend its citizens, and Israelis have every right to expect their government to take action to stop rocket attacks. The question is whether Israel's leaders will take advantage of the short-term security created by a ground incursion to enhance the country's long-term security. If the past is any indication, both sides have little hope for a change of heart, and civilians will pay the heaviest price.