World Holds Its Breath As Israeli Assault Into Gaza Appears Imminent (Updated)

After giving the roughly 1.1 million residents of northern Gaza 24 hours to leave their homes, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are poised to begin the ground campaign into the strip. As we reported in our previous coverage, all the signs point to a large-scale operation in Gaza now being very much imminent. This kind of campaign comes with all manner of hazards, both for the IDF, as you can read about here, but of course also for the residents. Hamas officials have called upon them to stay in the densely populated Palestinian enclave despite the warnings.

Editor’s note: See the latest updates at the bottom of this post

There has been significant movement of Gaza residents in light of those official Israeli warnings, with reports of thousands fleeing their homes and heading south Friday. Hamas has claimed that at least 70 people, mainly women and children, have been killed in Israeli strikes as they attempted to flee from Gaza. Hamas said that Israeli strikes hit convoys in three separate locations. The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza concurred with Hamas’s statement.

The Israeli Air Force has blanketed much of Gaza with leaflets urging civilians to evacuate.

The exodus is progressing primarily along al-Rasheed street, a coastal road that’s swiftly become a jammed parking lot with evacuee traffic.

The quagmire as civilians flee under an incredibly tight deadline has reportedly led the U.S. to ask Israel to delay its ground offensive until more people can flee south through the prescribed routes routes, The Jerusalem Post reported. It seems as if Israel did agree to this, but only for a short period of time.

Bloomberg also reported Friday that the U.S. is concerned with what comes after the ground campaign into Gaza. Not only are there fears of an unending humanitarian disaster, but the cost and scale of the resulting occupation that will be required.

The situation at the Egyptian border is increasingly grim. Although Egypt, Israel, and the United States reportedly reached an agreement to allow foreigners passage through the Rafah border crossing, it remains closed to the mass of civilians fleeing from northern Gaza.

Fearing a crush of refugees overwhelming the border, the Egyptian government reportedly put up “temporary” blast walls blocking the crossing from the Egyptian side.

Photos show throngs of civilians waiting to enter Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, while across the border, columns of aid convoys have staged to enter the Gaza Strip, if they’re allowed to. Both are harbingers of what is sure to be a massive humanitarian crisis in the making, with Egypt historically being a relief valve of sorts for Gaza, which is surrounded by Israeli territory and the ocean. But taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in a very short period of time is clearly a massive concern for the Egyptian government.

The IDF further claimed that they’ve observed Hamas building roadblocks in the Gaza Strip to stop the civilian exodus. Roadblocks are likely to be a major element of Hamas’s fighting strategy against Israel in Gaza, too.

The IDF on Friday said Israeli troops have already been conducting “localized raids” in Gaza over the past 24 hours. The raids, which the IDF said included armor and infantry, had two main purposes. It was a shaping operation ahead of the ground push as well as an effort to identify where some of the roughly 150 hostages taken by Hamas might be.

“Over the past 24 hours, IDF forces carried out localized raids inside the territory of the Gaza Strip to complete the effort to cleanse the area of terrorists and weaponry,” the IDF said. “During these operations, there was also an effort to locate missing persons.”

According to IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, speaking to The Times of Israel, armored and infantry forces carried out searches in Gaza and “thwarted anti-tank guided missile squads that intended to infiltrate into Israeli territory.”

IDF Lt. Col. Peter Lerner told Sky News that these localized operations were conducted to find “potential abductees,” identify bodies, and “seek out terrorists.”

Lerner described these actions as the continuation of the previous operations, rather than the start of a wider ground offensive, but he also admitted that the campaign is now “escalating.” He continued: “That is part of our efforts to restore calm and security to the people of Israel and defeat Hamas.”

A previous warning from the IDF had stated that Israeli forces “will operate significantly in Gaza City in the coming days,” and that local residents “will only be able to return to Gaza City when another announcement permitting.”

Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Israel’s leadership has also intensified. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the current operation focused on Gaza is “just the beginning” and that Israel would “eradicate” Hamas.

Speaking on Israeli television Friday, Netanyahu said that the IDF was striking against Hamas “with unprecedented might”.

Netanyahu continued: “I would like to emphasize: this is just the beginning. Our enemies have only started paying the price I will not detail now what is yet to come, but I would like to tell you this is just the beginning. We’re going to eradicate Hamas and we’re going to bring victory. It’s going to take time, but we’re going to come out of this war stronger than ever.”

The Israeli prime minister said that he had spoken with U.S. President Joe Biden and that he had received “tremendous” international support for Israel.

As Patrick Fox (@RealCynicalFox ) notes, this is reflective in a decidedly post-9/11 mood in Israel. Outrage and calls for retribution could overtake caution or restraint in the coming campaigns, Fox noted.

Additionally, F-15E Strike Eagles from the U.S. Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing’s 494th Fighter Squadron arrived in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations on Friday.

The first U.S.-government-organized charter flight had left Israel on Friday, carrying U.S. citizens who were still in the country. White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Friday that the flight was “en route right now into Europe” with more flights planned in the coming days. These measures, too, speak to an imminent ground offensive.

For the citizens of Gaza, the current situation is far grimmer.

Israel has said that the flow of electricity, water, and fuel into Gaza will only be permitted once the Israeli hostages taken last weekend are returned home. There has also been a campaign of airstrikes by the Israeli Air Force, including around 6,000 bombs dropped on Gaza in just the first six days of the operation.

There has also been international criticism of how Hamas’ tactics will effect the civilians living in Gaza.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, during a visit to Israel for talks with her Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, accused Hamas of having “taken the entire population of Gaza hostage.” She continued: “Hamas is now barricading itself behind more innocent people and is using them as a shield in Gaza.” Baerbock said that Hamas has deliberately dug tunnels and placed weapons caches and command centers within residential buildings, including supermarkets and universities and “maybe even in hospitals.”

Even as civilians attempt to flee, the Al-Awda Hospital in north Gaza has announced it will not evacuate as demanded by the IDF.

One big question mark surrounds the situation in Lebanon, where there have already been clashes between the IDF and Hezbollah militants. The potential of a wider conflict involving Hezbollah, and its huge arsenal of rockets, missiles, drones, and other weapons, is something that we have also considered in this previous article.

For now, however, the Israeli Air Force has said it is actively striking what it says are terror targets belonging to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While few details have been provided so far, the IAF says that it is using armed drones for these operations.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Israeli attacks on Lebanese territory are being met by counterstrikes against various Israeli sites by Hezbollah militants. In an official statement, the group said it had hit these targets “using appropriate and direct weapons and achieved precise hits.”

Those attacks continued with clashes along the Lebanese border on Saturday. Hezbollah claimed it attacked an Israeli outpost near the long-disputed Shebaa Farms. Video also emerged showing the shelling of an Israeli radar station in the area. The IDF has reportedly responded with continued artillery fire, with an ongoing artillery duel in the area.

The IDF later confirmed it successfully struck a terrorist cell attempting to infiltrate Israel via Lebanon and attack using anti-tank guided missiles.

“Following the initial report regarding the launches toward the Har Dov area, approximately 30 mortar shells were launched toward Israeli territory, a number of which crossed into Israeli territory,” per an IDF statement. “The IDF responded by striking the origin sites of the launches and is continuing to strike in Lebanon.

“During the strikes, a terrorist cell was identified which was suspected of intending to launch anti-tank missiles toward Israel. An IDF aircraft targeted the cell.”

Hezbollah has since confirmed one of its members died in the strike.

In a more ominous sign, former Israeli intelligence chief Tamir Hayman posted a message addressed to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Arabic, warning Hezbollah was about to make a mistake and bring disaster to Lebanon.

Friday night also saw air raid alerts in Tel Aviv, with the IDF stating on X, formerly Twitter, that “hundreds of thousands of Israelis are running from their Shabbat dinner tables to bomb shelters.” Videos posted to social media also purport to show incoming rockets or missiles being intercepted over the city by local air defenses.

The rocket attacks continued Saturday, with further Iron Dome interceptions seen over Tel Aviv and alerts along the border with Gaza.

Israel has reportedly accelerated the long-awaited deployment of its long-awaited “Iron Beam” laser-based air defense system to further bolster its defenses against rocket fire and mortars. Successfully tested in 2022, the war and its potential expansion made the need for Iron Beam critical.

More videos from the war’s first day on October 7 continues to emerge. Among the footage is combat footage from the Israeli Navy showing a firefight with Hamas frogmen attempting to infiltrate the country near Zikkim Beach that morning.

There’s also disturbing security footage from Hamas attack on the village of Mefalsim near the Gaza border, showing attacks on civilians.

Additionally, there remains questions about what happened to an Israeli Air Force CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter seen burning near the border with Gaza. Reporting suggests the heavy lift helicopter, known locally as the “Yas’ur”, was hit by enemy fire and made an emergency landing before coming under anti-tank guided missile fire on the ground. Exact details of the downing remain unconfirmed, however.

UPDATE 3:18 p.m. CST: Iran has sent Israel a warning via the United Nations warning that if the attacks on Gaza continue, Tehran will have to intervene, per a report from Axios reporter Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid ).

The news came as video appeared of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian meeting with Hamas Chairman Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, Qatar.

Exactly what Iranian intervention entails remains unknown. Direct attacks on Israel by Iran are unlikely, though not impossible. Much more likely, however, is Iran turning loose its numerous proxies, including Hezbollah, against Israel from Lebanon and Syria.

UPDATE: 7:38 p.m. EST:

New York Times is reporting that the IDF is delaying its major push into Gaza:

“The invasion was initially planned for the weekend, but was delayed by a few days at least in part because of cloudy conditions that would have made it harder for Israeli pilots and drone operators to provide ground forces with air cover, the officers said.”

This does make sense as having persistent surveillance and close air support assets overhead will be critical for the operation. There are other potential reasons as well, including injecting an element of surprise and leaving Hamas ‘spun-up’ and waiting to erode its foot soldiers effectiveness. Other intel variables could be at play, as well, as could the increasing possibility that Hezbollah and Iran could will respond in force to an invasion of Gaza.

The rhetoric between Iran and the U.S. and its allies are becoming increasingly bellicose. While Israel’s fighting force is top tier, it does not have unlimited capacity. Even America’s capability footprint in the region is not what it was. Having enough capabilities in place for a major contingency and to deter hostile actions would be key prior to starting off the ground operation. More U.S. military assets are heading to the region or are preparing to do so. This includes the news that the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, which just deployed, will be joining the Ford Carrier Strike Group in the Eastern Mediterranean.

More time would also allow the evacuation to be further realized, which has its positives and negatives in terms of military tactics and strategy. The U.S. was pressuring Israel to extend the deadline so more could flee. While this would remove more innocent civilians from the ground invasion, at least for a period, it only highlights the humanitarian crisis that is emerging in Gaza as more of the country’s 2.2 million population is packed into the already dense southern end of the strip. Without water and power and nowhere to flee, it is a matter of time before the situation becomes an extreme crisis.

It’s also possible that the NYT’s report could prove inaccurate. We will have to wait and see. But more time seems like a very logical call considering all of these factors.

As for what Israel’s actual plan is with this operation, that remains unclear. The NYT writes:

“Israel’s government has not yet decided whether to retake southern Gaza in addition to Gaza City, according to one of the senior military officers.

But if southern Gaza stays outside of Israeli control, some Hamas leaders could still remain at large.

Some military and political leaders want Israeli soldiers to undertake 18 months of door-to-door arrest operations, said Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli diplomat and security adviser to the Israeli government.

“Others, I think, are far more sober and not talking about demolishing Hamas — but rather depriving Hamas of their ability to threaten us,” Mr. Novik added.”

This is a developing story. We will update it when there is more news to report about the Israel-Hamas war.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.