The lines of tanks, self-propelled artillery, armoured vehicles and army bulldozers stretch across the horizon near Israel’s border with Gaza. Pointing towards the enclave, they are ready to go.
And yet, for days, they haven’t moved.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have amassed huge number of troops and military hardware along the border almost immediately after Hamas launched the deadliest ever terror attack on Israeli soil on October 7. On top of its regular force, the IDF has also called up 300,000 reservists who reported to their bases within hours.
But despite the build-up and the widespread expectations that a ground incursion was imminent, the IDF has so far refrained from putting boots on the ground, focusing instead on a large-scale aerial bombardment.
The inaction has prompted questions about Israel’s strategy – and its planned endgame for Gaza.
On top of everyone’s mind is the fate of the more than 200 hostages who are still held by Hamas in Gaza and who could be endangered if Israel invades.
The hostages include Israeli civilians and soldiers as well as foreign nationals and children as young as 9 months. Among them are scores of hostages holding foreign passports from 25 different countries, including Mexico, Brazil, the United States, Germany and Thailand, according to the Israeli government.
This makes the situation even more complicated for Israel, because it needs to consider its allies’ interests.
Four of the people held captive – two Israeli women and two American woman – have been released in recent days, giving hopes that more could follow.
US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron all visited Israel in the past few days. All stressed that Israel has the right to defend itself and offered support. But each also urged caution and pressed for more time to negotiate.
They have also emphasized the need to avoid further civilian casualties.
The IDF says its strikes are targeting Hamas and its infrastructure, but the civilian death toll has been enormous. According to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled enclave, more than 5,790 people, including more than 2,000 children have been killed so far, although President Biden has said he has “no confidence” in those figures.
At least 35 UN staffers have also been killed in Gaza, the majority due to Israeli airstrikes, according to the United Nations.
The bloodshed has prompted huge anger and condemnation across the Arab world, sparking fears that if the campaign continues, the war between Israel and Hamas could spiral into a regional conflict.
This fear is likely among the factors considered by the Israeli government as it weights the pros and cons of a major ground offensive following its current aerial campaign.
While the IDF has poured most of its resources into the areas around the Gaza Strip, it has also clashed with Hezbollah at its border with Lebanon. If Israel goes all in on a ground operation of Gaza, the powerful Iran-backed Islamist movement could see an opportunity to intervene and attack from the north.
Israel and its allies have warned Hezbollah not to get involved. Nevertheless, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met top officials from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad on Wednesday, according to a statement issued by Hezbollah.
Many nations and international aid organizations, including the United Nations, have also been pressuring Israel to hit pause and allow more aid to come into the enclave.
Gaza has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt for years, but after the Hamas attack, Israel also cut off its electricity, food, water and fuel supplies. Israel has said it restored water supply on October 15, Gaza water authorities say however they cannot verify that because there is no electricity to run a pumping station. The United Nations says civilians still have no clean water access and have resorted to drinking to well water that is “extremely high in salt and poses immediate health risks,” according to UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
UN Secretary General António Guterres has repeatedly called for a humanitarian ceasefire and told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that “clear violations of international humanitarian law” are being witnessed in Gaza. His statements, which also said that Hamas’ attacks had not happened in a vacuum, prompted calls for Guterres’ resignation from Israeli diplomats for his resignation.
While the IDF has said it is ready the decision to launch any action sits with Israeli government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has been facing the worst crisis of his entire political career even before the attack by Hamas. His plans for a judicial overhaul have sparked months of large scale protests and demands for his resignation.
The fact that Hamas’ October 7 attack came as a surprise to his government, the IDF and the Israeli intelligence community has angered the nation. Polls published in Israeli media suggest Netanyahu’s approval ratings have dropped after the attack.
Netanyahu has tried to quash some of this anger by appointing an emergency war cabinet with opposition leaders, but there have been already been speculations in Israeli media about cracks emerging.
Netanyahu has always been more risk-averse when it comes to major decisions and a full-scale invasion into Gaza comes with huge political risks domestically and internationally. The brutality of the Hamas attack sparked a huge wave of solidarity among Israel’s allies.
But this support might start waning if the already horrific civilian toll in Gaza continues to climb.
Meanwhile, other members of the unity government and the IDF are insisting Hamas has to be “totally eliminated.”
Perhaps to dismiss the speculations of disagreement, Netanyahu issued a statement on Monday saying he was full agreement with his defense minister and the army.
“We back each other and we back the IDF – our soldiers and our commanders,” he said, adding, “We make the decisions here and in the War Cabinet unanimously.”
But, at least for now, there seems to be no decision. Netanyahu addressed the nation on Wednesday evening, repeating once again that the government is “preparing for a ground incursion.”
“I will not detail when, how or how many, or the overall considerations that we are taking into account,” he said.
Meanwhile on the Gaza border, the troops remain ready. It’s a tense wait, with drones buzzing overhead and the constant sound of explosions echoing through the open space.