In the 20 days since Hamas attacked, Israel’s Air Force has pounded Gaza and its troops have gotten into position. But its leaders disagree about what to do next.
Its troops are massed on the Gaza border and described as ready to move, but Israel’s political and military leaders are divided about how, when and even whether to invade, according to seven senior military officers and three Israeli officials.
In part, they say, the delay is intended to give negotiators more time to try to secure the release of some of the more than 200 hostages captured by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups when they raided Israel three weeks ago.
But Israeli leaders, who have vowed to retaliate against Hamas for its brutal massacre of civilians, have yet to agree on how to do so, though the military could move as soon as Friday.
Some of them worry that an invasion might suck the Israeli Army into an intractable urban battle inside Gaza. Others fear a broader conflict, with a Lebanese militia allied to Hamas, Hezbollah, firing long-range missiles toward Israeli cities.
There is also debate over whether to conduct the invasion through one large operation or a series of smaller ones. And then there are questions about who would govern Gaza if Israel captured it.
“You have a cabinet with different opinions,” said Danny Danon, a senior lawmaker from Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party.
“Some would say that we have to start — then we can think about the next stage,” said Mr. Danon, a member of the foreign affairs and defense committee in the Israeli Parliament. “But we as the leadership, as statesmen, we have to set the goals, and the goals should be very clear,” he said. “It shouldn’t be vague.”
Disarray has swept Israel since terrorists from Gaza overran a swath of southern Israel, killing roughly 1,400 people, briefly capturing more than 20 villages and army bases and outmaneuvering the most powerful military in the Middle East.
The shock of the attack has shaken Israelis’ sense of invincibility and raised doubts and debate about how their country should best respond.
Immediately afterward, the government called up around 360,000 reservists and deployed many of them at the border with Gaza. Senior officials soon spoke of removing Hamas from power in the enclave, raising expectations of an imminent ground operation there.
But nearly three weeks later, the Netanyahu government has yet to give the go-ahead, though the military says that it has made a few brief incursions over the border and that it will make still more in the days ahead.
The United States has urged Israel not to rush into a ground invasion, even as it pledges full support for its ally, but domestic considerations have also played a role in the delay. Beyond the hostages, there is concern about the toll of the operation and uncertainty about what exactly it might mean to destroy Hamas, a social movement as well as a military force that is deeply embedded in Gazan society.
When asked what the military objectives of the operation are, an Israeli military spokesman said the goal was to “dismantle Hamas.” How would the army know it had achieved that goal? “That’s a big question, and I don’t think I have the capability right now to answer that one,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said at news briefing a week after the attack.
One immediate concern is the fate of the hostages, and the negotiations, mediated by Qatar, to secure the release of at least some of them, according to an Israeli official, three senior military officers and a senior foreign diplomat familiar with the talks. The Israeli government wants to allow more time for those talks to make headway, perhaps to secure the release of captured women and children.
While there is little internal disagreement about allowing a small window of time for further negotiation, there is a dispute between the military establishment and parts of Mr. Netanyahu’s government about what to do if the negotiations fail, according to the officials and officers.
The military leadership has already finalized an invasion plan, but Mr. Netanyahu has angered senior officers by refusing to sign off on it — in part because he wants unanimous approval from members of the war cabinet he formed after the Oct. 7 attack, according to two people present at cabinet meetings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.
Analysts believe that Mr. Netanyahu is wary about unilaterally giving the go-ahead because, with public confidence in his leadership already decreasing, he fears being blamed if the operation fails.
“All indication is that he’s going to try and stay on,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article, referring a reporter instead to a speech the prime minister made Wednesday night in which he promised to destroy Hamas, without describing the method or timing of such an operation.
“We have set two goals for this war: To eliminate Hamas by destroying its military and governing abilities, and to do everything possible to bring our captives home,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
He added: “We are preparing for a ground incursion. I will not detail when, how or how many, or the overall considerations that we are taking into account, most of which are unknown to the public.”
The ambiguity appears to reflect divisions in the cabinet about whether to permit a full invasion of Gaza, which might plunge ground troops into daunting urban battle against thousands of Hamas fighters hiding within a network of tunnels, hundreds of miles long, dug deep beneath Gaza City.
Instead, ministers are also considering a less ambitious plan involving several more limited incursions that target one small part of the enclave at a time.
Within the military establishment, there is concern that Israel’s goals will be blurred if Mr. Netanyahu follows through on his promise on Wednesday to simultaneously seek the liberation of all the hostages while also attempting to destroy Hamas. The first goal requires negotiation and accommodation with Hamas’s leadership, while the second requires its annihilation — a difficult balance to strike, two senior military officials said.
In a sign of internal division, the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, pointedly did not describe rescuing the hostages in a speech on Thursday evening as one of Israel’s military objectives.
The mutual suspicion between the military and the prime minister runs so deep that civil servants have barred the military from bringing recording equipment into cabinet meetings, according to two people present. They interpreted the move as an attempt to limit the amount of evidence that could be presented to a national inquiry after the war.
Mr. Netanyahu has appeared unusually isolated since the Hamas attack, amid cratering poll numbers and accusations that his chaotic leadership over the past year had set the stage for the catastrophic security failure on Oct 7.
Few members of his government have given him their unqualified backing since the day, with many simply saying that scrutiny of the government’s mistakes should wait until the war ends.
“I’m saying in the clearest way possible: It is clear to me that Netanyahu and the entire government of Israel and everyone on whose watch this happened bears responsibility for what happened,” one government minister from Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Miki Zohar, told a radio station on Thursday. “That is also clear to Netanyahu. That he also bears responsibility.”
As recriminations begin, some allies have tried to deflect blame from the prime minister.
A former Netanyahu aide began a social media campaign to prolong Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza before any ground operation begins. And Aryeh Deri, a lawmaker and longtime supporter of the prime minister, told an interviewer on Monday that the army had only recently readied a plan to invade Gaza.
The Israeli news media interpreted the assertion as an attempt to suggest that it was the army — not the prime minister — that needed more time to prepare.
But the ramifications of the Oct. 7 attack and its aftermath extend far beyond Mr. Netanyahu’s personal fate, said Mr. Plesner, the analyst.
The shock of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Arab armies briefly overran Israeli defenses before being rebuffed, “changed Israeli society and the trajectory of the Israeli state,” he said.
“This event will probably be even more consequential,” he said.