Israel’s decision to refrain from a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip initially aligns with recommendations made by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to Israeli officials, according to American officials on Saturday.
The Biden administration cautioned that it is difficult to predict Israel’s ultimate course of action, as recent increased airstrikes and ground incursions suggest a more aggressive stance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on Saturday that Israeli forces entered the Gaza Strip on Friday to initiate “the second stage of the war,” though he did not categorize it as an invasion. Israeli military officials confirmed on Saturday evening that troops had entered the northern part of the enclave and were currently stationed there.
According to American officials, the current incursions by Israeli ground forces into Gaza are smaller and more focused compared to the initial plans discussed with Mr. Austin and other top U.S. military officials.
The initial invasion plans raised concerns among U.S. officials, who were worried about the lack of achievable military objectives and the readiness of the Israeli military to launch a ground invasion.
During phone conversations with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Mr. Austin emphasized the need for careful deliberation on how Israeli forces could carry out a ground invasion in Gaza, where Hamas operates an intricate tunnel network beneath densely populated areas.
A U.S. official, speaking anonymously to describe war planning between allies, stated that the Israelis improved and refined their plan following concerted efforts by Mr. Austin and other officials. However, Biden administration officials maintain that they did not give Israel directives and still support a ground invasion.
According to American officials, other factors likely influencing Israel’s war planning include the potential impact on hostage negotiations and internal divisions among Israeli political and military leaders regarding the timing, method, and necessity of an invasion.
However, current and former Pentagon officials, as well as retired U.S. commanders experienced in urban military operations, stated on Saturday that Israel seems to be conducting a phased operation. This involves deploying smaller reconnaissance units into Gaza to locate Hamas fighters, engage in clashes, and identify vulnerabilities.
“Once the weaknesses, seams, and gaps are identified, the main assault force is deployed,” explained Mick Mulroy, a former top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon and a retired C.I.A. officer.
Retired three-star Army general Frederick B. Hodges, who served in Iraq, also noted that this tactic appears to be a way for Israeli forces to minimize casualties and collateral damage to buildings.