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Israeli troops are in Gaza: 7 big questions about the war, answered

What will “full” war between Israel and Hamas mean? And 6 other questions about the conflict.

Smoke rises over buildings in Gaza City on October 9.
Israel declared war on Hamas, one day after the Palestinian militant group conducted a brutal attack. Israel has already launched what it describes as one of its largest aerial bombardments ever on the Gaza Strip.
Sameh Rahmi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Israel has launched what appears to be a growing ground invasion of Gaza, after the worst outbreak of violence between it and Hamas in decades. The weeks-old conflict has already claimed over 9,000 lives as of Sunday, and likely will claim many more.

“The second stage of the war” has begun, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a press conference Saturday. “[Its] objectives are clear: to destroy the military and governmental capabilities of Hamas and bring the hostages home.”

[Related: Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine]

Over the previous 24 hours, Israel had expanded its air, sea, and ground assault on Gaza, amid a near-total internet and phone blackout in the territory. Israel has not yet explicitly called this an invasion, and the effort, while growing overnight into Sunday, appears more limited than the full-scale one some experts expected. But Israel repeatedly signaled this weekend that this is a significant ground operation, and troops are actively fighting in northern Gaza. Netanyahu told Israelis to prepare for a “long and difficult” war.

The first night of the ground assault, according to one Palestinian who was able to post online, was the worst night in the history of Gaza.”

This flare-up of the conflict began on October 7, when the armed wing of the Palestinian group Hamas launched a massive, complex, and well-coordinated attack on Israel early on October 7 from the territory it controls in Gaza. Militants killed more than 1,400 people, including at least 31 US citizens; wounded 4,500; kidnapped over 220 people, including US citizens and many civilians; and fired rockets on Israeli civilians.

It was the most devastating and brutal assault Israel had suffered in decades; Israeli officials described it as their country’s 9/11. The horror of the attack only became clearer in the days after, as reports of some — if not all — of the worst atrocities were confirmed. In recent days, the Israeli military shared videos and information with a select group of journalists about the extent of Hamas’s violence. It included grueling stories and imagery about families and children being targeted.

In response to the October 7 attack, Israel officially declared war against Hamas one day later. In the weeks since, the country has launched over 8,000 missiles on Gaza, declared a “full siege” of the territory it has blockaded for 16 years, and told Palestinians in the north of Gaza — where approximately 1.1 million people live — that they should relocate to the south. Only after US and international pressure did Israel allow a trickle of trucks with humanitarian aid to enter the country.

Thus far, over 8,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and over more than twice as many have been injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Though it’s not clear how many of those killed are combatants, at least 3,342 are children. An estimated 1.4 million people are displaced, with about half of them sheltering in United Nations-run facilities. Protests around the world calling for a ceasefire intensified Friday night, and world leaders like UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the EU’s top diplomat made similar calls on Saturday.

“Without a fundamental change, the people of Gaza will face an unprecedented avalanche of human suffering,” Guterres’s office said in online statement Friday.

Several countries, including Egypt and Jordan, have volunteered to try to defuse the situation diplomatically, and Qatar has been helping lead negotiations to secure the release of Hamas-held hostages and potentially deliver a temporary ceasefire.

The Biden administration stood immediately behind Israel after Hamas’s terrorist attack, promising additional military support, sending several US warships and aircraft squadrons into the Eastern Mediterranean, speaking vociferously on Israel’s behalf, and repeatedly visiting the country. The US has also reportedly pushed Israel in private to consider avoiding a full-scale ground invasion that would lead to high casualties and could draw in other regional actors.

While telecommunications in Gaza were beginning to be restored Sunday, the lingering effects of the blackout — and the Israeli military’s circumspection about its operations — makes it hard to know the full extent of what’s currently happening in Gaza.

We do know there were factors that likely contributed more immediately to this outbreak of violence — months of simmering conflict in Jerusalem and the West Bank over increased Israeli settlements, a far-right Israeli government that has been conducting a de facto annexation of the West Bank, and Arab states normalizing relations with Israel (including a new potential deal with Saudi Arabia) — but also that it is a war decades in the making.

Most Gazans are either refugees from the 1948 Nakba, when mass numbers of Palestinians were displaced during the Arab-Israeli War, or descendants of those refugees, said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They’ve lived under a strict blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas assumed control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, relying on foreign aid to access basic necessities. About one-third of Gazans live in extreme poverty, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

The international community has largely abandoned efforts to find a political solution to this crisis. Now there is likely to be a long, bloody battle causing significant deaths on both sides, with Palestinians set to bear the brunt of the casualties and destruction going forward.

Here’s what else you need to know.

1. Where does the Israel-Hamas conflict currently stand?

After a couple of days of fighting to secure its borders after the Hamas attack, and then weeks of heavy bombardment of Gaza, Israel recently ramped up its military operations against Hamas. First, it conducted small, hours-long raids into Gaza with tanks, and then on Friday night began its largest ground assault since October 7.

Troops and tanks entered Gaza alongside heavy sea and air attacks. Palestinian journalist Hind Khoudary told Tahrir Podcast that bombardment was continuous throughout the first night.

Israel has continued to expand its ground operations. Per analysis from the New York Times, troops have entered Gaza in at least three areas as part of this seeming invasion — two in the north of Gaza and one spot from the east, just north of the evacuation line Israel had set.

“We are progressing through the stages of the war according to plan,” Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari told reporters Sunday. “We are gradually expanding the ground activity and the scope of our forces in the Gaza Strip.”

These operations have turned Gaza into a “ball of fire,” Ashraf al-Qudra, a Gaza health ministry spokesperson, told reporters Saturday. Over 300 people have been killed in designated safe zones, he added, and destruction is widespread. Already, Gaza was suffering a humanitarian crisis because of the siege; hospitals were on the brink of collapse and people were drinking saline groundwater, according to a UN update.

Around the same time Israel launched its assault, landline, cellular, and internet communications out of Gaza went largely dark. While a few people with Israeli or international SIM cards, or those with satellite connections, were able to communicate or post online, most were not. That caused not just extreme anxiety for Palestinians inside Gaza weathering the bombardment and those outside trying unsuccessfully to confirm the safety of their family members, but also undermined emergency and humanitarian efforts. Groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization said they had lost contact with teams on the ground. The WHO said on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, that lack of telecommunications was “making it impossible for ambulances to reach the injured.”

Communications were partially restored Sunday. As more information and images started to reach global audiences, the humanitarian toll of the ramped-up assault became clearer.

Israel has not explicitly framed this as a full-scale ground invasion, nor is it clear whether the IDF is attempting to seize and control territory or not. Such an operation would be highly fraught for the Israel Defense Forces, which will have to contend with chaotic fighting on Gaza’s dense streets. (So far, the IDF has announced two soldiers have been injured. Netanyahu has been reluctant to put boots on the ground in Gaza since Israel formally withdrew troops in 2005 after 38 years of occupation.

But there are indications like Netanyahu’s press conference, where he framed the war as an existential one, and a video Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi posted Saturday afternoon to X — that the weekend’s assault might not be the extent of things.

“This is a war with multiple stages; today we move on to the next one,” Halevi said in the video.

As part of Hamas’s initial attack, it launched rockets into Israel on October 7. A man is seen here walking next to a car destroyed by one of those rockets in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

To those ends, Saturday, the IDF posted a video on X urging “all residents of northern Gaza and Gaza City to relocate south immediately” to avoid “intense hostilities” — a message in English to an Arabic-speaking population it seemed unlikely they’d be able to even receive, given the extremely limited telecommunications at the time.

It’s unclear what this means for the fate of the over 200 Israeli civilian and military hostages that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants are holding. There had been hope earlier Friday that the Qatari-led negotiations were progressing well, and some analysts argue that Israel’s current operation could be designed to put pressure on Hamas to make concessions in those negotiations. But much remains in flux.

—Ellen Ioanes

2. What do I need to understand about Gaza and Israel’s relationship to understand today?

Palestinians living in Gaza and Israelis have always been deeply connected.

With Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, it conquered Gaza and became an occupying power overseeing the Palestinians living there. (Egypt had controlled the territory from 1948 to 1967.) Israel had not always so severely fenced off Gaza from the rest of the world or blockaded flows in and out of it. For several decades, Palestinians from Gaza worked in the Israeli economy. Starting in 1970, Israel established settlements in the territory and military installations. Israel restricted most Palestinians’ movement in and out of Gaza from the onset of the Second Intifada, or uprising, in 2000.

Israel withdrew its security forces and settlements from Gaza in 2005, but the territory nevertheless has remained effectively under Israeli occupation. Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, and amid a violent split with the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, the Islamist movement assumed control of the territory the next year. Israel has blockaded the territory since. The more than 2 million people in Gaza live in what human rights groups have called an “open-air prison.” The territory’s airspace, borders, and sea are under Israeli control, and neighboring Egypt to the south has also imposed severe restrictions on movement.

The United Nations describes the occupied territory as a “chronic humanitarian crisis.”

Map showing the Gaza strip, Israel, and the West Bank.

“This pressure being put on Palestinians — it just assumes that they’re insignificant and they will tolerate any degree of humiliation, and that’s just not true,” said Rashid Khalidi, the Columbia University historian.

Israel has launched intense military operations on the densely populated territory many times over the past decade and a half in response to rocket attacks from Palestinian militants. The Israeli military has called it “mowing the grass”: a tactic of conducting semi-regular attacks on alleged terrorist cells to take out leaders and new militant groups, which also kill noncombatants and destroy civilian infrastructure in the process. But mowing the lawn almost by definition does not address the root causes of terrorism but only reduces the level of Hamas’s violence temporarily and perpetuates an escalating cycle of violence. Experts say that there is no military solution to the political problem posed by Hamas.

Hamas’s wanton violence does not by any means represent the views of all Palestinians. A survey of Palestinians from this summer showed that if legislative elections were held for the first time since 2006, about 44 percent of Gazan voters would choose Hamas. But there has been no opportunity for elections, and so in addition to Israeli military action, Palestinians living in Gaza must endure an unrepresentative government that imposes some Islamic tenets, implements repressive policies against LGBTQ people, and uses abusive policies against detainees.

Even as the situation for Palestinians living in Gaza has gotten worse in the past 15 years, less and less attention from world leaders and US administrations has been paid to it. Yet the cause of Palestine — to secure an independent, sovereign, and viable state — continues to galvanize grassroots support in the Arab Middle East and the Muslim world.

—Jonathan Guyer

3. But why did Hamas launch such a huge attack on October 7?

According to Hamas itself, the attack was provoked by recent events surrounding the Temple Mount, a site in Jerusalem holy to Jews and Muslims alike. Earlier this month, Israeli settlers had been entering the al-Aqsa Mosque atop the mount and praying, which Hamas termed “desecration” in a statement on their offensive (which they’ve named Operation Al-Aqsa Storm).

It’s implausible, to put it mildly, that Hamas was simply outraged by these events and is acting accordingly. This kind of complex operation had to be months in the making; Hamas sources have confirmed as much to Reuters.

But at the same time, Hamas’s choice of casus belli does tell us something important.

Palestinian politics is defined, in large part, by how its leadership responds to Israel’s continued occupation — both its physical presence in the West Bank and its economically devastating blockade of the Gaza Strip. Hamas’s strategy to outcompete its rivals, including the Fatah faction currently in charge of the West Bank, is to channel Palestinian rage at their suffering: to be the authentic voice of resistance to Israel and the occupation.

And the past few months have seen plenty of outrages, ones even more significant than events in Jerusalem. Israel’s current hard-right government, dominated by factions that oppose a peace agreement with the Palestinians, has been conducting a de facto annexation of the West Bank. It has ignored settler violence against West Bank civilians, including a February rampage in the town of Huwara.

Israel’s focus on the West Bank may also have created an operational opportunity for Hamas. According to Uzi Ben Yitzhak, a retired Israeli general, the Israeli government had deployed most of the regular IDF forces to the West Bank to manage the situation there — leaving only a skeleton force at the Gaza border and creating conditions where a Hamas surprise attack could succeed.

There are also geopolitical concerns at work, with some experts arguing this was intended to fundamentally shift how the world approaches Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israel is currently in the midst of a US-brokered negotiation to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, a major follow-up to the Abraham Accord agreements struck with several Arab countries during the Trump administration. Normalization is widely seen among Palestinians as the Arab world giving up on them, agreeing to treat Israel like a normal country even as the occupation deepens. Hamas could well be trying to torpedo the Saudi deal and even trying to undo the existing Abraham Accords. Indeed, a Hamas spokesperson said that the attack was “a message” to Arab countries, calling on them to cut ties with Israel. (It’s worth noting that planning for an attack this complex very likely began well before the Saudi negotiations heated up.)

Together, these are all conditions in which it makes more strategic sense for Hamas to take such a huge risk.

To be clear: Saying it makes strategic sense for Hamas to engage in atrocities is not to justify their killing of civilians. There is a difference between explanation and justification: The reasoning behind Hamas’s attack may be explicable even as it is morally indefensible.

We’ll find out more in the coming weeks and months about which, if any, of these conditions proved decisive in Hamas’s calculus. But they’re the necessary background context to even try to begin making sense of this week’s horrific events.

—Zack Beauchamp

4. How did this become an outright war, worse than we’ve seen in decades?

Hamas’s attack was well-coordinated, massive in scale, included an unprecedented incursion into Israeli territory, and managed to evade the Israeli security apparatus, which is why it was so surprising — and able to inflict so much carnage.

“The Israelis pride themselves on having world-class intelligence, with the Mossad, with Shin Bet, with Israeli military intelligence,” Colin Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy, told Vox. “They do — from the most exquisite human sources to the most capable technical intelligence gathering capabilities [including] cyber and signals intelligence.”

As explained above, there are both longstanding and immediate reasons a conflict of some sort was likely.

“The message has been clear to Palestinians,” Hassan said. “They can’t wait on some Arab savior and they can’t wait on the US government to act as peace broker — that they’re going to have to take matters into their own hands, whatever that looks like.”

But the sheer brutality and devastation has been a shock to Israeli society. Rhetoric from Netanyahu and the IDF has reflected the “vengeance,” as Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, characterized it, that Israeli society is feeling in the wake of the devastating attack.

“In a way, this is our 9/11,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said in a video statement posted to the social network X on October 8. Videos have circulated showing dead Israelis, as well as Israeli civilians being captured by Hamas militants, presumably to be held in Gaza. Israel’s briefing to journalists earlier this week included videos that showed what the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood described as “an eagerness to kill nearly matched by eagerness to disfigure the bodies of the victims.” Though Israeli towns near the Gaza border are now under IDF control, the full understanding of the horror of the Hamas attack continues to grow, with all but a few of the hostages remaining in captivity and some presumed dead. Hamas had previously threatened to execute captive Israelis if IDF operations strike civilian targets in Gaza without warning, the Associated Press reported.

Netanyahu formally declared war on Hamas one day after the attack. That war effort will be governed by a small “war management cabinet” composed of Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition National Unity party who joined Netanyahu in an emergency unity government Wednesday. Gadi Eizenkot, another former army chief, will join the broader security cabinet, potentially an attempt to instill more trust in a government that has widely been seen to have failed at its most important task: to keep Israelis safe.

That trust, one poll found, is at a 20-year low. And Israelis’ frustration with Netanyahu seems unlikely to cool: In a post on X Sunday that he’s since deleted, the prime minister blamed the October 7 attack on the security and intelligence services.


5. What will declared war mean?

No one knows how this war will play out. But given Israel’s highly advanced military, its response to Hamas’s attack will be massive and devastating in turn.

That’s what Israel has been indicating since the beginning: On October 9, Netanyahu vowed to attack Hamas with a force “like never before” and has vowed to kill every member of the group. The same day, Israel said it would place Gaza under a “complete siege,” and announced it called up 300,000 military reservists, a number that’s now grown by 60,000.

“I ordered a complete siege on Gaza. We are fighting human animals, and we act accordingly,” Gallant said. “As of now, no electricity, no food, no fuel for Gaza.”

A man stands in the left side of the frame in front of a building that has a crater in the upper left side of it. There is rubble everywhere.
Buildings damaged and destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on October 10, 2023, in Gaza City.
Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

Israel on Sunday said it would allow the flow of aid trucks into the territory to “increase significantly” in the coming week; just 94 trucks had arrived since the siege was announced, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. But it’s also important to understand that Gaza has been described as effectively living under siege since 2007, as documented by United Nations experts, journalists, and human rights researchers.

What will change is the scale of violence: It has already exceeded the most recent severe conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2021, and is likely to get much worse.

Already, Israel has launched what it describes as one of its largest aerial bombardments ever on Gaza. Now, we are beginning to see ground operations, which will likely lead to many more deaths, including fighters on each side. Hamas has an extensive tunnel network that will complicate any Israeli ground effort.

The largest number of casualties, though, will likely be Palestinian civilians. Thousands more could die, according to a warning from the UN human rights chief.

In 2014, after Hamas conducted a major rocket offensive into Israel, the country responded with a 19-day ground invasion before a ceasefire was reached. During that time, 2,251 Palestinians — including 1,462 civilians — and 73 Israelis were killed in the fighting, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Relations between Israel and Palestinians have always been asymmetrical: Israel, an undeclared nuclear power, has received tens of billions of dollars of US military aid. On October 7, Hamas ruptured Israeli society with wanton violence and mass killing. But it is the Israeli state that retains the capacity to perpetuate an all-out war on the Gaza Strip. Israel has often responded disproportionately to suicide bombings and rocket attacks from Hamas, partially as a deterrent strategy. The result, however, is an intensity of violence in an occupied territory where residents have nowhere to run, and where civilians are regularly killed in Israel’s assaults on Hamas targets.


6. How is the US responding?

Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship had grown strained over the Israeli leader’s rightward drift and recent judicial overhaul — but after the attack, the US is standing firmly behind its closest ally in the Middle East.

“In this moment of tragedy, I want to say to them and to the world and to terrorists everywhere that the United States stands with Israel,” Biden said the day of the attack. Several days later, after his third phone call with Netanyahu, he again denounced the “pure, unadulterated evil” of Hamas’s attack on civilians; he and several high-ranking officials also visited Israel and promised America’s support.

The US pledged to send additional military materiel, “including munitions,” according to a news release from the Department of Defense, with the first tranche of security assistance already landed in Israel.

In addition to the materiel support, two carrier strike groups, each consisting of an aircraft carrier and multiple guided missile destroyers, along with numerous fighter aircraft squadrons have been deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter other actors like Iran or Hezbollah. However, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing on October 10, “There’s no intention to put US boots on the ground.”

Some human rights and Middle East experts have criticized US officials for not also prioritizing de-escalation in their public statements, or for not emphasizing the need to avoid further civilian casualties, particularly given the massive civilian casualties Palestinians have endured during previous rounds of violence.

In recent weeks, the US’s comments on this have started to modulate just a little; in Israel Biden said clearly that “we mourn the loss of innocent Palestinian lives” and pledged some humanitarian aid.

In private, US officials have also pushed the Israeli government to slow its planning — particularly to consider its long-term goals and the risks of potential occupation of Gaza. Those efforts reportedly even included advocating for a narrower, targeted offensive, rather than a full-scale ground invasion. It’s not clear how much that has affected Israeli officials. On Friday, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby attempted to implicitly distance the US from Israel’s operations, saying that while the US is offering military advice, Israel is in the lead.

“They have to drive the strategy that they have developed, operationally and then tactically,” he said.


7. What does this mean for the region — and world?

One of the largest questions going forward is whether this outbreak of violence draws in other countries or groups.

The US defense posture, for instance, seems to anticipate escalation from Iran and Hezbollah, the Shia militant group based in southern Lebanon. US statements have explicitly warned other countries from “looking at this as a chance to take advantage” of Israel’s vulnerability, Kirby said.

Though there is speculation about Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the operation, there are no concrete details linking them yet. Generally, “Iran has played a major role in helping Hamas with its rocket and missile programs, and mortar programs,” Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox. And Iran and Hezbollah also provide funding, training, and intelligence to Hamas fighters, all of which could have contributed to last week’s attack, both Byman and Clarke said. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Hamas fighters trained in Iran in September.

But so far, there is minimal to no corroborated evidence linking Iran to the planning of this attack. The country is walking a delicate line around the conflict: Reuters reported its leaders are trying to support Hamas and Hezbollah and condemn Israel’s actions — as evidenced by an English-language post on X from the president Sunday while avoiding being drawn into outright conflict itself.

Hezbollah initially started firing rockets and guided missiles into Shebaa Farms, territory Israel captured from Lebanon during the 1967 War; the militant group and Israel have continued to exchange rocket fire throughout the month. “Our history, our guns, and our rockets are with you,” Hashem Safieddine, a senior Hezbollah official, said at an event outside of Beirut earlier this month, describing Hezbollah as “in solidarity” with the Palestinian people, Reuters reported.

Though there is little indication of a bigger regional conflagration as of yet, it remains a possibility that other Arab nations could become involved — or that efforts to normalize relations between those nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, and Israel could be derailed.

On Friday, October 27, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for “an immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce.” While 120 countries voted in favor of it, only the US, Israel, and a dozen other countries actively dissented (45 countries abstained). Though UNGA resolutions hold important political weight, they carry no real enforcement mechanisms.

As the conflict looks set to continue, there is only one sure thing: The suffering will continue without significant international effort behind a political solution.


Update, October 29, 12:15 pm ET: This story, originally published October 10, has been updated several times, most recently with information about Israel’s ground incursion.