Published1 day ago
Israel’s leaders have declared that Hamas will be wiped off the face of the Earth and Gaza will never go back to what it was.
“Every Hamas member is a dead man,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after fighters from the militant group killed more than 1,400 people in a brutal attack on Israel. He later vowed Hamas’s “terror machine” and political structure would be dismantled.
Israel has said it is expanding its ground operations in Gaza and is widely expected to launch a broader land invasion to achieve its aims. Once it is satisfied Hamas is defeated, its stated aim is to disengage from Gaza completely. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant speaks of a “new security regime” there, with no Israeli responsibility for daily life.
The goal of Operation Swords of Iron appears far more ambitious than anything the military has planned in Gaza before and could last months. But are its aims realistic, and how can its commanders possibly fulfil them?
Entering the Gaza Strip involves house-to-house urban fighting and carries immense risks to a civilian population of more than two million. Officials in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 7,000 people have already been killed, and hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have the added task of rescuing more than 220 hostages, held in unknown locations across Gaza.
“I don’t think Israel can dismantle every Hamas member, because it’s an idea of extremist Islam,” says military analyst Amir Bar Shalom of Israel’s Army Radio. “But you can weaken it as much as you can so it has no operational capabilities.”
Weakening it might be a more realistic objective than dismantling it entirely.
Israel has already fought four wars with Hamas, and every attempt to halt its rocket attacks has failed. An IDF spokesman said the main aim was that Hamas should no longer have the military capacity to “threaten or kill Israeli civilians”.
Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian studies forum of Tel Aviv University, agrees that destroying Hamas would be highly complicated. He says it would be pretentious to believe you could uproot the idea that embodies Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that has influenced Islamist movements around the world.
Quite apart from the 25,000-plus strength of Hamas’s military wing, it has another 80-90,000 more members who are part of its social welfare infrastructure, or Dawa, he says.
Ultimately, the defence minister said the next 75 years of Israel’s existence was to a large degree dependent on the outcome of this war.
Ground invasion fraught with risk
The military operation is at the mercy of several factors that could derail it.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, will have prepared for an Israeli offensive. Explosive devices will have been set, and ambushes planned. It can use its notorious and extensive network of tunnels to attack Israeli forces.
In 2014, Israeli infantry battalions suffered heavy losses from anti-tank mines, snipers and ambushes, while hundreds of civilians died in fighting in a northern neighbourhood of Gaza City.
That is one reason Israel has demanded the evacuation of the northern half of the Gaza Strip to the south of the Wadi Gaza river.
Israelis have been warned to prepare for a long war, and a record 360,000 reservists have reported for duty.
The question is how long Israel can continue its campaign as international pressure grows for a ceasefire, with a rising death toll, supplies of water, power and fuel cut off, and UN warnings of an unfolding human catastrophe.
“The government and military feel they have the backing of the international community – at least Western leaders. The philosophy is ‘let’s mobilise, we have plenty of time’,” says Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s leading security and intelligence journalists.
But sooner or later he believes Israel’s allies will step in if they see images of people starving. Pressure will also mount as civilian casualties continue to rise.
“It’s very complicated because it needs time and the US administration won’t let you stay in Gaza for a year or two,” says Mr Milstein.
Saving the hostages
Many of the hostages are Israelis, but there are also a large number of foreign citizens and dual nationals among them, meaning several other governments – including the US, France and the UK – have a stake in this operation and their safe release.
French strategic specialist Col Michel Goya said the IDF had a straightforward choice, either sparing the hostages’ lives, or going in to “do Hamas as much harm as possible”.
Heart-rending appeals from families of those in Hamas captivity are also ramping up pressure on Israel’s leaders.
In 2011, Israel exchanged more than 1,000 prisoners for the release of a soldier, Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for five years.
But Israel will think twice before another big prisoner release, because one of the men freed in that swap was Yahya Sinwar, who has since become Hamas’s political leader in Gaza.
More on Israel-Gaza war
- Follow live: Latest updates
- Explained: What is happening in Israel and Gaza, and why now?
- History behind the story: The Israel-Palestinian conflict
- Bowen: What increased strikes on Gaza could mean
- Hostages: Who are the hostages taken by Hamas from Israel?
Neighbours watching closely
What could also affect the duration and outcome of a ground offensive is how Israel’s neighbours react.
Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with Gaza has become a humanitarian focal point, with only limited quantities of aid getting into Gaza. Foreign nationals and Palestinians with foreign passports have been waiting to leave.
“The more Gazans suffer following the Israeli military campaign, the more pressure Egypt will face, to appear as if it has not turned its back on the Palestinians,” says Ofir Winter of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.
But that will not stretch to Cairo allowing a mass crossing of Gazans into northern Sinai. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has warned that any attempt to move Gazans into the Sinai peninsula would prompt Egyptians to “go out and protest in their millions”.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has also talked of a “red line” for any possible attempt at pushing Palestinian refugees out of Gaza: “No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” he warned.
Israel’s northern border with Lebanon is also under close scrutiny.
There have already been several deadly cross-border attacks involving Islamist militant group Hezbollah, but although communities on both sides have been evacuated, so far the violence does not amount to a new front against Israel.
Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, is already threatening to launch “new fronts” against Israel. They were the focus of US President Joe Biden’s warning, when he said: “To any country, any organisation, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t!”
Two US aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald Ford and USS Eisenhower, have been sent to the eastern Mediterranean to emphasise that message, and 2,000 US troops have been placed on alert to respond to unfolding events.
What is Israel’s endgame for Gaza?
If Hamas were to be significantly weakened, the question is what would go in its place.
Israel pulled its army and thousands of settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 and will have no intention to return as an occupying force. US President Joe Biden says “it would be a big mistake”.
A power vacuum would also create very serious risks and Mr Milstein warns the risk of solving one problem is in finding 10 new ones.
Ofir Winter believes a shift in power could potentially pave the way for the gradual return of the Palestinian Authority (PA), kicked out from Gaza by Hamas in 2007.
The PA currently controls parts of the West Bank, but is weak there, and persuading it to return to Gaza would be highly complicated.
The international community might provide an interim solution, as it did when the UN ran Kosovo after Serbian forces withdrew in 1999, but the UN is widely mistrusted in Israel.
Another option might be to create an administration, run by Gaza’s mayors, tribes, clans and non-governmental organisations, with involvement from Egypt and the US, the PA and other Arab states, says Mr Milstein.
Egypt’s president has himself shown no interest in controlling Gaza but has pointed out that if a “demilitarised Palestinian state had been created long ago in negotiations, there would not be a war now”.
Gaza’s devastated infrastructure will ultimately have to be rebuilt in the way it was after earlier wars.
Israel will want even tighter restrictions on “dual-use goods” entering Gaza that could have a military and civilian purpose. And there have been calls for an expanded buffer zone along the fence with Gaza to provide greater protection for Israeli communities.
Whatever the outcome of the war, Israel will want to ensure a similar attack never happens again.