Israel’s leadership has issued strong statements regarding their intentions in the conflict with Hamas in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Every Hamas member is a dead man,” in response to a brutal attack by the militant group that left over 1,400 people dead. The Israeli government aims to dismantle Hamas’s “terror machine” and political structure. The military operation, known as Operation Swords of Iron, is expected to be more ambitious and lengthy than previous engagements in Gaza.
The operation’s goals, however, raise questions about their feasibility and the potential risks involved. To fully dismantle Hamas, a group rooted in extremist Islamic ideology and part of the Muslim Brotherhood, is seen as highly complex. Amir Bar Shalom, a military analyst, suggests that the more realistic objective may be weakening Hamas to limit its operational capabilities.
Hamas is not just a military organization; it also has a significant social welfare infrastructure with tens of thousands of members. Destroying Hamas entirely would mean uprooting an ideological idea that has influenced Islamist movements globally. The primary aim for Israel is to disable Hamas’s military capacity, preventing it from threatening or harming Israeli civilians.
The ground invasion poses numerous challenges and risks. Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, is prepared for Israeli offensive actions with explosive devices, ambush plans, and a network of tunnels for attacks. Previous conflicts in Gaza have resulted in heavy losses for Israeli infantry battalions and civilian casualties.
The Israeli government has demanded the evacuation of the northern half of the Gaza Strip as a precaution. International pressure for a ceasefire is growing as the conflict continues, leading to a rising death toll, shortages of essential resources, and UN warnings of a potential humanitarian catastrophe.
Yossi Melman, a prominent security and intelligence journalist, notes that Israel currently believes it has international support but acknowledges that this might change if the situation deteriorates. He suggests that Israel’s allies might intervene if the conflict leads to mass starvation or an extended occupation of Gaza.
The operation’s complexity is heightened by the presence of hostages, including both Israelis and foreign citizens. The release of these hostages is a matter of concern for several governments, including the US, France, and the UK. The Israeli government faces the difficult choice of prioritizing hostage safety or causing as much harm as possible to Hamas.
The pressure on Israel’s leaders is mounting as families of hostages make emotional appeals. It’s worth noting that a previous prisoner exchange in 2011 led to the release of Yahya Sinwar, who has since become Hamas’s political leader in Gaza. This experience might influence Israel’s decisions regarding future prisoner releases.
The duration and outcome of a ground offensive in Gaza are closely watched not only by Israel but also by its neighbors. Egypt, in particular, is under pressure due to the humanitarian crisis at the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, where limited aid is entering while foreign nationals and Palestinians with foreign passports seek to leave.
Ofir Winter from Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies points out that as Gazans suffer from the Israeli military campaign, Egypt is compelled to appear supportive of Palestinians. However, this doesn’t translate into Egypt allowing a mass influx of Gazans into northern Sinai. President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has warned against such a move, as it could trigger massive protests in Egypt.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has also drawn a “red line” concerning any attempt to push Palestinian refugees out of Gaza, asserting that there would be no acceptance of refugees in Jordan or Egypt.
On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, there have been cross-border attacks involving Hezbollah, an Islamist militant group. Communities on both sides have been evacuated, but it hasn’t escalated into a new front against Israel.
Iran, Hezbollah’s primary sponsor, is threatening to open “new fronts” against Israel, prompting a warning from US President Joe Biden against exploiting the situation.
The US has deployed two aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald Ford and USS Eisenhower, to the eastern Mediterranean, and placed 2,000 troops on alert to respond to unfolding events.
The question of Israel’s endgame for Gaza looms if Hamas were significantly weakened. Israel withdrew its army and settlers from Gaza in 2005, and it has no intention of returning as an occupying force. President Joe Biden emphasizes that this would be a mistake.
However, a power vacuum in Gaza could pose serious risks. Shifting power could potentially pave the way for the gradual return of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. While the PA currently controls parts of the West Bank, its presence is weak there, and persuading it to return to Gaza would be highly complicated.
The international community might provide an interim solution, similar to when the UN administered Kosovo after Serbian forces withdrew in 1999. However, the UN faces significant mistrust in Israel.
Another option is to establish an administration in Gaza, managed by mayors, tribes, clans, and non-governmental organizations, with the involvement of Egypt, the US, the PA, and other Arab states.
Egypt’s president has shown little interest in controlling Gaza but has emphasized that if a “demilitarized Palestinian state had been created long ago in negotiations, there would not be a war now.”
Rebuilding Gaza’s devastated infrastructure will be a pressing issue. Israel will likely seek tighter restrictions on “dual-use goods” entering Gaza, items with both military and civilian purposes. There are also calls for an expanded buffer zone along the Gaza fence to enhance the protection of Israeli communities.
Regardless of the war’s outcome, Israel will be determined to prevent a similar attack in the future.