Urban Combat? Occupation? Why Israel's Coming Ground War In Gaza Has No Good Options
In response to the attack by Hamas, Israel promises to eradicate the group, but what does this really look like? With the promise of a high toll in human lives and the complex network of the Gaza Strip, an operation to retaliate against Hamas may be even more difficult that one may think.
Since Sunday, the Israeli air force has been relentlessly bombing hundreds of targets in Gaza. Reservists are being called up in preparation for what will likely be a large-scale ground operation in Palestinian territory. The declared objective is to destroy the military infrastructure that has enabled Hamas to strike at the heart of Israel and, if possible, to "eradicate" it — a word that has been used repeatedly.
Part of this Israeli response is driven by the unprecedented brutality of what has occurred. The Israeli public would not understand if, after its catastrophic failures, the army did not exact a high price from the Palestinians in Gaza.
But is the political objective of eradicating the terrorist movement achievable? It raises many questions for Israeli leaders who have no good options before them.
The first concern is the human cost of a ground operation: in the densely populated urban spaces of Gaza, home to more than two million people, there is certain to be a large number of casualties on both sides. Hamas will be awaiting the Israelis in every alley, every tunnel, every basement. Will this price be too high?
Israel's military superiority will likely allow it to destroy a significant portion of Hamas' infrastructure: the rocket production workshops that regularly rain missiles on Israel, the tunnels to Egypt or Israel through which Hamas communicates with the outside world, or the stockpiles of weapons and ammunition that the terrorist group has in reserve.
Israel has been able to decapitate terrorist groups without being able to eradicate them.
It will be more complicated to capture the leaders of the movement, especially Mohamed Deif, the formidable head of the military branch, Ezzedine el-Qassam. Mohamed Deif is the mastermind behind the "Al-Aqsa deluge" operation carried out on Saturday. He has become "a god to the young" according to a Gaza professor cited yesterday by the Financial Times. He is undoubtedly prepared for the Israeli military's hunt, and finding him — dead or alive — within this urban maze will not be easy.
Will Israel's objective be achieved if he is captured? It depends on what is meant by the eradication of Hamas. After all, in the past Israel has been able to decapitate terrorist groups without being able to eradicate them.
An Israeli tank on Sunday near Sderot
Ilia Yefimovich/dpa via ZUMA
The Gaza problem
The risk in Gaza is twofold. First, the human cost will be very high, both for Israeli soldiers and for Palestinian civilian populations, for a result that certainly won't be definitive. Second, a victory in Gaza would ultimately pose other problems.
For instance, what will Israel do with Gaza once Hamas is eliminated, even temporarily? Israel has already experienced the occupation of the territory and does not have good memories of it. A new occupation is certainly not what Israel's military wants. But can two million people be left in despair? This would risk bringing forth something even worse than Hamas from the Palestinian side.
In 1957, David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, believed that "the Gaza Strip is a disaster for any regime, whether it be an Israeli regime, an Israeli regime plus the UN, or a UN regime without Israel." Sixty-six years later, that grim reality appears truer than ever.
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