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How High a Price Will Israel Pay to ‘Win’ in Gaza Against Hamas?

After the horror and depravity Israel just experienced, an Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip is no longer a question of “if,” but “when.” It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are preparing for a ground incursion to root out Hamas, kill as many Hamas commanders as possible and destroy the terrorist organization’s ability to threaten Israeli civilians with violence.

The writing is on the wall. Approximately 360,000 Israeli reservists have been called to duty, most of them positioned in or near the southern Israeli border communities that were victimized by the full-scale, indiscriminate Hamas assault. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned President Joe Biden on October 8, as the Hamas attack was still ongoing, and reportedly told him that Israel had no choice but “to go in” with ground forces. One former Israeli defense official told Al-Monitor, a Middle East-focused news website, that Hamas made a fatal mistake. “Israel cannot afford not to settle the score with them,” this source said. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was unequivocal: “I have released all the restraints, we have [regained] control of the area, and we are moving to a full offense.”

Israel and Hamas are no strangers to warfare, of course. Before last weekend’s violence, the two fought each other four times over a 15-year timeframe. Engagements between Israel and Hamas took on a familiar character: Hamas would send missiles flying into Israel; Israel would retaliate by launching airstrikes into Gaza for days and sometimes weeks; and Egypt would eventually mediate a ceasefire. A degree of calm would be established, only for the calm to be ruptured by more missile attacks and airstrikes. Hamas simply didn’t have resources or manpower to take the fight to Israel, and the Israelis didn’t have the desire to send its own troops into Gaza’s densely-packed neighborhoods. For Israel, airpower was the ultimate tool, a way to penalize Hamas and restore some deterrence while avoiding the high cost of a ground campaign.

That once familiar pattern, however, is now in the past. The Hamas attacks over the weekend were of such ferocity, lethality, and barbarism that Netanyahu may not have any option but to send ground units into the Strip. The same man who once checked his more hawkish military counterparts whenever a ground incursion into Gaza was floated is now likely to preside over the biggest ground incursion since the 1982 war in Lebanon.

The last time Israeli ground forces entered Gaza was in July 2014. That engagement, though, only lasted several weeks and had limited objectives: destroy Hamas’ cross-border, underground tunnel network. Israeli troops stayed relatively close to the Israel-Gaza border and bypassed the enclave’s major cities. Sixty-six Israeli troops lost their lives before the military pulled out.

The IDF’s objectives are far more ambitious this time around: destroy Hamas. Israel can’t do that from the air. Assuming this objective can even be accomplished, a more extensive and longer ground operation will be required. Israeli forces will have to comb through entire neighborhoods in places like Gaza City and Khan Yunis, areas the Israeli army hasn’t operated in since it left Gaza in 2005. Hamas’ system of tunnels will have to be dealt with as well. Some of those tunnels may be housing some of the 150 Israeli civilians taken captive by Hamas, which makes the operational environment even more arduous. Hamas can blend in with civilians during armed engagements and possesses enough firepower, including anti-tank guided missiles and cheap drones, to stop Israeli tanks and increase Israeli casualties. Hamas also knows the warrens and alleys of Gaza far better than the Israelis could hope to do.

Then there’s the “day after” question.

Any comprehensive Israeli ground invasion of Gaza will take weeks, if not months, of fighting to complete. But let’s say for the sake of argument that Israel accomplishes its military goals. What then? Does Israel have a plan for administering Gaza, an enclave of more than 2 million Palestinians? Or does it simply pack up, go home, blockade it indefinitely and hope that a semi-decent Palestinian replacement to Hamas emerges over time? This doesn’t seem like a viable strategy.

Alternatively, Israel could try to fill the governance void. Transferring control over Gaza’s affairs to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is technically an option, but the PA can barely administer the parts of the West Bank it now controls and has a severe legitimacy crisis in the eyes of the Palestinian population. According to the most recent survey from the Palestinian Center for Survey Research, 80 percent of Palestinians would like to see Abbas resign and half say the PA should dissolve. Considering the PA hasn’t been in Gaza since 2007, it’s hard to see the institution performing up to standards even if it wanted to.

An Israeli re-occupation of Gaza is also technically an option. But let’s be honest: no Israeli prime minister wants the Israeli army to serve as an occupying force in Gaza. Even the late Ariel Sharon, the very definition of a security hawk, wanted no part of the enclave and chose instead to leave the area to the Palestinians. A traditional U.N. peacekeeping mission isn’t likely either, if only because such a mission would have to be approved by a U.N. Security Council that has been divided on the Israel-Palestine issue for decades.

One way or another, Israel is going to exact a heavy price on Hamas. The outstanding question is whether Israel will step into an even deeper set of problems.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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