The surprise attack by Hamas militants against Israel last Saturday now looks set to trigger a war potentially more destructive than any that the region has seen in years. Reeling from a series of armed assaults by the militant group that are believed to have killed around 1,300 Israelis, including many civilians, Israel’s newly formed unity government said that it is preparing for a decisive battle in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli leaders have now vowed to “wipe out this thing called Hamas” and end its existence as a military and political entity in Gaza. The Israeli government has issued warnings of an imminent ground invasion, telling 1.1 million Gazans to evacuate the northern part of the territory which includes Gaza City.
“Israel does not have an endgame in Gaza.”
The fate of Hamas may well be sealed, but that outcome will place Israel in a very dire situation as well, one that it has long sought to avoid. By forcing it to fight a grueling battle and then maintain a presence in the Gaza Strip, Israel will have to serve as an occupying power on the ground, ruling directly over millions of Palestinians in Gaza. It will prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Israeli military, already gravely stretched to defend its borders while controlling the lives of millions under military occupation in the West Bank, to maintain such a grip on Gaza.
While Israel’s overwhelming capabilities will likely succeed militarily against Hamas, strategically the assault looks likely to inflict grave damage on Israel. With its forces stretched, Israel’s hold on security could become more tenuous, including in sensitive areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem, home to holy sites from three major world religions. A bloody quagmire could quickly dispel the good will extended to Israel and rally international opinion against it.
“Hamas must have calculated that militarily they cannot win this battle, even if they find a way to survive in some form, but in the end Israel does not have an endgame in Gaza,” said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East and North Africa program director at Crisis Group. “Either Israel leaves Hamas in place to govern Gaza, brings in the Palestinian Authority, which is weak and likely incapable, or they will have to do it themselves. A new occupation is the last thing that Israel wants. They want the West Bank, not Gaza.”
“People say now that there is nowhere for Hamas to go, and that this is the end of Hamas,” he said. “But it is Israel that is going to be stuck in Gaza.”
Gaza is home to 2 million people who have been governed by Hamas and have lived the past decade and a half under an Israeli blockade. While Hamas is an enemy, this situation served Israel well. Hamas rule over Gaza has politically divided the Palestinian national movement, while giving Israel a pretext to keep Gazans boxed in and isolated from the rest of the world. The picture has been so favorable that Benjamin Netanyahu, then the prime minister and now again in office, was quoted as saying in a 2019 meeting of his right-wing Likud party, “Those who want to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state should support the strengthening of Hamas and the transfer of money to Hamas.”
That sordid arrangement now seems to be at its end. The day after this war ends, Israel will find itself in the position of being responsible for ruling the Gaza Strip. Compounded with the ever-more-shaky military rule of 3 million Palestinian in the West Bank, that responsibility may prove difficult or even disastrous for Israeli security forces. The redeployment of Israel Defense Force resources away from Gaza to protect radical settlers in the West Bank is already being blamed by many Israelis for the terrifying events that the country witnessed last week.
Some Israeli officials dream of simply expelling the population of Gaza, but that outcome is unlikely. Recent attempts to broker the creation of so-called humanitarian corridors to Egypt for Gazans to flee the conflict have been rejected by the Egyptian government, who have called for Palestinians to “remain on their land.” While the corridors have been described as an act of generosity to civilians, such measures are suspected by many Palestinians, as well as others in the region, of being a means of liquidating a future Palestinian state by pressuring the population to leave their homes with no prospect of return.
“We need to understand what the Israeli government is preparing right now in the context of ethnic cleansing.”
“There are millions of civilians in Gaza and no one can hold them responsible for seeking safety,” said Tareq Baconi, the board president of the think tank Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network. “But on all dimensions, we can see that the creation of humanitarian corridors is intended to serve as a means of ensuring expulsion.”
Roughly 70 percent of the Gaza’s population consists of refugees previously displaced from other parts of what is now the state of Israel. For Palestinians, who are now a refugee diaspora of millions spread in countries around the region and the world, the prospect of being expelled once more from the tiny strip of territory that they still hold in their historic homeland is an unappealing one.
Baconi said, “We have seen many times before what happens to Palestinians when they are expelled from their homes. We need to understand what the Israeli government is preparing right now in the context of ethnic cleansing.”
A ground operation to destroy Hamas will be likely to grind on for months, inflicting a significant death toll on the civilian population in the process. Nearly half of Gaza’s population are children, who were born under the Israeli blockade and have mostly never left the territory in their lives. As scenes of dead and wounded Palestinian civilians start to overtake those of Israelis killed in Hamas’s massacres, public and international pressure may begin to turn support away from the Israeli assault.
“When a war like this begins and casualties start to mount, there is always the question of what level support can be maintained domestically. Israel doesn’t have to worry as much in this instance because the scale of the Hamas attack was so shocking to Israelis that even the more dovish ones will not object to such a conflict,” said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at the D.C.-based think tank Defense Priorities. “But it could take weeks and months of fighting in a very dense urban area controlled by an armed group that has anticipated this attack and is ready to make you bleed as they go down. It could take a very, very long time.”
“Israel may turn Gaza into rubble, but it would create a humanitarian catastrophe of the first magnitude.”
As soon as Hamas militants broke through the security barrier around Gaza and began to attack communities in southern Israel, gory footage of killings and abduction of Israeli civilians began to emerge on social media. These accounts appear to have been mostly recorded and shared by the fighters themselves, or by Israelis who were trapped in the areas under attack.
The grainy cellphone videos of atrocities were a stark contrast to what is being shared on official Hamas channels. On its Telegram account, Hamas has continued to share a sanitized narrative of the attack that depicts it as a professional military operation largely targeting Israeli security forces.
In response to public outcry over the massacres in Israeli communities near Gaza, Hamas leaders have pivoted between denying that any civilians at all were killed in the assault and blaming the killings on other militants based in Gaza whose fighters they claim exploited the chaos to carry out freelance operations on their own.
“This is the conundrum that Israel faces: It never wanted to do this, but Hamas is forcing it.”
The miscalculations and errors that lay behind the assault may have gone even deeper.
A diplomatic source in the region, speaking to the Middle East-focused publication Al-Monitor, claimed that Hamas itself was stunned by the scale and ferocity of the violence that it had unleashed. “They hoped to kill some Israelis, embarrass the IDF and return to Gaza with two or three kidnapped Israelis,” said the source. “Instead, they roamed inside Israel for more than a day, killing over a thousand Israelis and getting stuck with something like 200 abductees.”
As they described it, instead of gaining leverage with Israel to win demands to build a port in Gaza and free Hamas prisoners in Israeli jail, the group now feared that because of what had transpired it would have to contend with fighting the entire Israeli military in Gaza.
This war, now in its early phases, will likely result in the destruction of Hamas military infrastructure and its leadership inside Gaza. In addition to 1,300 Israeli civilian and military deaths, thousands more Palestinian civilians are likely to die in the fighting ahead.
Whether it intended or not, Hamas’s shocking actions, by forcing Israel to become an occupying power over the Gaza Strip once again, may wind up as a Pyrrhic victory. With Hamas on its way into the abyss, it appears to be dragging Israel down with it.
“This is the conundrum that Israel faces: It never wanted to do this, but Hamas is forcing it,” said Hiltermann. “Israel feels that they have to respond to Hamas and re-establish dominance after what has happened, but they have entered into a situation where there is no exit.”