Even if Israel can eliminate Hamas, what is its long-term plan for Gaza?
Invading Gaza will be just the beginning of a huge challenge for Israel, writes Ian Parmenter who examines the risks, history, strategies and scenarios which could arise.
An Israeli soldier patrols on a road near the Gaza strip. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/EPA
Not counting periodic cross-border skirmishes, Israel has fought three major wars against Hamas since withdrawing its forces from Gaza in 2005 – in 2008, 2014 and 2021. Each involved limited ground incursions, with Israeli soldiers in Gaza for about a fortnight.
In the past couple weeks, Israel has put together a huge force to mount another ground invasion in retaliation for the Hamas cross-border attacks that killed around 1,400 Israelis on October 7. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have called up their entire armoured corps – more than 1,000 tanks. Around 360,000 reservists will also join the force’s full-time personnel of about 170,000.
The operation is shaping up to be Israel’s biggest since its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which was aimed at driving the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from its base there. The Israelis succeeded in that objective. But an unforeseen consequence of that war was the development of the Shia militant organisation Hezbollah. With Iran’s support and tutelage, Hezbollah has become a far stronger enemy for Israel than the PLO had ever been.
It’s a truism that wars have unintended consequences. And in the current conflict with Hamas, it’s not clear what the end game might be for Israel.
Why a ground invasion is so risky
The difficulties of a Gaza ground assault are clear enough. Fighting street to street in a confined, highly urbanised environment will be hideously difficult for Israel’s forces. Hamas also has the advantage of an extensive tunnel network estimated at up to 500 kilometres in length, enabling its militants to attack and then disappear.
Israel can counter these challenges to some extent with the use of robots and drones. But night vision technology will be ineffective in the total darkness of tunnels, as these devices require faint ambient light to work.
Israel has also warned the roughly 1.1 million civilians in the northern half of Gaza to move to the southern half. Altogether, the United Nations says some 1.4 million people in Gaza have been displaced so far in the conflict, with nearly 580,000 sheltering in UN shelters.
It’s unclear how many people are still in the north. Israel has warned that those who remain could be classed as sympathisers with “a terrorist organisation”.
Inevitably, there will be appalling civilian casualties. Not all will necessarily be the IDF’s fault, but the default position of the region and those in the global community opposed to Israel’s action will be to blame Israel.
Another challenge is the estimated 200 hostages taken by Hamas during its raid into Israel. Hamas says it has spread them around Gaza. Almost certainly, some will be in the northern war zone. Hamas claims 22 have already been killed by Israeli bombs. Some relatives of the hostages are criticising the Netanyahu government for not giving sufficient priority to freeing their loved ones.
When the fighting stops: no good options
What Israel intends to do if and when it has secured the northern half of Gaza is not clear. The coastal strip is already facing a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation, according to the UN. And in terms of administering the territory, there are few good options.
1) A military reoccupation of Gaza, as Israel did from 1967 to 2005.
This would constitute a huge military burden and expose IDF personnel to violence and kidnapping. US President Joe Biden has warned reoccupation would be a big mistake.
2) Eliminate Hamas’ senior leadership, declare victory, then leave.
Such a victory would almost certainly be short-term. Other low-level members of Hamas would take pride in coming forward to reconstitute the group. Or another group, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, might fill the vacuum. Israel would not be able to control who or what that entity might be.
3) Call on the secular Fatah party that now controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to take control in Gaza.
That is scarcely viable. Fatah lost a civil war to Hamas in 2007 and there’s no indication the Palestinian Authority’s return would be acceptable to Palestinians there. Moreover, the authority’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, was elected to a four-year term in 2005 – and is still in charge. As such, he lacks legitimacy, even in the West Bank.
4) Administration of Gaza by non-aligned local leaders.
This is a pipe dream. Even if such figures could be found, Gazans would almost certainly see them as collaborators with the Israelis, given their role would be to keep the strip’s hardliners under control.
5) Administration of Gaza by a non-Palestinian Arab force.
Again, this is not feasible. The leaders of potential Arab contributors to such a force, such as Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, would not want to be seen as policing Palestinians on behalf of Israel.
6) Administration of Gaza by a non-Arab or United Nations force.
Given the enormous risks, it’s very hard to see any non-Arab countries embracing this idea. A UN peacekeeping force would require not only Israeli approval, but a UN Security Council resolution at a time when Russia and China rarely agree with the three Western permanent members.
Israel also contends Hezbollah has impeded the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon from carrying out its mandate, preventing it from stopping militant attacks. After the Hamas attacks, Israel would be unlikely to entrust its security to peacekeepers with little incentive to put their lives on the line for its sake.
‘Mowing the grass’
For too long, Israel has believed the Gaza imbroglio could be contained. However, the population has grown so large, this is no longer the case.
With a growth rate of just over 2% per year, its population is expected to be three million by 2030.
Gaza is also incredibly young, with a median age of 19.6, compared with the global average of 30.5. Almost half the adult population is unemployed, and Palestinians in Gaza are four times more likely to be living in poverty than those in the West Bank. This is a recipe for social upheaval and radicalisation.
As two Israeli journalists, Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, noted in a perceptive analysis of Israel’s 2014 Gaza war, the Israeli military describes its assaults on Gaza as “mowing the grass” – acting to punish Hamas severely for its aggressive behaviour and degrading its military capabilities.
The aim was to achieve realistic and, therefore, limited political and military goals. It was part of a long-term strategy of attrition, which would have a temporary deterrent effect in order to create periods of quiet along the border.
Eliminating Hamas altogether, the authors said, was not an “attainable military objective”.
Even if Hamas rule can be terminated, the alternatives are Israeli rule, the rule of more radical groups, or chaos.
Against an implacable, well-entrenched, non-state enemy like the Hamas, Israel simply needs to ‘mow the grass’ once in a while to degrade the enemy’s capabilities.
From a humanitarian perspective, this phrase is objectionable. The question, now, is whether Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt a different strategy this time. We’ll find out in the coming weeks.
Ian Parmeter, Research Scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University