Israel has declared its determination to eliminate Hamas through a relentless attack on the Gaza Strip. However, there is no clear plan for how to govern the devastated Palestinian enclave, even if Israel succeeds.
The military campaign, codenamed “Operation Swords of Iron,” is expected to be more intense and unprecedented than any previous Israeli actions in Gaza. This information comes from eight regional and Western officials who are knowledgeable about the conflict but wish to remain anonymous due to its sensitivity. Israel has mobilized a record-breaking 360,000 reservists and has been continuously bombarding the small enclave since Hamas launched a surprise attack on southern Israel on October 7, resulting in the deaths of approximately 1,400 people, according to officials.
According to three regional officials familiar with discussions between the US and Middle Eastern leaders, Israel’s immediate strategy is to destroy Gaza’s infrastructure, even if it leads to a high number of civilian casualties.
Israeli officials have expressed uncertainty about the future after the war. According to a source in Washington, some of President Joe Biden’s aides are concerned that Israel has not yet developed an exit strategy, despite its ability to effectively damage Hamas. During recent visits to Israel by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the importance of focusing on a post-war plan for Gaza was emphasized. Arab officials are also alarmed by Israel’s lack of a clear plan for the future of Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule since 2006 and is home to 2.3 million people. A regional security source stated, “Israel does not have an endgame for Gaza. Their strategy is to drop thousands of bombs, destroy everything, and go in, but what happens next? They have no exit strategy for the day after.”
Although an Israeli invasion has not yet begun, Gaza authorities claim that 3,500 Palestinians have already been killed due to the aerial bombardment. Shockingly, about one-third of the casualties are children, making it the deadliest conflict between Hamas and Israel to date. During his visit to Israel on Wednesday, Biden emphasized the importance of justice being served to Hamas. However, he also acknowledged that the United States had made mistakes following the 9/11 attack in New York.
Biden stated that the majority of Palestinians are not affiliated with Hamas and that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that Biden’s visit provided an opportunity to urge Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to carefully consider issues such as the proportional use of force and long-term plans for Gaza before initiating any invasion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) looks on as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media after their meeting in Tel Aviv.—AFP
Arab officials are also alarmed that Israel hasn’t set out a clear plan for the future of the enclave, ruled by Hamas since 2006 and home to 2.3 million people.
“Israel doesn’t have an endgame for Gaza. Their strategy is to drop thousands of bombs, destroy everything and go in, but then what? They have no exit strategy for the day after,” said one regional security source.
An Israeli invasion has yet to start, but Gaza authorities say 3,500 Palestinians have already been killed by the aerial bombardment, around a third of them children — a larger death toll than in any previous conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Biden, on a visit to Israel on Wednesday, told Israelis that justice needed to be served to Hamas, though he cautioned that after the 9/11 attack on New York, the US had made mistakes.
The “vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas”, he said. “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people,” he said.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Biden’s visit would have given him a chance to press Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to think through issues such as the proportional use of force and the longer-term plans for Gaza before any invasion.
Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have said they will wipe out Hamas in retribution for the October 7 attack.
What will follow is less defined.
“We are of course thinking and dealing with this, and this involves assessments and includes the National Security Council, the military and others about the end situation,” Israeli National Security Council director Tzachi Hanegbi told reporters on Tuesday.
“We don’t know what this will be with certainty,” he said.
“But what we do know is what there will not be,” he said, referring to Israel’s stated aim to eradicate Hamas.
This might be easier said than done.
“It’s an underground city of tunnels that make the Vietcong tunnels look like child’s play,” said the first regional source, referring to the Communist guerrilla force that defied US troops in Vietnam.
“They’re not going to end Hamas with tanks and firepower,” he said.
Two regional military experts told Reuters that Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, has mobilised for an invasion, setting up anti-tank mines and booby-trapped explosive devices to ambush troops.
Israel’s coming offensive is set to be much bigger than past Gaza operations that Israeli officials had previously referred to as “mowing the grass”, degrading Hamas’s military capabilities but not eliminating it.
Israel has fought three previous conflicts with Hamas, in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, and launched limited land invasions during two of those campaigns, but unlike today, Israel’s leaders never vowed to destroy Hamas once and for all.
In those three confrontations, just under 4,000 Palestinians and fewer than 100 Israelis died.
There is less optimism in Washington, though, that Israel will be able to completely destroy Hamas and US officials see little chance that Israel will want to hold on to any Gaza territory or re-occupy it, the US source said.
A more likely scenario, the person said, would be for Israeli forces to kill or capture as many Hamas members as they can, blow up tunnels and rocket workshops, and then after Israeli casualties mount, look for a way to declare victory and exit.
The fear across the region is that the situation will blow up beyond the confines of Gaza, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran opening major new fronts in support of Hamas.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warned of a possible “pre-emptive” action against Israel if it carried out its invasion of Gaza. He said last weekend that Iran would not watch from the sidelines if the US failed to restrain Israel.
Arab leaders have told Blinken, who has been crisscrossing the region this past week, that while they condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel, they oppose collective punishment against ordinary Palestinians, which they fear will trigger regional unrest.
Popular anger will ratchet up across the region when the body count rises, they said.
Washington has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean and is concerned that Hezbollah might join the battle from Israel’s northern border. There has been no sign, however, that the US military would then move from a deterrent posture to direct involvement.
The regional sources said Washington was proposing to re-energise the Palestinian Authority (PA), which lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007, although there is huge doubt whether the PA or any other authority would be able to govern the coastal enclave should Hamas be driven out.
Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator, expressed deep scepticism about the potential for establishing a post-Hamas government to rule Gaza.
“I could paint you a picture more appropriate to a galaxy far, far away and not on planet Earth on how you could combine the UN, the Palestinian Authority, the Saudis, the Egyptians, led by the US marshalling the Europeans, to basically convert Gaza from an open-air prison to something much better,” he said.
In the meantime, calls for the creation of humanitarian corridors within Gaza and escape routes for Palestinian civilians have drawn a strong reaction from Arab neighbours.
They fear an Israeli invasion will spark a new permanent mass wave of displacement, a replay of the 1948 Israeli War and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Millions of Palestinians who were forced to flee have remained stranded as refugees in the countries that hosted them.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he rejected the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land into the Sinai peninsula bordering Gaza, adding that any such move would turn the area into a base for attacks against Israel. He said Egyptians in their millions would protest against any such move.
East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 war and then annexed, and Israeli settlement expansion across the occupied territory is at the core of the conflict with Palestinians. Netanyahu has openly embraced the religious and radical far-right, promising to annex more land to be settled by Jews.
Hundreds of Palestinians have died in the West Bank since the start of the year in violence perpetrated by Israeli soldiers and settlers, and there is widespread concern that the violence might engulf the territory as nearby Gaza burns.
“Whatever worst-case scenario you have, it will be worse,” a second regional source said about the potential for the conflict to spread beyond Gaza.