Israel is launching a military campaign called “Operation Swords of Iron” to wipe out Hamas in the Gaza Strip, aiming to destroy the Palestinian enclave. The campaign, which has been a ferocious one, has called up a record 360,000 reservists and has been bombarding the enclave continuously since Hamas’s assault on southern Israel on October 7, which killed around 1,400 people, mostly civilians.
The immediate Israeli strategy is to destroy Gaza’s infrastructure, push the people towards the Egyptian border, and attack Hamas by blowing up the underground tunnels the group has built to conduct its operations. However, Israeli officials have no clear idea of what a post-war future might look like. U.S. President Joe Biden’s aides express concern that Israel has not yet developed an exit strategy, despite its potential to inflict lasting damage on Hamas. Arab officials are also alarmed that Israel has not set out a clear plan for the future of the enclave, which has been ruled by Hamas since 2006 and is home to 2.3 million people.
An Israeli invasion has yet to begin in Gaza, but 3,500 Palestinians have been killed by the aerial bombardment, with around a third of them being children. President Biden has urged Israel to serve justice to Hamas, stating that the vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas and that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have stated that they will wipe out Hamas in retribution for the attack, the deadliest in Israel’s 75-year-old history.
However, what will follow is less defined, with Israeli National Security Council director Tzachi Hanegbi stating that they are “thinking and dealing with this” and are not certain what the end situation will be with certainty. The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, have prepared for an invasion, using anti-tank mines and explosive devices to ambush troops, but their underground tunnel city may not be able to defeat them.
Israel’s upcoming offensive in Gaza is expected to be larger than past operations, which have been referred to as “mowing the grass” and degrading Hamas’s military capabilities. Israel has fought three previous conflicts with Hamas, with limited land invasions during two of those campaigns.
Washington’s optimism is waning over Israel’s complete destruction of Hamas, and US officials believe Israel is unlikely to re-occupy Gaza or hold onto any territory. A more likely scenario would be for Israeli forces to kill or capture as many Hamas members as possible, blow up tunnels and rocket workshops, and then look for a way to declare victory and exit. The fear across the region is that the war will expand beyond Gaza, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and its backer Iran opening major new fronts in support of Hamas.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian warns of potential “preemptive” action against Israel if the Gaza invasion occurs, while Arab leaders condemn Hamas’ attack but oppose collective punishment against Palestinians, fearing regional unrest.
Washington has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean, expressing concern that Hezbollah might join the battle from Israel’s northern border. However, there is no sign that the US military will move from a deterrent posture to direct involvement. Washington is proposing to re-energise the Palestinian Authority (PA), which lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator, expressed skepticism about the potential for establishing a post-Hamas government to rule Gaza.
Arab neighbors are expressing concern over calls for humanitarian corridors and escape routes for Palestinian civilians in Gaza, fearing an Israeli invasion could lead to a permanent mass wave of displacement, similar to the 1948 and 1967 wars.
The conflict between Israel and Palestinians is centered around East Jerusalem and Israeli settlement expansion. Netanyahu has embraced the religious and radical far-right, promising more land for Jewish settlement. Hundreds of Palestinians have died in the West Bank since the start of the year due to clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers. There is concern that violence might engulf the territory as Gaza burns. A regional source predicts the conflict could spread beyond Gaza in the worst-case scenario.