Israeli tanks are positioned near the border with Gaza on October 12, 2023. Israel appeared to be readying for a possible ground invasion of Gaza, but faces the threat of a multi-front war after also coming under rocket attack from militant groups in neighbouring Lebanon and Syria. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: For 16 years, Israeli governments worked to manage the Hamas leaders in Gaza, not topple them. The Islamist group rejected Israel’s existence and engaged in violence, but kept order over the territory. Better Hamas than chaos.

The carnage last weekend, when Hamas militants killed hundreds of Israeli civilians after a sophisticated breach of the border fence, has shifted official views. Now, the aim is to destroy the organisation’s military capability and kill its leaders.

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Left unsaid in Israel but widely assumed is that, when the war ends, Hamas will no longer rule in Gaza.

In announcing the formation of an emergency unity government on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the Islamic State (Daesh) organisation from the previous decade, saying, “Hamas is ISIS, and we will crush and eliminate it just as the world crushed and eliminated ISIS.”

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, told reporters on Thursday: “Right now, we are focused on taking out their senior leadership, not only the military but also their government leadership.”

‘Mowing lawn’

This is a change from the previous military policy of occasional invasions, harsh but limited, sometimes referred to as “mowing the lawn,” meaning a task to which one is required to return repeatedly.

Any operation against the militant group is destined to result in more civilian deaths and raise diplomatic dilemmas. Turkey has already signalled a shift away from the intense diplomacy that was under way to normalise ties with Israel after years of estrangement.

A former top military officer who remains in close touch with the army, speaking on condition of anonymity, said when the war ends, Israel may set up a temporary military regime and hand Gaza over to some international force.

The head of the opposition, Yair Lapid, who didn’t join the new government with Gantz, said this week on French television, “The endgame is there will be no Hamas in Gaza.” His goal, he said, is for the Palestinian Authority, which holds power in the West Bank and recognizes Israel, would take over.

Requests for comment from the prime minister’s office and the defence minister weren’t immediately answered.

According to Elai Rettig, an expert of the geopolitics of energy and environment at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, a power cut will result in water shortages in a week or two. That’s likely to hinder access to health care or drinkable water for Gaza’s 2 million people, half of whom are under the age of 18. Israeli authorities are worried about a humanitarian corridor into Egypt, saying that would allow Hamas leaders to sneak out.

Rettig also said Hamas has been given aid to fix and upgrade the electrical system in Gaza but hadn’t done so.

Hostage fate

Nearly all analysts in Israel believe ground troops are headed in after the aerial pounding. Many of the dozens of Israeli hostages and some of the soldiers seem likely to meet their deaths.

And that too is quietly discussed as a price the country is willing to pay to end Hamas’s hold on Gaza and send a broader message to the country’s enemies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and its Iranian sponsor.

Israel’s biggest deployment of reserves in its history shows its leaders are aware how difficult it might be to crush Hamas, but eliminating it from Gaza is an even bigger task.

An Israeli cross-border operation into southern Lebanon to attack Iran-backed Hezbollah in 2006 ended in massive casualties following more than a month of fighting. Since Saturday’s attack, Hezbollah has fired into Israel every now and then, a reminder that it may be tempted to open a new front in the war after the Gaza ground offensive begins.

The direness of the rhetoric is driven by the images of inhumanity on display last Saturday and the collective memory of Jews being slaughtered in the Holocaust and in pogroms a century ago. It has made many Israelis feel this is a war for their very existence, and they must show how tough they are.

Retired Major General Yaakov Amidror, who was Netanyahu’s national security adviser a decade ago, said, “We cannot go back to square one. This will take a few months. How many will be killed? Many, many. It’s up to Hamas, which operates from populated areas. This is the last time we allow Hamas to be strong enough to attack Israel.”

Asked who will rule Gaza when Israel is finished, he replied, “The people in Gaza will have to decide what is next. That is their problem.”