Israel’s forces are gathering at Gaza’s northern border, preparing for anticipated military action with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to “demolish” Hamas after the terrorist group killed more than 1,300 Israelis and kidnapped nearly 200 on Oct. 7.
But what could the next stage of military action look like?
Israel last invaded Gaza in 2014 in what the Israel Defense Force (IDF) called “Operation Protective Edge.” Sixty-seven Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians, including more than 1,450 civilians, died, according to the UN.
Retired major-general Denis Thompson commanded in 2014 the Multinational Force and Observers, a peacekeeping organization Israel and Egypt created in 1981 to maintain their peace treaty.
He said a ground offensive now, with available Israeli forces nearly four times larger than in 2014, and reacting to a deadly attack that has deeply shaken Israeli society, would pose new challenges for the IDF and risks for Israel.
“If (Israel’s) stated aim is to destroy Hamas as an entity, I think they’re going to … go right through Gaza City and clear it neighbourhood by neighbourhood,” he told Global News.
But he said Israel must also be careful.
“There will be civilian casualties,” he warned, “but you have to avoid them as much as possible.”
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Hamas militants and bases are mixed in with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, making finding and targeting only the combatants difficult.
And Hamas’s capture of hostages makes that even harder. Securing just one, Thompson said, is a challenge, never mind the nearly 200 people the militant group is currently holding.
“I don’t know for sure, but I think (Israel has) accepted the fact that they’re going to lose some hostages and that they won’t have a 100 per cent solution,” Thompson said.
“But you can bet that the special forces of Israel, the United States and any other western state that has a relationship with Israel who have hostages inside of Gaza are working this problem extremely diligently as we speak.”
Chuck Freilich, a professor of political science at Columbia University and previously a deputy national security adviser in Israel, told The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson on Oct. 8 that Israel is facing a security “earthquake” and that hostage negotiations of the kind Hamas might want could be unlikely.
“I don’t think we’re in a negotiating place at this point. The military operation has to take place and, of course, things will be done to try and minimize the impact on the hostages. But it has to take place regardless of that consideration.
“I understand how horrific what I’m saying is, that if I had a loved one there, I might be taking a different position,” he continued. “But the state of Israel cannot allow what has happened to stand and we cannot give in to this kind of extortion. This is, in essence, a battle for pretty much for national survival.”
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The Knesset has mobilized approximately 300,000 reservists after Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attacks, compared with about 75,000 in 2014.
As the troops gather, Thompson said the IDF is likely conducting “shaping operations” – surveilling the territory with aircraft to gather as much information as possible, while also continuing to bomb Gaza to destroy Hamas targets, especially rocket sites.
“We look at the battlefield very much in a two-dimensional … aspect,” Thompson, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a think tank, said.
“And here they’re going to enter a three-dimensional aspect.”
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If Israel does launch a ground offensive, Thompson said the IDF will likely seek to clear Gaza City using armoured personnel carriers, infantry and new Israeli Merkava tanks – which have a “trophy system” that can intercept incoming rockets.
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That will begin once the weather clears, the retired general told Global News. But the longer it takes to begin, the more time civilians have to flee, after Israel ordered them to evacuate Gaza City.
“I know it’s a tall order to have 1.1 million people leave Gaza City and expect them all to have departed. But at least they’ve made an effort to thin out the population in order to permit the Israeli Defense Forces to better target-discriminate, if you will, and avoid too much collateral damage.”
The aim, one former Israeli general said to The West Block on Sunday, is for Gaza to be a “completely civilian area.”
“This takes months. It’s not a short operation,” reserve Brig.-Gen. Amir Avivi, a former Israel Defense Forces deputy commander of the Gaza division, said in an interview with Stephenson on Sunday.
“No terror infrastructure at all in the Gaza Strip in the future.”
Avivi had said Israeli forces will have their hands full if they enter Gaza in the anticipated ground offensive, saying that Hamas is well-equipped with drones, anti-tank missiles, improvised explosive devices, grenades, machines guns and tunnels.
“We’ll have to manoeuvre very aggressively with a lot of air force assistance and artillery,” Avivi told Stephenson.
“We are ready as much as a country can be ready.”
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Thompson cautioned that Israel needs to prevent as many civilian casualties as possible to maintain the support it currently has, no matter how heinous Hamas’s violence was.
“I was there in 2014, I know what Islamic State was doing in the Sinai, and it wasn’t very pleasant. This is even worse than that,” he said.
“(The IDF) just have to be able to demonstrate to the wider international community, at least those that support them in the first place, that they’re putting all measures in place to avoid collateral damage.”
And he acknowledged there is no easy solution.
“Somebody has to find an acceptable leader to both the Gazan population and Israel in order to govern what’s going on in Gaza,” he told Global News.
But despite all the bloodshed and complicated politics, he offered a glimmer of hope for stability.
The Camp David Accords, a truce and agreement for Egypt and Israel to normalize relations, only became possible after the 1973 war between the two countries and the subsequent Arab-Israeli peace process.
Thompson said the violence now could be the impetus for Israel, Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries to finally create a sustainable two-state solution.
“There might be a parallel between what happened 50 years ago between Egypt and Israel and what could happen in the fallout of when all this wraps up in — God knows how long,” he said.