The Gaza Trap

Four days after Hamas’s attack, Israel appeared poised to order a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

With more than 1,000 killed in Israel and 2,600 wounded in the most deadly incursion on Israeli territory in its history, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under enormous pressure to send its forces into the enclave. It has already responded with airstrikes that have killed more than 900 Palestinians in Gaza.

Before going any further, Israel must consider that it may be walking into a Gaza trap. Here is why.

Hamas knew that the attack on Saturday would give Mr. Netanyahu little choice but to retaliate with a ground invasion, and it knows that Israel Defense Forces technology and military superiority will offer little advantage on the crowded streets of Gaza City, in Jabalia, Gaza’s largest refugee camp, or through Hamas’s labyrinth of underground tunnels. Gaza, 140 square miles with a population of more than two million, is one of the most densely populated places on earth.

It appears Hamas wants to draw Israeli soldiers into a quagmire, like Hezbollah did in Southern Lebanon from 1985 to 2000. After years of fighting, Israel suffered a humiliating and chaotic withdrawal, leaving an empowered and threatening Hezbollah on its northern border.

Why might Hamas want to draw the I.D.F. into a bloody ground battle? Hamas is the uncontested power in Gaza, though elections have not been held since 2006. Neither the Palestinian Authority nor its main political party, Fatah, the business community, civil society nor family clan leaders can effectively challenge Hamas, which has become only stronger after each successive conflict with Israel. Despite an Israeli blockade and round-the-clock surveillance, Hamas has apparently been able to build and buy more rockets, steadily improve their range and accuracy, provide offensive combat training for its fighters and develop an intelligence network sophisticated and far-reaching enough to launch a simultaneous assault on 22 Israeli locations. Hamas surely believes it can defeat the Israelis on its home turf in a war of attrition.

Hamas also stands to expand its political credibility in the West Bank if Israel invades Gaza, particularly if Israeli advances stall. Many Palestinians in the West Bank already regard the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, as corrupt, enfeebled and unable to realize the aspirations of its people. Israel’s July incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin further highlighted that the government of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, can neither protect the people of Jenin nor provide a vision of a more hopeful future. If Israel invades Gaza, Hamas may have the public support to challenge the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and potentially assume leadership as the sole representative of the Palestinian people.

In the broader region, Hamas can also count on its ally, Hezbollah. The day after the Hamas attack in southern Israel, Hezbollah, presumably in an attempt to test the readiness of Israeli forces, engaged in fighting with the Israeli military along the northern border near Shebaa Farms, land that is controlled by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. Hezbollah may seek to gain further advantage if Israel is fighting Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite its grotesque atrocities against civilians, Hamas may have already reset the political realignment in the Middle East by disrupting the prospective diplomatic talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But if Gaza were now to escalate into a protracted ground war, Hamas could also undermine the Abraham Accords, which established agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and break the trend of increasing Arab-Israeli normalization. The Palestinian Authority was unable to block the Abraham Accords, but Hamas could still unwind them.

Israel, of course, can count on U.S. support as it takes its next steps. The Biden administration has sent a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean Sea in what it has said is a “deterrence posture” that will provide the Israel Defense Forces with “additional equipment and resources, including munitions.” The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, reaffirmed U.S. support to Israel immediately after President Biden’s news conference on Tuesday.

Over the next week or so, Israel could destroy much of Hamas’s infrastructure. The I.D.F. will channel the outrage of the nation if it launches a ground invasion of Gaza, and will extract an enormous price for Hamas’s massacre in the Kfar Aza kibbutz. And yet, operationally, Hamas complicates I.D.F. freedom of action given that it holds at least 150 hostages. If a ground war drags on, Israel would make battlefield gains but almost certainly fail to destroy Hamas’s governing ideology or the Palestinians’ unrealized aspirations for statehood.

To avoid the Gaza trap, Israel needs Arab allies on the ground and in the region. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan have all regarded Iran, along with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Muslim Brotherhood, as a collective strategic threat. To gain the support of the key regional leaders, Israel will have to offer major security concessions and intelligence in the event of a wider war with Iran and set a meaningful and clear political horizon for a post-Abbas, post-Hamas Palestinian state. Yet, Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a steep credibility gap both domestically and with Israel’s Arab neighbors. Only a true unity government may be able to blunt the Hamas threat with breakthrough diplomacy in the region. That success might cost Bibi Netanyahu his job.

The days ahead will be bloody and difficult for Israelis and Palestinians. Hamas may well have set a trap if it induces an Israeli invasion of Gaza. Before Israel makes that call, it needs to have a strategy for exiting Gaza and a plan for the day after. An Israeli miscalculation in Gaza could trigger a crisis in the Middle East that lasts for generations.

R. David Harden is the former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, USAID mission director to the West Bank and Gaza and senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace.

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