Israel Faces Tough Choices Deterring Hamas

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risks an all-out war on multiple fronts if he orders a land invasion of Gaza. But the alternative could be just as bad.

After 17 years of troubled neighborship between Israel and the Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas, in Gaza, the entire Israeli population is waking up in a state of shock and grief. They are asking themselves how the Hamas managed to partly overwhelm the strongest army in the region and kill at least 350 Israelis in a commando-style attack. And in the midst of the ongoing chaos they also ask themselves, what will happen from here?

The attack, carried out by Hamas on Saturday morning, caught Israel by surprise. As hours passed, the unprecedented rocket barrage against Israel turned into a steady flow of news going from bad to worse. In contrast to previous conflicts between the two parties, Hamas this time used the element of surprise to unleash its deadly force. Hundreds of commando fighters entered Israel. Some by foot, some by paragliders, others by speedboats and pick-up trucks, especially prepared with heavy machine guns. They managed to enter small Israeli communities near the Gaza border, even cities in southern parts of the country. Upon arrival, they started carrying out what is now described as Israel’s Pearl Harbour moment. Heavily-armed Hamas commando fighters went, almost undisturbed, from house to house, killing and kidnapping Israelis. Some of the victims are soldiers, many of them civilians, kids, teenagers, and even elderly.

While Israel today buries its lost ones, fighting is still ongoing in some Israeli villages. Schools and the international Ben Gurion airport are closed and many of those southerners who spent the past 24 hours locked up inside their shelters are now driving to safety in other parts of Israel. One of them is Hila Fenlon, a farmer from the village of Nativ Haasara, located right next to the fence between Israel and Gaza.

“As soon as we could get out, we drove to Tel Aviv,” she says and describes how she and the family spent all Saturday inside a shelter, while shots were fired through the day. About the time when Hila Fenlon arrived in Tel Aviv late Saturday night, the Israeli authorities published the names of 15 of her fellow villagers who were killed that day.

Noam Tibon, a former Major General in the Israeli army, tells his own dramatic story to the viewers of Channel 12. He describes how he received a WhatsApp message from his son Amir Tibon, a well-known Israeli journalist, early Saturday morning. The message read; “Dad, we are in the shelter and we can hear Hamas terrorists inside our house.”

That moment Noam Tibon made a decision to drive to Nachal Oz, a small Israeli community, in order to try to save his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren aged three and one. With the help of a few friends and Israeli elite units in the area, Noam Tibon managed to reach the small community where his son lives. Together they fought their way from house to house and managed to free several families, including his own.

More than a day after the beginning of the attack on Israel, Noam Tibon’s personal story is used to describe the total chaos Israel was shrouded in all Saturday. It is also a first-hand report that raises frustration and anger among many Israelis who demand a strong response to Hamas’ killing spree.

During the night between Saturday and Sunday, Israeli fighter jets attacked at least 246 different targets inside Gaza, the most densely populated area in the world. According to the Health Ministry in Gaza, at least 313 Palestinians have lost their lives since the fighting began. Ongoing Israeli air raids make this number climb steadily by the hour. But according to multiple sources in the Israeli army, Israel is currently planning a much more comprehensive response. 

More than 100,000 Israeli reservists have been called on duty. Some of them are training for a land invasion of Gaza, which is expected to be ordered by the Israeli government in the near future.

The aim of such a land invasion would be to either overthrow the Hamas rule in Gaza or weaken the military infrastructure of the movement to an extent that Hamas never again will be able to attack as it did on Saturday. 

From a political viewpoint, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys full backing from the Israeli population to order a land invasion. Even the political opposition has declared readiness to form a broad emergency government, in spite of almost 10 months of extreme ideological rivalry due to the judicial reform of Netanyahu’s government. In addition, US President Joe Biden has declared that the US stands firmly behind Israel and that Israel has every right to defend itself against Hamas.

The main question is how Benjamin Netanyahu will navigate from here and which decisions he will prioritise. 

While a land invasion against Hamas is broadly supported at the moment, it will almost certainly be at a high cost. Also for Israel. Soldiers will die fighting Hamas, this time inside the Gaza Strip. The risk that some of the approximately 100 kidnapped Israelis inside Gaza will be hit is high. And an invasion of Gaza immediately puts Israel in danger of opening yet another front. This time from the Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah in Lebanon on Israel’s northern border.

On Sunday morning Hezbollah attacked Israeli military positions in the mountainous border area. Israel responded by bombing a Hezbollah position, bringing the two parties one step closer to an all-out confrontation. Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has earlier stated that an Israeli invasion of Gaza would trigger a heavy response from Hezbollah.

This is probably the biggest worry for Benjamin Netanyahu at the moment. While Israel for the past 17 years, right until yesterday, has felt a high level of deterrence vis a vis Hamas in Gaza, its level of deterrence against Hezbollah is far more complicated. Compared to Hamas, the Lebanese militia is better trained, more experienced and has better capabilities. Its arsenal of rockets is estimated between 50,000 and 100,000, and while the rockets fired from Gaza lack precision, Hezbollah’s rockets can hit every spot inside Israel with high precision. 

Therefore Benjamin Netanyahu faces a tough situation when it comes to rebuilding Israeli deterrence against Hamas in Gaza. If he decides to give the green light for a land invasion, he risks a multifront war with Gaza, Hezbollah and maybe even pro-Iranian proxies in Syria. If he refrains from a land invasion of Gaza, Israel has completely lost its deterrence against Hamas, and thereby also against the other armed groups in the area. 

(Allan Sorensen is the Middle East correspondent for the Danish daily newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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