Possible war scenarios

Shady Mohsen, Tuesday 31 Oct 2023

Shady Mohsen reviews moves to free the Israeli hostages being held by Hamas and Israel’s options in its war on Gaza.

Possible war scenarios
Three Israeli hostages demanding a ceasefire

 

Israel has set a clear goal for its ground invasion of the Gaza Strip: to eliminate Hamas. Now, the world, along with Israel, is wondering how the war will end and whether this goal will be achieved.

With the elimination of Hamas as the main objective, it seems that the Israeli government may have decided to discount the possibility of rescuing the Israeli citizens currently being held by Hamas.

On Monday, Hamas’ military wing released a video of three of the Israeli hostages – Danielle Aloni, Rimon Kirsht, and Elena Trupanov – who were kidnapped on 7 October.

In the 76-second clip, Aloni accused the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of leaving her community defenceless during the Hamas attack. “We are getting punished for your political and national neglect,” she said. “Nobody came. Nobody heard us.”

She said there should be a ceasefire to ensure the release of the hostages. “We are innocent citizens. Citizens who pay taxes to the state of Israel. You want to kill us all. You want to kill us all using the IDF,” she said.

“Let their citizens go, let their prisoners go,” Aloni said in a reference to the Palestinians kept in Israeli prisons. “Free us. Free all of us. Let us return to our families now!” She shouted “now” several times.

 The Israeli forces have not been able to free more than one hostage, who was set free on Sunday night. This leaves some 220 other hostages still being held by Hamas. Many relatives of the hostages favour accepting a Hamas offer to swap them for about 5,000 Palestinians, including Islamist militants, in Israeli prisons.

Meanwhile, Israel decided to launch a ground operation in the first days of its Operation Swords of Iron in Gaza, but it then postponed the invasion until 27 October.

It has not yet succeeded in arming the 360,000 reserve soldiers it has mobilised, and there have even been calls to donate to the Israeli army to pay for supplies and the needs of conscripts.

Israel has armed 46,000 conscripts and placed them by the Erez Crossing in the north of the Gaza Strip. The remaining reservists are along the eastern side of the Strip, where the Nahal Oz settlement is located.

Netanyahu has disagreed with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant about how to deal militarily with Gaza and the operational plan to follow. Galant has suggested a limited and tactical deployment in Gaza from the north, while Netanyahu wanted a full-on deployment at once.

Israel also has no clear plan for what the Gaza Strip will look like after Hamas’ overthrow. Either this will mean the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to take control of the Strip or the formation of an interim government also recognised by Egypt.

However, Egypt adamantly rejects this idea and is putting pressure on Israel to end the war and rein in the crisis.

There is growing public pressure in Israel to recover the civilian hostages held by Hamas through meetings with the Israeli president and Knesset members.

At the same time, Israeli startups in towns targeted by Hamas rockets are under threat, including in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Jaffa, Tel Aviv and Haifa. These could move to cities outside Israel or they could flee to other Israeli towns including West Jerusalem.

The US is putting pressure on Netanyahu not to launch a ground operation until the release of hostages with dual citizenship has been made.

Netanyahu took the decision to order a ground invasion to ease the pressure to quash Hamas and for the prompt release of the Israeli hostages. He also hoped to mend the rift within his coalition government due to demands by the Israeli religious parties to quickly eliminate Hamas.

Netanyahu also wants to restore the Israeli deterrence system at the regional level, since another front may open in the north where Lebanon’s Hizbullah group is located. He wants to disprove the idea in Israeli public opinion that he is being held hostage to US dictates about the future of the Gaza Strip and military decisions.

A ground invasion will lure the US into a direct confrontation alongside Israel with Iran and its agents in the region, and skirmishes on the Lebanese border will also aim to neutralise Iranian influence in the region.

This is what Netanyahu was referring to in an earlier statement about “changing the map” of the Middle East.

SCENARIOS

There are several possible scenarios for Israel’s campaign against Gaza.

The first is that Israel will wage a ground war at all points of engagement around the Gaza Strip, by land from the north and east and by sea from the west.

This scenario is plausible because of the failure to accomplish a limited ground operation by advancing tactical military teams at specific points from the north and northeast of the Gaza Strip. This was due to Hamas’ success in surprising the Israeli army using drones and the Al-Qassam Brigades ambushing armoured vehicles and infantry forces.

Another scenario comes from the public pressure on Netanyahu to launch an extensive operation to completely annihilate Hamas and the growing gap between Netanyahu and Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz, now in the Coalition Government, in the opinion polls.

This scenario also makes it more likely that the forced displacement of Palestinians to southern Gaza as a prelude to changing the map of the Gaza Strip and destroying all of northern Gaza will continue.

Another scenario would be Israel agreeing to a temporary ceasefire and humanitarian truce. Several factors support this, including the failure to uncover the Hamas tunnels used for holding civilian hostages and its launching of surprise attacks against the Israeli army and setting up ambushes.

The failure to release the hostages builds pressure on Netanyahu’s government, as well as pressure from Washington to prioritise the release of the hostages before a full invasion of Gaza.

There have been some material and human losses in the Israeli army at the hands of popular resistance inside Gaza, and more than half a million Palestinians in northern Gaza have refused to leave their homes.

Israel has been under international pressure to stop bombing civilians and causing a humanitarian catastrophe, while pressure is mounting on Western governments to enforce a ceasefire, truce, or settlement.

Stopping the Israeli war on Gaza is another scenario, which would mean Netanyahu acknowledging the end of the political and military goals of the war on Gaza and its restriction to tactical considerations –  essentially, reaching a solution on the hostages and the destruction of Hamas tunnels.

However, this could be unfeasible because it will be difficult to destroy over 1,500 tunnels that can run as deep as 70 metres underground.

Hamas also cannot agree to the release of all hostages until a deal is reached to release the prisoners and detainees held by Israel.

Meanwhile, there is the possibility of a larger regional war that would see military confrontations between Iranian and US proxies in Syria and Iraq, as well as a war between Hizbullah and Israel, along with a Houthi threat to the US military infrastructure from Yemen.

This scenario is supported by the recent attacks against US military bases in Syria and Iraq, such as the Ain Al-Assad base, and the Houthis launching more than five cruise missiles and 32 multi-range drones against Ramon Airport in southern Israel (the airport responsible for air strikes against Hamas in Gaza).

If the Saudi defences intercept the Houthi missiles, this may heat up tensions along the Yemeni-Saudi border and further jeopardise Iranian-Saudi normalisation.

Overall, this scenario is unlikely because the US and the European countries do not want a war in the Middle East that would threaten their strategic interests and divert attention from the war in Ukraine against Russia.

Moscow also does not want war to break out in the region because it may find itself forced to defend the interests of the Syrian regime, which could endanger its war with Ukraine.

Egypt does not want a regional war since this would threaten its strategic interests in the region and deplete its economic and military efforts.

OPTIONS

Israel will most likely choose a full invasion of Gaza, though there are several elements that could undermine this scenario.

First, there is the issue of hostages that Egypt is mediating on between Israel and Hamas in order to reduce the chances of a full invasion evolving into a regional war.

Israel may agree to release a few recent detainees in the West Bank in exchange for some of the hostages, a ceasefire, or a temporary humanitarian truce. This would be supported by public pressure in Israel to resolve the hostage issue, since the families of the hostages feel the government has abandoned them in order to pursue other goals.

Netanyahu has formed an emergency war cabinet that includes military leaders such as Gadi Eisenkot and Gantz, both former chiefs of staff, in order to give himself more wiggle room to remain on the political stage.

Although Gantz’s party has more seats, he understands the difficulty of forming a stable government without Netanyahu since Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party, may yield to international pressure to grant major compromises to the Palestinians and strengthen the PA.

It is possible that the war cabinet could become a full coalition if elections are held on time or if early elections take place. Evidence that Netanyahu is making political manoeuvres now to survive politically later has come in his attack on the “deep state” in Israel (read the security services) and his holding them responsible for the failure to anticipate Hamas’ assault.

If Netanyahu can guarantee he will survive politically, there is a greater likelihood that the war will stop and negotiations will begin through Egyptian mediation.

However, the military scene in Gaza portends a bloody escalation, and the available options are marred by complex political and military motives.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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