JERUSALEM (AP) — As Israel pounds Gaza with airstrikes, prepares for a possible ground invasion and escalates a war sparked by Hamas’ unprecedented assault, its leaders will confront many of the same dilemmas it has grappled with over decades of conflict with the Palestinians.
Israeli leaders have pledged to annihilate the Hamas militants responsible for the surprise weekend attack but risk drawing international criticism as the Palestinian civilian death toll mounts. They want to kill all the kidnappers but spare the estimated 150 hostages — men, women, children and older adults — that Hamas dragged across the border and has threatend to kill if Israel targets civilians.
In the end, Israel might decide to reluctantly leave Hamas in power in Gaza rather than take its chances on arguably worse alternatives.
Here’s a look at the choices facing Israel going forward.
Israel appears increasingly likely to launch a ground offensive into Gaza, something it has done in two of its previous four wars with Hamas. The Israeli military has invested tremendous resources for such a scenario, even building a training base in its southern desert meant to replicate Gaza’s urban landscape.
A ground offensive would send a strong message, and forces operating inside Gaza might have a better chance of killing top Hamas leaders and rescuing hostages.
Such an assault all but guarantees far higher casualties on both sides. And it would involve street-by-street battles with Hamas militants who’ve had years to prepare tunnels and traps.
Hamas leaders say they planned last weekend’s operation for more than a year and have prepared for any scenario, including all-out war. A ground incursion could even play into their hands.
Giora Eiland, a retired general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said a ground operation would be a “terrible mistake” — soldiers would have to clear every home and remove booby traps from tunnels many kilometers long, all while battling thousands of Hamas fighters.
The army would have to stay in Gaza for months, he said, suffering many casualties “we did not have to.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “crush and eliminate” Hamas. Even if that were possible, experts say Israel could come to regret it.
Hamas is deeply rooted in Palestinian society, with an army of fighters, a government in Gaza, and extensive social welfare programs. It has millions of supporters across Gaza, the occupied West Bank and Lebanon, as well as an exiled leadership. Founded in the late 1980s, it survived as an underground armed group for years while Israel was militarily occupying the entire Gaza Strip, before the 2005 withdrawal.
Reoccupying Gaza would leave Israel in charge of governing and providing basic services to 2.3 million Palestinians, while likely battling an insurgency. Removing Hamas from power and then pulling out would leave a vacuum that could be filled by even more radical groups.
“The understanding here in Israel is that there is no other alternative to a Hamas regime. This is the devil we know,” said Michael Milshtein, an Israeli expert on Palestinian affairs at Tel Aviv University.
In contrast to previous rounds of fighting, Israel has faced few calls for restraint this time around, with the U.S. and other allies expressing horror at Hamas’ atrocities and pledging ironclad support.
But that could change as Gaza’s misery mounts.
Israeli airstrikes have already demolished entire neighborhoods, killing more than 1,500 Palestinians, including 500 children and 276 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Civilians seeking safety have crowded into U.N.-run schools as Israel has laid siege to the territory, barring the entry of food, fuel, water and medicine.
Gaza’s sole power station ran out of fuel Wednesday, plunging the territory into darkness.
The last four Gaza wars brought similar death and devastation but lasted just days or weeks, with international pressure and mediators cajoling the two sides into shaky cease-fires. It will likely take much longer this time around, but the same outcome could be inescapable.
“The idea is, go into Gaza, destroy Hamas, make sure this can never happen again. And there’s no way to do that without incredible civilian casualties within Gaza,” said H.A. Hellyer, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based defense think tank.
“Strategically, security-wise, it does not solve the issue of Gaza. It does not address the underlying problem of Gaza.”
The underlying problem of Gaza, one that long predates Hamas, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Even if Israel manages to defeat Hamas — whatever that looks like — roughly 7.5 million Jews and a similar number of Palestinians would still find themselves living in close proximity in Israel and the territories it controls, with most of the Palestinians living under military occupation.
There have been no peace talks in over a decade, and any remaining hope for a two-state solution is even more distant now. Several major human rights groups say Israel’s control over the Palestinians amounts to apartheid, an allegation Israel rejects as an attack on its legitimacy.
Palestinians, scarred by their exodus during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out, are determined to remain in the Holy Land. Neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel decades ago, are staunchly opposed to resettling them.
As recently as last Friday, the mass deportation of Palestinians, an idea long embraced by Israel’s far right, was unimaginable — as was a full-scale invasion by Hamas.
Now it appears all bets are off.
“Israel can make sure that no one lives in Gaza, if that’s what it takes,” said Eiland, the former head of the National Security Council. “If there is no way to make sure there is a reliable regime there, whatever it is after that, then there will be no one left there.”
Associated Press writers Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.