There is political logic behind the Israeli government’s declaration that it will ‘wipe Hamas off the Earth’.
The Israeli public want to see Hamas destroyed once and for all, given the unprecedented mass murder it just committed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues, already under intense pressure for allowing the attack to take place (and for putting Israel in a vulnerable position by pursuing anti-democratic policies) were compelled to make big promises. Their maximalist goals reflect the stakes in their fight for political survival.
Israeli security rationale is understandable, too: eliminating your enemy, as opposed to containing them, is the surest way to prevent them from hurting you again.
Many will say there is no military solution to deep-rooted armed insurgencies and what is essentially a political conflict. And in most cases that is true.
The Sri Lankan army did defeat the Tamil Tigers in 2009, but at an enormous cost: it took Colombo 26 years to crush its resilient foe, and the death toll was estimated by the United Nations to be anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000.
That is not to suggest that the Israelis will replicate the Sri Lankans and destroy Hamas, but they certainly have the capacity to significantly downgrade its military capabilities. The question is at what price?
Victory for Israel
Israel’s generals are under no illusion that they can ‘wipe out Hamas’.
Their focus will be to damage as much as possible and ideally remove Hamas’s combat power – missiles, rockets, drones, man-portable air defence systems, and anti-tank weapons. They will also target military command centres and underground tunnels. If they destroy the majority of this infrastructure and Hamas manpower, they can declare victory.
Secondary to that objective is the release of Israeli and international hostages held by Hamas. In theory, the two goals go hand in hand, but in reality they don’t, necessarily.
The IDF must check Hamas’s warfighting capabilities before it can put itself in a position to free the hostages. And so long as Hamas has guns, it will be able to make a rescue hazardous.
Israeli specialized units trained in urban warfare, backed by conventional troops and close air support, will systematically go from door to door to try to eliminate Hamas leaders and possibly capture some to force a swap.
Victory for Hamas
Many things could go wrong for Israel. Casualty tolerance among the ranks of the IDF, and the Israeli public, will be key.
Although most of the public is behind a ground offensive, public opinion will shift – and thus, influence the flow of operations against Hamas – if many Israeli soldiers return to their loved ones in body bags.
That is something Hamas will surely exploit. The group will not go down without a vicious fight. In fact, they have planned for it, preparing for a ground incursion over several years with the help of Iran and Hezbollah.
Hamas’s senior leaders are not necessarily bluffing when they say that their dream scenario is an Israeli invasion of Gaza. Their plan, just like Hezbollah’s in its 34-day war with Israel in southern Lebanon in 2006, is to trap, bleed, and break the morale of the Israelis. For them, mere survival or the denial of Israel’s objectives constitutes victory.
There is also an inherent tension in Israel’s military approach. On the one hand, the IDF must go hard against Hamas to deny it more opportunities to kill and hurt Israelis and to possibly restore deterrence, which has taken a huge hit.
But it also has to exercise caution: indiscriminate and heavy bombing of Hamas targets could very easily kill hostages or lead to them being executed by their Hamas captors.
If bombing creates increasingly large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties it could also weaken the support of key allies like the US and will certainly feed anti-Israel feeling in the region.
Crushing Hamas militarily also assumes that Israel has perfect intelligence on Hamas’s locations and capabilities.
But the Hamas attacks of 7 October constitute the worst intelligence failure in Israel’s history, so confidence in Israel’s ability to analyse its enemy’s capabilities and intentions is understandably not very high.