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Ahron Bregman: “The question is whether Israel actually wants to topple Hamas”

The Middle East security scholar on the imminent ground invasion of Gaza.

By Katie Stallard

On 7 October Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip launched a devastating attack on southern Israel, overrunning military outposts and killing more than 1,300 people, including women, children and even babies in Israeli towns and villages. As many as 150 civilians and soldiers were kidnapped and taken to Gaza as hostages. In response, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his country was at war and called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, as the Israeli military began bombing the Gaza Strip ahead of an expected ground invasion.

During the first six days of the conflict, the Israeli Air Force said it had dropped about 6,000 bombs on Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated areas and home to around 2.2 million people who have already endured a 16-year blockade. The United Nations has warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe, with the territory’s only power station already forced to shut down, and food, fuel and water running out. More than 1,500 Palestinians have been killed, including 500 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry, which warned that its health system had “begun to collapse”. On 12 October, the Israeli military urged the roughly 1.1 million people who live in northern Gaza, including those sheltering in hospitals and schools, to evacuate further south within 24 hours, despite warnings from the UN that this would be “impossible” to carry out without “devastating humanitarian consequences”.

Meanwhile, fears of a wider conflict are intensifying, with Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, travelling to Lebanon on 12 October, where he warned that the “opening of other fronts is a real possibility”. Three Israeli soldiers were killed and five wounded in skirmishes with Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants near the Lebanese border earlier this week. Syrian state media said Israeli jets had bombed airports in Damascus and Aleppo on 12 October, as the US secretary of state Antony Blinken travelled to Tel Aviv and Jordan to reaffirm US support for Israel. He was expected to fly on to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in what the State Department has described as an effort to “prevent the conflict from spreading”. A US carrier strike group has been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean, while the UK has sent maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft to the region to “reinforce regional stability and prevent escalation”.

As Israeli troops massed outside Gaza, I corresponded by email with Ahron Bregman, the author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories and Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, among other books, and a senior teaching fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Bregman also served in the Israeli army for six years, including during the 1982 Lebanon War, where he reached the rank of Major. We discussed what to expect from the coming ground offensive, the endgame for Israel, and the risks of a major regional war.

[See also: Israel has magnified the US’s political dysfunction]

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Could I start by asking where you were when you heard the news of the 7 October Hamas attacks, and your own response to the gravity, and sheer barbarity, of what was happening? 

I was at home in the UK, when my 92-year-old mother, who lives in Israel, phoned me to ask, “Where are our soldiers? Where is the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]?” I had no idea what she was talking about. It took me some time to realise that thousands of Israelis, residents of villages living close to the Gaza Strip, are under massive attack, screaming and begging for help, mainly on social media, calling for IDF troops to come rescue them. It took the military hours to get to them, much too long. This is a most shocking event. To see Palestinian gunmen walking freely inside Israeli residential areas, smoking, joking, dragging women and children and shooting them in cold blood, are horrific sights. This is the highest level on the scale of evil.

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The attack coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel fought against an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria. How would you compare the two events? 

This massacre coincides with the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, where Israel was caught totally by surprise and off guard. It was very traumatic! In fact, this new trauma is far worse than the Yom Kippur War. In 1973, despite the failures during the opening phase of the war, the IDF, once fully mobilised, managed to hit hard at the Egyptian and Syrian invaders. The war was also far away from home – in the Sinai desert and on the Golan Heights [to the north-east]. By contrast, the Hamas attack took place on Israeli soil; the last time the enemy managed to enter Israeli villages was back in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The trauma caused by Hamas’s senseless and brutal attack on innocent civilians in southern Israel in October 2023 is likely to remain in the Israeli psyche for at least as long as the Yom Kippur trauma. 

From the preparations we have seen, do you expect Israel to launch a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip? And what should we expect in terms of the scope and scale of the coming conflict?  

A ground attack on the Gaza Strip is inevitable. No government could afford to lose more than 1,200 citizens in a single day and not hit back, and hard. The ground attack on Gaza is also imminent. One can see the Israelis assembling their forces: tanks, troops and other equipment are all on the move, concentrating close to the northern sector of the Gaza Strip. In fact, we can say that the war has already started as the Israeli Air Force is pounding the strip with massive bombs. The IDF is expected to penetrate deep into the Gaza Strip, destroy assets of Hamas, and deal a deadly blow to the organisation and its leaders.

Is it clear to you what the goal of a ground offensive would be, and whether this is likely to be achievable? 

The endgame is not entirely clear. The Israeli ministers and military leaders are talking in terms of “wiping Hamas off the face of the Earth” or “uprooting Hamas”. The key question is whether the Israelis actually want to topple Hamas. Doing so could be counterproductive if Israel doesn’t hand over the keys to someone else who could rule the place. If Israel topples Hamas and stays on to run the place from where they withdrew back in 2005, they will face 2.2 million hostile Palestinians.

How might the presence of so many Israeli hostages in Gaza affect the planning for such an offensive? 

It complicates matters, as the last thing the Israelis want is to kill their own people. The IDF will work hard to gain intelligence to help them pinpoint where the hostages are being kept; I believe the captives are not held in one place. I also think that, even during the fighting itself, we will see efforts by other states such as Germany, Egypt, perhaps also Qatar, to try to secure the release of at least the children and women from Hamas’s captivity.

Drawing on the lessons of Israel’s past wars, what should we understand about what is likely to happen next?

This war will be cruel. There will be many casualties on both sides, and parts of the Gaza Strip will resemble Dresden [in the Second World War]. But in the end, at some point in the far future, the parties, Israelis and Palestinians, will have to sit together and come up with a way to divide this tiny piece of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and try to live, side by side, in peace. But this will take time. There is a time for war and a time for peace. Now, for the Israelis, it is time for war.

Do you see a risk of a wider regional conflict? 

The million-dollar question is whether Hezbollah will interfere in this war, and as yet there is no clear answer. We have seen a few clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in recent days along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The Americans, who are working very closely with the Israelis, will urge them to concentrate on the Gaza front. The US has dispatched its most sophisticated aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford Strike Group, to the eastern Mediterranean in the hope that this will deter Iran, and its proxy Hezbollah, from joining the war. But, in the Middle East, miscalculations often trigger wars, and a miscalculation here could lead to direct conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

If Hezbollah does join the war, then it’s likely that Israel will shift its focus from Gaza to the Lebanese front, putting the war in Gaza on a temporary hold. The Israelis don’t like to fight simultaneously on two fronts. A war between Israel and Hezbollah would, in fact, be a war between Israel and Lebanon, as Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. Such a war would be devastating for both Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah has an arsenal of more than 150,000 missiles and rockets, which can reach the entire territory of Israel. If Hezbollah attacks, Israel will hit Lebanon from the air and sea, destroying roads, bridges, petrol stations, electrical grids. It is also likely that Israel will land ground forces in southern Lebanon, probably around the Litani River, and then move south towards Israel clearing everything in their way. It will be a big, devastating war.   

[See also: This is no time for politics, says Israeli hostages’ daughter]

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