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The Former Head of the Mossad Evaluates the Risks—and Rewards—of Israel's Gaza Invasion

Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

There are many abstract reasons for anxiety about an invasion of Gaza. Hamas is extremely fragile—and the presence of Israeli troops in the streets and alleyways of the strip could trigger its collapse. This would leave Israel in charge of a lawless territory, with Hamas’s radical rivals jockeying for power. We have, after all, just witnessed ISIS conquer vast territory in nearby countries. Fortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems aware of this peril and has shrewdly calibrated this invasion to leave Hamas in place.

Here’s the situation as Israel sees it: Ten days after Israel began “Protective Edge,” there’s wide support for the operation, almost unprecedented. The Iron Dome has performed beyond expectation. And one of the best gauges for pubic opinion, the stock market, has remained steady.

One of the risks for Israel is that an operation would provoke the ire of the international community. But this hasn’t happened. World leaders have largely supported Israel, as well as the Egyptian initiative to craft an unconditional ceasefire.    

Even Arab public opinion has been surprisingly mute. Of course, there’s much displeasure with the loss of life and the massive destruction of Gaza. But this unhappiness hasn’t translated into street protest. Israeli Arabs have remained similarly quiet. All this can change with continued hostilities, especially if civilians suffer greater loss of life.  But for the moment, quiet has prevailed.

Finally, it must be said that Netanyahu has enhanced his stature with his handling of the conflict. He has taken a balanced and relatively restrained approach, resisting the rush to full-scale invasion, despite his political allies accusing him of excessive caution.  

There remain, however, very real risks to this operation. The Egyptian failure to craft a cease-fire shows that Hamas won’t be quickly cowed into submission. On the contrary, Hamas has taken an intransigent negotiating position that has enhanced its prestige, helping it recover from the nadir it has experienced the past couple of years.

Hamas has maintained its prestige because Israel has failed to exact a devastating blow against it. Israeli defensive measures have won the day, but its offensive air attacks have only wreaked havoc in the public domain—all the civilian fatalities and the immense deprivation. But Hamas’s military force, including its command echelons, appears to be intact. Israel, meanwhile, has been perceived as frantically avoiding a ground encounter. Netanyahu’s critics in his own cabinet have cast him, wrongly, as a hesitating coward. And Hamas propaganda has quoted from this criticism.

In short, Hamas felt it had the upper hand and could dictate the terms of the next ceasefire. The only way to change this calculus was a ground operation aimed at destruction of the vast underground tunnel system. Israel must achieve resounding success in this new phase of combat—both to change the present mindset of Hamas and, of course, to maintain national support for the government's policies. This will entail a campaign lasting several days—though it is conceivable that it could extend beyond that. Israel has a good chance to achieve its aims: a more restrained Hamas and the reintroduction of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, at least policing and controlling the southern gateway to Egypt.

But there’s also some risk that this phase of the operation—an incursion into a small agricultural swath of Gaza—fails. And if it does fail, then a more treacherous scenario looms: an operation that will entail urban warfare in Gazan steets. That mission would have a much more robust agenda. Its proponents talk about the demilitarization of Hamas. What they mean by this is unclear. But any attempt to forcefully strip Hamas of its weaponry would entail untold risks and consequences.