Problems with Gaza are back yet again, instigated yet again by Hamas. In 2008, 2012, and 2014, Israel responded by “mowing the grass”: applying enough force to get Hamas to stop for a time, but not completely uprooting it. The grass mowing concept inherently promises no more than a temporary fix, not a real long-term solution. But it became a long-term answer because there was apparently no better one. Should something different be done this time?
Perhaps the most obvious alternative is to “pull up the grass and replant”: to mount a full-scale invasion, occupy all of Gaza, destroy the Hamas regime, and set up new arrangements more likely to achieve security and stability in the long run. Let’s explore this option, consider how it might work, and look at different variations. What are the costs of pulling up the grass and what risks does it entail?
Despite overwhelming Israeli military superiority, the invasion and conquest of Gaza will not be a cake walk. Israel military planners know this. They have surely learned much from previous encounters and would not make the mistake of underestimating Hamas. The Israeli war plan would likely include a campaign of aerial bombardment, artillery barrages, and naval gunfire. Cyber warfare, drones, robots, and amphibious landings would all be part of the invasion plan. The main attack would feature armored thrusts and combined arms operations. Major parts of the Israeli war effort would be focused on close-in urban fighting and underground tunnel battles. Special units would also need to be assigned to track down and capture all major Hamas leaders. The goal is to not let them escape to fight another day. Speed is important. Israel would hope to finish the open fighting phase of the war within two weeks, but it could take longer. The whole operation would have to be done with at least the passive cooperation of the Egyptian military in cutting off possible reinforcement and resupply of Hamas from the crossings the Egypt control.
A successful invasion would not necessarily wrap up hostilities. At some point Hamas could switch to a guerrilla style of warfare with terror attacks, IEDs, suicide bombings, and small group assaults on vulnerable targets. It must be assumed that Hamas has prepared for invasion and has a few nasty surprises in store and plans for long-term resistance.
Not only must Israel figure out how to mount the invasion and win the guerrilla war and war of terror that follows, but it must do all this while trying to minimize civilian casualties. This will not be easy. Israel explicitly tries to spare non-combatants, but Hamas does little to protect them. The Hamas ideology of martyrdom glorifies the sacrifice of its own people as necessary for its cause. Hamas has made meager to non-existent civil defense preparations. In wars past, it has deliberately launched missiles near hospitals, stored bombs in schoolyards, and used civilians as human shields. All this portends a large body count of non-combatants. Starting from the estimate that 1,200 civilians died as collateral damage from Israeli military action in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, it is not unreasonable to project nearly 5,000 civilian deaths in Gaza from a full invasion, even with use of measures such as cell phone calls and texts warning of imminent strikes and use of “knock on the roof” munitions. Protracted combat operations could also leave portions of the populace hungry, thirsty, and vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. While the death toll would not be quite on the levels seen in Syria and Yemen, it would still be horrific. To mitigate the suffering, Israel would have on hand tents, water, food supplies, and mobile medical facilities sufficient to serve thousands of civilians.
Many brave soldiers would be killed or injured in taking Gaza. Multiplying by a factor of 4 to extrapolate from the 2014 operation Protective Edge in which Israel suffered 67 soldiers killed and 469 wounded and an additional 6 civilians killed and 87 wounded, one would estimate Israeli military personnel could suffer roughly 250 fatalities and 1,500 wounded.
As uncertain as those estimates are, losses for Hamas fighters are even harder to project. There were roughly 2,200 Gazans killed during Protective Edge. How many were truly civilians killed by Israeli military action is open to debate. Claims from 35% to 70% have been made. Some were killed by errant missile attacks launched by Hamas and its allies. Others were executed by Hamas. A soft estimate is that 1,000 Hamas fighters lost their lives from Israeli action during Protective Edge and so one might project that over 4,000 Hamas KIA (killed in action) could be anticipated in a full-out invasion.
Public Relations Efforts
The immediate human and financial costs from invading and holding Gaza are only part of the larger cost. The cost in public relations must also be factored in. Even if Israel imposes an electronic quarantine, shuts down the internet, jams electronic signals of all kinds, and declares all of Gaza off limits to journalists and diplomats before shooting begins in earnest, reports of incursions and pictures of casualties will leak out instantly. There are bound to be huge pro-Hamas demonstrations in most major European cities and in many Arab and Islamic cities around the world. There will be marches on many American campuses as well.
To partially counter this, Israel would need a public relations strategy with pre-planned activities before, during, and after military operations. In the weeks leading up to an invasion, Israel would be wise to make the case for invasion in every way it can. It should use TV ads, interviews with spokespeople, and posts over social media. It should make demands in international forums. It should go beyond asking for Hamas to stop launching kites and to stop firing missiles. It should start emphasizing the fundamental issue and start insisting on fundamental change. It should demand Hamas renounce its charter, pull out all passages calling for the destruction of Israel, and replace it with an oath of peaceful coexistence. It should also demand Hamas pledge to cease all terrorist acts and to cease all anti-Jewish propaganda. Israel must insist these changes not just be for show or just displayed with a wink and a nod for Western audiences. Instead they must be adopted formally in Arabic and broadcast to Gaza and the entire Arab world. If Hamas cannot do that, then Israel must make the case that it has to invade Gaza and destroy Hamas. Israel must insist that it should not and will not allow such a self-declared existential enemy to exist on its doorstep, that no country should be expected to live for a decade with missile attacks on its civilians and that Israel has reached the limit of its patience. The campaign should be worldwide and include Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, China, Africa, the Mideast, and the Americas. While the exact timing of armed hostilities should be a surprise, no one in the world should be unaware that Israel is demanding an end to terror, an end to war, and a new era of peace.
The public relations blitz must also be coupled with intense diplomatic preparation starting with extensive discussion with Egypt. Leaders of many other Sunni Arab nations have also lost patience with Hamas. Discreet attempts should be made to persuade them to limit their opposition to invasion to loud complaints and toothless international resolutions of concern. This should be framed as part of the quid pro quo between Israel and the Sunni Arab states and an element of the growing tacit alliance against the expansionist agenda of the Shia fundamentalists Mullahs ruling Iran and the destabilizing forces of Al Qaeda and the ISIS. The Sunni Arab states should also know they will be given some influence over the fate of Gaza post-invasion and a hand in fashioning ultimate arrangements there.
Perhaps the most serious diplomatic issue is whether the United States will go along with an invasion. It would appear to scuttle the “deal of the century” the American administration hopes to make. If Donald Trump cannot be sold to some extent on the invasion alternative, it will be unlikely to succeed and almost surely should not then be undertaken. However, assuming the US is convinced that Israel needs to invade, then it needs the US to at least continue to veto hostile UN Security Council resolutions and to continue to deliver previously agreed weapons shipments.
Israel would also need to arrive at agreement with Russia and even Assad of Syria that the Northern Front must be kept quiet. Could Russia be persuaded to guarantee that Iran will be kept under control and not be allowed to cause too much trouble in Syria and Lebanon? Can such a guarantee be relied on? From a military perspective, the most troubling concern about pulling up the grass is that Israel could find itself in two-front war that could quickly turn into a larger regional war or even escalate to World War III.
After conquering Gaza, Israel should declare it has no long term claims there. Without giving a date, Israel should also declare it will eventually withdraw. It should have a formal government authority in charge of Gaza during the transition until the withdrawal. Israel should make sure its transition rule is one that dramatically improves living standards for Gaza’s residents. It must aim to be transformative. All refugee camps should be emptied and UN agencies sent out of the country. Economic change must take place as soon as possible. The unemployed must be given jobs rebuilding houses and constructing needed infrastructure. Others could be put to work in the fishing and agricultural sectors. Schools should be reopened with new books.
Initially a large force would be needed to maintain security. Censorship and restrictions on movement would be tight at first, but would ease over time. Hamas members and allied violent fundamentalists would be kept incarcerated for a time, but a process for their rehabilitation and return to society should be devised. Projects funded and run by Arabs from Gaza and beyond should be encouraged as long as they do not foster the return of Hamas and its violent ideology.
Finally, it is critical that Israel have an exit strategy, a process for replanting the lawn. Israel has no intention of staying in Gaza forever and so the real problem is who to give it to. Who would take it, or more precisely who would take it that Israel would find acceptable?
One not entirely palatable thought is to give it to the Palestinian Authority after a six month to a year transition period. Perhaps, this could be done in the context of a revival of the US administration’s “deal of the century”. The opportunity to return to Gaza might be appealing enough to ensure Fatah keeps Judea and Samaria calm during the Gaza invasion. However, this option could devolve into a disguised way of giving Gaza back to Hamas.
Another thought is to give Gaza to Egypt and have it eventually become a semi-autonomous region under Egyptian sovereignty. This would kill the prospects of a two-state solution. It would in effect return the region to its status before the Six Day War in 1967. Arguably this would be a more valid implementation of UNSC 242 than any other alternative. However, Egypt has renounced any claim to Gaza. The populations of both Egypt and Gaza might both object. The central question is whether the Arab Palestinians of Gaza would accept being part of a viable large Arab state such as Egypt or whether their national identity as Palestinians is so baked in after 50 years that it cannot be so easily shrugged off. Being incorporated into the Egyptian state could be made more palatable if it was attached to a basket of benefits. Jared Kushner’s talk of airports, seaports, and economic development might be feasible in this context. Egypt has also talked softly about transferring some land on the Sinai Mediterranean to a Palestinian state. Would it be amenable to transferring some land to a semi-autonomous region?
A variant of this option is to have Israel develop an Arab bureaucracy and grant independence to a Palestinian state consisting of Gaza plus land donated by Egypt. Israel could also negotiate arrangements with nearby Arab countries to accept immigrants from Gaza while offering financial inducements for people to emigrate.
Mowing the grass is not acceptable as it dooms both sides to a perpetual cycle of war. Pulling up the grass, if done right, does promises a new era of peace, but it is so costly and so risky that much more thought is needed. No clear answer emerges and one can only pray for wise leaders with insight to properly consider all the factors and make a good choice. What is clear is that the more intractable and difficult Hamas becomes, the more sense it makes to pull up the grass.