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What's the endgame of an Israeli ground assault in Gaza?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Israeli forces are massing on the border with Gaza in preparation for what they have warned will be a ground assault. Their stated goal is to destroy Hamas on a battlefield that is one of the world's most densely populated places. So how can Israel fight Hamas without killing civilians, and what strategic advantages do both sides have? Gian Gentile is a senior historian at the RAND Corporation and a former Army officer who did two combat tours in Iraq. Gian, so if Israeli forces make a move into Gaza, what can they expect to see from Hamas?

GIAN GENTILE: I think - well, I mean, I think this is going to be - what you're going to see is a battle for the tunnels. It's hard to know exactly right now how the Israelis will launch this ground invasion, whether they come at it from multiple angles into the Gaza Strip or they do it more sequentially, where the initial - initially focus on Gaza City farther in the north. But they are going to see a group of Hamas fighters who are likely waiting for them, although it's hard to know how much of an effect that the air campaign that the Israeli Air Force has launched - how much that's degraded their command and control capabilities, logistics and those kinds of things. But I think what you're really going to see is a battle for the tunnels, because the tunnels, it seems to me, are what military theorists sometimes refer to as the center of gravity. This is a term that the Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz came up with, and he defined it as the hub of all power and movement of an enemy force. And I think for Hamas, the tunnels are key. And I think it'll be critical for the Israeli ground forces, especially once they move in, to deal with Hamas and their use of the tunnels.

MARTÍNEZ: How do they do that?

GENTILE: It's going to be tough. For example, you mentioned I did two combat tours in Iraq. The second one, I commanded a cavalry squadron in West Baghdad in 2006 where we fought - we were in the middle of a - in the Shia-Sunni civil war. We also fought Shia insurgents, Sunni insurgents, but they weren't under the ground. So it's going to be tough. It's - they're going to have to put ground forces into buildings, I think, although they're going to try to do that, I imagine, by using firepower as best they can and also as best they can to try to protect and avoid civilian casualties. But there's going to be civilian casualties.

MARTÍNEZ: Is - the last time Israel was in Gaza was 2006. What, if anything, that was learned then can apply today? Or is that - just too much time has elapsed?

GENTILE: Yeah. So the last time Israel was in Gaza was a little bit after that. The larger one was in late 2008 and then into early 2009. And that is what they referred to as Operation Cast Lead. That was a significant operation. But the number of troops that the Israelis today are marshaling along the borders of the Gaza Strip are much higher than what they put into Gaza in January of 2009. And the other important indicator of the scale of this upcoming operation is the number of reservists that the Israelis have called up today, which is somewhere around 300,000. In 2009 for their Operation Cast Lead, they called up around 30,000. So that gives you...

MARTÍNEZ: What does that tell you?

GENTILE: ...A sense of scale.

MARTÍNEZ: What does that tell you?

GENTILE: That the Israelis see this as an existential fight, I think, for their existence. I think in their view that they have to defeat Hamas. It's their stated political aim to destroy Hamas. And if they don't, they see this as a potential invitation for other actors in the region to move on them.

MARTÍNEZ: How realistic is that, though?

GENTILE: And that's also, I think - yeah, I'm sorry. Go on.

MARTÍNEZ: To destroy Hamas, how realistic is that for Israel?

GENTILE: I mean, I think they can do it. I mean, they have the will. They have the population, their own people, behind them. It's going to be a tough fight. I think that they can effectively destroy Hamas, but there's going to be a lot of hard fighting and a lot of destruction. And then the question then after they defeat Hamas is then what comes next? Do they stay? Do they pull back? And that's ultimately a policy decision for the Israeli government.

MARTÍNEZ: How far down the road do you think that would be, though?

GENTILE: I would imagine that the Israelis are looking in terms of weeks, months. That's when I think you'll start to see some hard decisions confronting the Israeli government on what to do next.

MARTÍNEZ: Gian Gentile is a senior historian at the RAND Corporation. Thank you very much.

GENTILE: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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