Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip is ramping up. After the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas spilled out of Gaza to stage a brutal attack on Israel on October 7, the enclave is now under siege. Israel has cut off the delivery of electricity, water, fuel, and food. Israeli warnings have led hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza to flee their homes, and Israeli bombs have killed thousands already. And all this ahead of a much-anticipated ground invasion that will likely lead to significant casualties on both sides. Some analysts, such as Marc Lynch in Foreign Affairs and Hussein Ibish in The New York Times, have argued that “invading Gaza will be a disaster” and that Israel “will be walking into a trap.” They could well be right. Military operations in urban terrain are notoriously difficult and deadly. And Hamas, as a social movement and not just a militant outfit, will be impossible to fully uproot.
But Israel may yet achieve its maximalist war aim of destroying Hamas’s leadership and military capacity. The Israel Defense Forces has now deployed 350,000 reservists and 170,000 active-duty personnel. Although the bulk of these forces will be allocated to the northern front facing Lebanon and the militant group Hezbollah, there will be plenty of soldiers left for operations in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas can deploy at best 15,000 fighters. The IDF has complete control over Gaza’s airspace, coastline, and land border. In order to smash Hamas, the Israeli public is prepared to tolerate high casualties in addition to the significant losses it has already incurred. And Israel has the support of essential outside players, not least the United States. It is hard to envisage more favorable conditions for the difficult campaign Israel is contemplating.
This raises a major question: What happens if Israel does manage to defeat Hamas? Although the Biden administration views a ground offensive and the blockade of Gaza as a risk to regional stability—and worries about an unfolding humanitarian disaster—the United States’ ability to alter Israel’s course at this point is limited. Israel might have narrowed its own options if it is shown to be responsible for the October 17 bombing of al-Ahli Arab hospital in northern Gaza that killed hundreds. But if the planned Israeli assault is a fait accompli, the United States and its partners must start to think carefully about a range of scenarios, including a Gaza without Hamas.
The incapacitation of the militant group will be bloody, but Hamas’s removal could provide a fleeting opportunity to bring about a new dispensation in Gaza that is better than what came before it. Whether it will have been worth the human suffering will be debated after the war. But if Israel defeats Hamas, the United States should work with regional and international powers to find a way to transfer Israeli control of Gaza to the temporary stewardship of the United Nations, backed by the strong mandate of a UN Security Council resolution. This UN mission would then help return Gaza to Palestinian control. Unless the ultimate objective is revival of the Palestinian Authority and its control of Gaza, Arab countries will be reluctant to participate in such a day-after plan. It will still be a hard sell in Israel, where distrust of the UN runs deep. But such a process would not just spare Palestinians in Gaza the prospect of an indefinite Israeli occupation and repeated rounds of destructive skirmishes—or even wars—with Israel, it would also, by restoring Palestinian Authority administration in Gaza, preserve the possibility of a two-state solution that now appears so unattainable.
Read the full piece in Foreign Affairs.