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Gaza Blackout: Israel Expands Ground Operation but What Is the Endgame?

The Israelis say that the goal is to destroy Hamas. But a ground invasion won't be so easy.

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The best indicator of the worsening situation in Gaza is the fact that as of Saturday, 28 October, internet and communications have largely ceased to function. Not surprisingly, this coincides with the “new phase” in Israeli military activities – intensified aerial bombing and ground attacks at two locations in north and central Gaza.

Behind the communications blackout, it becomes difficult to assess the consequences of violence that are being unleashed.

Asked directly whether Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had targeted the telecommunications system, an Israeli military spokesman said, “We do what we have to do to secure our forces.”

For three weeks, the cables, cell towers, and internet infrastructure in Gaza had been damaged by Israeli bombing but late on Friday, 27 October, the Israeli military said it had expanded its ground operation in Gaza and this seems to have coincided with the telecom and internet blackout.

This has cut off the 2.2 million people who live there from the outside world. But for a few journalists with satellite phones, most other Palestinians are unable to communicate with relatives inside or outside the enclave.

Besides making the situation much grimmer for the people, a news blackout will result in misinformation, rumours, and propaganda having a field day.

Till now, the Gaza authorities say 7,700 people have been killed in the Israeli attacks in response to the October 7 killing of 1400 Israelis and the taking of over 200 hostages.

Meanwhile Elon Musk has said that his Starlink system would support internationally recognised aid organisations, but no one knows how many of them have Starlink terminals in Gaza or of any way to get it to them at this stage.

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What Could Israel Be Thinking?

The Israelis say that the goal of their action is to topple the Hamas government and destroy it as a military force. But the Israeli ground invasion will not be easy.

Recall that in 2016, after the Islamic State captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, it took almost nine months of hard fighting by a coalition of the United States, France, and Iraq to regain control. Kurdish intelligence sources said that tens of thousands of civilians were killed and a greater part of the city destroyed by the coalition air strikes.

Mosul with a population of more than 2.5 million is the second-largest city in Iraq.

Israel cannot be seen to do nothing given the scale of the terror attack it has faced. Having cut off food, water, and electricity supplies, the Israelis are continuing their aerial bombardment and conducting search and destroy missions by sending their task forces deep into Gaza.

Israeli officials say that the aim of their operation now is to dismantle the Hamas infrastructure, especially its tunnels, and destroy the terrorist group.

Israeli security chiefs probably know that destroying Hamas is a task beyond their reach. The organisation’s leaders and support structures are spread out in the region. What Israel should focus on is to capture or eliminate those directly responsible for the 7 October action.

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Israel Doesn't Have the Ability To Run an Occupation

The big question, and we have yet to see any clear cut answer to it, is: What happens thereafter. The Israeli aim is to use massive force to deter Hamas from ever again contemplating a terror strike on Israel. The options being spoken off are to cut off Gaza by a new demilitarised zone that will be in Gazan territory in addition to the security wall. All Israeli contact with Gaza will cease.

Another report suggests that the Israelis may be working along a strategy of encircling Gaza City first and tackling the Hamas there in a slower and more systematic campaign aimed at minimising collateral casualties.

Israel is constrained, too, by the presence of 220 or so hostages in the hands of the Hamas.

However, the big question remains. The Israelis may have a military strategy to tackle the Hamas, but they seem to clearly lack a political one. Who will run the seething, destroyed urban conglomeration with 2.5 million people after they leave?

Israel does not have the ability or desire to run a government of occupation there. As for the Palestinian Authority, they lack the credibility in Gaza and would definitely not like to be seen as being brought to power by Israel.

The Arab League or a combination of Islamic countries could step in. But they are not likely to do so unless there is a clear-cut acceptance that Israel will commit itself towards an enduring solution to the plight of the Palestinians.

Indeed, this may require wider consensus and possibly a UN Security Council mandate involving acceptance by China and Russia as well.

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But a great deal now depends on the nature of Israeli retribution. If there is evidence of wanton brutality on their part, all bets will be off. On the other hand, if the Israelis launch a targeted counter-terrorist strike against the Hamas leaders and fighters and ensures that they minimise civilian casualties, things could be different.

Terrorist movements can and have been crushed by pure repression as the example of the Sri Lankan dealing with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has shown. But the price is very high. Estimates are that anywhere up to 1,50,000 civilians may have been killed in Sri Lanka’s final LTTE campaign. Colombo is still facing questions from the United Nations on account of its conduct against the LTTE and Tamil civilians.

Most terrorist movements have been defeated by a combination of military force and political negotiation. It is in Israel’s own interest to show that cooperation, not conflict, is the way forward.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Gaza   Hamas   Blackout 

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