The order is ominous and is sowing panic and confusion.
Israel’s military has told more than a million people living in the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate, to move south in the besieged enclave, as fighting between it and Hamas continues.
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Hamas has rebuffed the order, telling Palestinians that it is an Israeli psychological warfare tactic and that everyone should stay put.
Israeli bombs have been raining down on the Gaza Strip since Saturday when the Palestinian group Hamas’s paramilitary arm launched a surprise attack on Israel.
By Wednesday, Israeli land forces were moving towards the border with Gaza, amassing hardware and forces to set the board for a ground offensive on the impoverished enclave.
“We started the offensive from the air. Later on, we will also come from the ground,” Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told Israeli troops this week near Gaza.
Israel also called up 350,000 reservists who, when they all report for duty, will triple the size of Israel’s fighting force.
As the build-up is carried out, a question presents itself – what does Israel hope to gain from a ground invasion?
‘Change the equation’
The multipronged attack by the Qassam Brigades took the Israelis by surprise, which has not happened since the 1973 October War 50 years ago.
“Israel’s goal for a ground invasion is to destroy Hamas infrastructure and eliminate altogether [its] military capabilities to [ever again] launch anything that we saw on Saturday,” Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on Israel at the Chatham House think tank, told Al Jazeera.
But targeting Hamas’s military capabilities would not be enough for Israel, which would want to stamp out Hamas’s ability to govern Gaza ever again, according to Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Israel will aspire to “change the equation and to reshuffle the dynamics in a way that Hamas would not be again in a position to govern”, Goren told Al Jazeera.
But such ambition may be short-sighted.
Zoran Kusovac, a strategic analyst and consultant, said the eradication of Hamas is not just a lofty goal – but nearly impossible.
“[It’s] a complete impossibility because it’s not like you can distinguish fighters from civilians. Of course, Israeli secret services have identified many of them. But in a situation where you’re fighting, it’s very difficult,” he told Al Jazeera.
Not the first time
This is not the first time Israel has seemingly tried to exterminate Hamas through a ground invasion. It tried nearly a decade ago during its 2014 assault on Gaza.
The fact that Israel withdrew in past assaults before the mission was accomplished indicates that if it launches a ground invasion this time, it would be less about eradicating Hamas and more about showing its military might, argued Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a political risk firm focusing on the Middle East.
“Israel’s primary goal for a ground invasion would be to perform a very public demonstration of power and might that [PM Benjamin] Netanyahu might be able to present to an Israeli public that is increasingly calling for his resignation,” Hamdi told Al Jazeera.
“[Netanyahu is] very keen that before there can be any de-escalation, the public perception is restored to one that views Israel as this overwhelming power and the Palestinians as a weak power,” he added.
Such might would be demonstrated through exacting “maximum damage on the Palestinians” so that in the future, there is a high cost to any form of resistance, the analyst said.
But Hamas calling on people to ignore Israel’s evacuation order indicates that this will not be achieved without a fight, as do the continued attacks by the Qassam Brigades against Israel, Hamdi said.
“Despite [Israeli] aerial bombardment and the like and the devastating images that we’re seeing, the stubbornness of the Palestinians [persists],” Hamdi said.
“They’re continuing to resist, and the Israelis are unable to identify from where these rockets are being fired, which shows gaps in the intelligence knowledge that a ground invasion won’t necessarily solve.”
Kusovac points to a third, more extreme possible goal of Israel’s ground invasion: emptying the besieged enclave entirely.
“They would want to create a situation like the 1995 situation in Serb-occupied territories of Croatia or like the situation of last month in Nagorno-Karabakh where everybody flees,” he said.
Still, this would be difficult, Kusovac said, pointing out that in Nagorno-Karabakh, 100,000 people retreated to their motherland, Armenia, but the motherland of Palestinians in Gaza is Palestine.
“It’s the last thing that Israel wants, to have two more million Palestinians in the occupied territories or inside Israel,” he said.
Egypt has been touted as a possible refuge, but Cairo has rejected the idea, according to Egyptian security sources. It is, however, allowing humanitarian aid through its border with Gaza.
Goren argued that Israel has no appetite to reoccupy the besieged enclave.
Hamdi said the reason the Israeli state left Gaza in 2005 in the first place was because it became violent and difficult to manage after Israelis drove Palestinians from all over the occupied territory there.
“Instead of administering and managing them, they decided just to create an open-air prison and stay outside and blockade the area,” Hamdi continued, pointing out that Israel will likely prefer continuing this arrangement.
Goren said that, given the variables, the desired outcome of the ground invasion would likely be installing a unified Palestinian leadership.
If Hamas is taken out, he explained, the Palestinian Authority, which now governs the occupied West Bank, can extend its jurisdiction to include Gaza.
“Times of war eventually should lead to times of peace,” Goren said. “Even if it seems a bit far-fetched at the moment, I think that will be the goal of all sides.”
It may be too soon to form any firm theories, however, Hamdi said, “primarily because this is an unprecedented situation”.
“I think that there is still the shock now in Tel Aviv that at the time in which [the Palestinians] were supposed to be the weakest, they’ve mounted the most potent attack on Israel proper,” he said.
Source: Al Jazeera