Israeli forces carried out a second ground raid into Gaza this week, backed by fighter jets and drones, the Israel Defense Forces said on Friday. The move comes a day after Israel announced on Thursday that it had conducted an overnight military raid into northern Gaza against several militant targets in order to “prepare the battlefield.” Hours later that day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised statement that Israel is readying a ground invasion but declined to offer details around timing or the operation.
Israel’s stated goal is to wipe out Hamas as both a militant group and political force in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army has already carried out thousands of airstrikes in the densely-populated Gaza Strip that has left at least 7,000 people dead, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that left 1,400 people dead in Israel.
But experts say Israeli officials are not thinking strategically enough about long term plans for Gaza as they weigh up what is expected to be a costly ground offensive in the Strip.
“We call for the collapse of the Hamas regime, but these are slogans,” says Michael Milshtein, a professor of Palestinian affairs at Reichman University in Israel. “As Israelis, we need to really drill down and understand what are the implications of this move.”
TIME has outlined Israel’s four possible approaches to Gaza based on conversations with experts, each of which they say has their own severe challenges. “All of them are bad, there is no good alternative,” Milshtein says.
Option 1: Israel does not launch a ground offensive
Israel has dropped approximately 12,000 tons of explosives on Gaza so far and has reportedly killed multiple senior Hamas commanders, but the majority of the casualties have been women and children. Israel says it has struck hundreds of Hamas’ rocket launchers, but that many remain stored in the vast underground tunnel networks spanning hundreds of miles.
A ground offensive will result in even more deaths for both sides. Israel’s military will face a type of urban warfare that it has not seen in nine years since the last ground invasion in 2014, which spanned 50 days and left 72 Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians dead. This time, the presence of approximately 220 hostages may complicate things even further.
“The hostages are likely dispersed,” wrote Alex Plitsas for the Atlantic Council think-tank. “Given the lack of medical evacuation support or the ability to easily insert quick reaction forces to back up operators on the ground without the presence of a larger ground force, it would be difficult to conduct simultaneous clandestine rescue missions for hostages in multiple locations across Gaza.”
Experts disagree on both the likelihood of Israel launching a ground invasion and its prospect for success. Milshtein believes that Israel would become even more vulnerable to future attacks from Hamas, Iran, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah if it’s called off. “It will make Israel’s image so weak. Any player in the area will understand that from now on, you can do any kind of military move against Israel and Israel has no capability, even no willingness to respond.”
Khaled Elgindy, director of the program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the Middle East Institute, disagrees. He says that in the long run, the more violence that is inflicted on the Palestinian population, the worse Israel’s security will be because Palestinians will be more willing to support groups like Hamas. “Nobody’s thinking about the long-term repercussions of the generational trauma that is being created,” Elgindy says. “If this doesn’t end soon, we’re paving the way for another generation of more instability and violence and bloodshed.”
Option 2: Reoccupy Gaza
In this scenario, Israel would reoccupy the Gaza Strip and become responsible for governing the Palestinian territory. Israel withdrew its troops and dismantled all Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005. In 2007, Hamas won elections in Gaza, which Israel declared to be a hostile entity. Together with Egypt, both countries instituted a blockade of Gaza in 2007, severely restricting imports and preventing virtually all Gazans from traveling in and out of the Strip.
Milshtein says this would be among the worst possible options for Israel. U.S. President Joe Biden has also warned in an interview on 60 Minutes that “it would be a mistake” for Israel to reoccupy the territory, exposing Israeli troops to violent resistance.
Ongoing airstrikes have hardened Palestinian attitudes to Israel in ways that could further complicate a prolonged occupation. “There’s nobody in Gaza who is blaming Hamas for Israel bombing their apartment building. They’re not blaming Hamas for that. They’re blaming the people who pulled the trigger—Israel,” Elgindy says.
Option 3: Eliminate Hamas and leave Gaza
In this scenario, Israel would seek to destroy Hamas but refrain from getting involved with the messy business of governing Gaza. Milshtein warns that in this situation, the Strip could easily devolve into even further chaos and violent conflict as different groups vie to fill the power vacuum caused by Hamas’ absence.
“It could look like the new order America tried to establish in Iraq after the fall of the Ba’ath regime in 2003,” Milshtein says. He says that many of these groups—like Islamic Jihad—will likely be even more extreme than Hamas, which despite engaging in brutal violence against civilians, has expressed support for a two state solution along 1967 borders in its 2017 charter. “You might find militant groups from North Africa, Syria, and Iraq. It would be like a little Mogadishu on the border of Israel.”
But there are major doubts as to whether Israel would be capable of even destroying Hamas. Hamas claims to have built over 300 miles of underground tunnels and urban warfare in the densely-populated Strip would pose major military challenges.
Hamas is also more popular than ever, says Elgindy. Even if Israel militarily destroys much of Hamas’ infrastructure, the group’s ideology will likely live on. Following Israel’s airstrikes, Elgindy adds, “There’s no question that Hamas has gained public support in both Gaza and the West Bank.”
Option 4: Bring in a new player to rule Gaza
In this situation, Israel may seek other local factions within Gaza and try to partner with them to create a new ruling party. “It could mean heads of tribes, NGOs, or mayors, or even senior figures in Fatah, the political party that controls the Palestinian Authority,” Milshtein says.
Anas Iqtait, who teaches political economy of the Middle East at Australia National University, says that if this does happen, Israel would be likely to involve the Palestinian Authority.
“I don’t think it’s viable for Israel to completely remove Hamas from power in Gaza, but if they do, then the Palestinian Authority would be the most suitable or the most logical option based on what we have seen in the past,” Iqtait says.
The Palestinian Authority administered Gaza before losing elections in 2006. Violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah led to the Palestinian Authority’s complete retreat from the Gaza Strip in 2007. The enclave has been ruled by Hamas ever since.
But Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have become extremely unpopular among Palestinians in recent years. In the occupied West Bank, which falls under the PA’s leadership, Palestinians increasingly see them as subcontractors of Israel’s military occupation. “If they are seen as corrupt political and business elites without any political vision, then many people will be drawn and driven and supportive of the alternative narrative that provides legitimacy towards resisting the occupation through other means,” Iqtait says.