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Potential Escalation

Assessing Israel's potential scenarios in the Gaza Strip

20 October 2023

Since October 7, the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Palestine has raised numerous concerns. These include the projected duration of the conflict, the risk of additional regional parties becoming involved in the conflict, and the possibility of Israel escalating to the point of a full-scale invasion of Gaza. This is in addition to the possible impact on Tel Aviv's current policies of an Israeli emergency government tasked with managing the war. In fact, as is usual in crisis management, each of the events stated has motivating and inhibiting factors, which will be discussed in depth. 

The Extent of the War

Assuming that the current conflict persists, limited primarily to engagements between the Israeli army and Palestinians, it is possible that tensions could escalate further. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, and Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, have expressed that a resolution to the conflict is uncertain and will continue for quite some time.

In fact, Israel has one goal: to oust the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements and destabilize Hamas' rule in the Gaza Strip. To accomplish this, Israel will have to invade the Gaza Strip. To avoid major casualties among its forces during and after a potential invasion, Israel might adopt a strategy of phased military operations. The Israeli request for Gaza residents to abandon their homes and migrate to the south of the Strip or to the Egyptian border made it clear that the initial phase of the plan had already begun and that the conflict would continue for weeks if not months. However, Israel will try to shorten the war's duration for the following reasons:

1. A substantial pressure on Netanyahu and his government to shorten the war, even if Israel faced significant human losses or international condemnation as a result of the massive numbers projected to fall among the Gaza Strip's inhabitants due to the aerial bombing and ground battle.

2. Alleviating international pressure on Israel to allow food and medical supplies into the Gaza Strip, as Tel Aviv recognizes that doing so will give the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups the opportunity to extend the war.

3. Not to extend the mobilization time of the massive reserve forces that have been called up since the start of the conflict; due to the proven negative effects on the Israeli economy, which repercussions could last for years.

4. The government's concern about the impact of extending the conflict on societal groups preparing to leave Israel owing to a lack of security or an inability to integrate into society.

5. Not to jeopardize American-Israeli relations, especially since the US, despite its explicit support for Israel, refuses the intensified siege on Gaza and is attempting to reach an agreement on a humanitarian truce to deliver medical and food aid to the civilian population in Gaza.

In light of this, Israel will attempt to shorten the duration of the war by accelerating the ground invasion of northern Gaza in the hope that this will reduce the morale of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad forces, prompting them to express their willingness to cease firing rockets at Israeli cities and release Israeli prisoners without delay. For its part, Israel will demand the withdrawal of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters from the Gaza Strip in exchange for ending the war. It may also request that Gaza be placed under international control to ensure that there are no future military threats to Israel.

The Scope of the War

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians appears to have potentials for broader engagement. Since its inception, movements by Hezbollah in Lebanon and some Palestinian factions in Syria signal a possibility of opening new fronts against Israel in the north, which could result in the outbreak of a comprehensive war on multiple fronts between Israel and its Iranian-backed opponents. Furthermore, there is a serious possibility that Iran will be compelled to intervene in this war at any point.

The possibility of expanding the conflict's scope exists within a tug-of-war scenario within a formation whose sides include Iran, Hezbollah, and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements. Tehran has successfully created this structure and turned it into a pillar of its regional deterrent force against Israel and the US. A considerable amount of resources have been expended, bearing substantial economic, political, and security costs. Understanding that the weakening or collapse of one faction could herald the dismantling of this collective front, Iran is meticulous in its strategic considerations. Thus, it cannot dismiss the likelihood of Israel successfully ending the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza, whether through its own force or through an international decision.

Hence, Iran will not start a conflict with Israel for a variety of reasons, including the following:

1. Iran still retains the option of avoiding a direct confrontation with Israel by leveraging Hezbollah to open the northern front of Lebanon and Syria.

2. In terms of international law, Tehran's direct military intervention will be considered a breach of international law lacking justifiable grounds such as territorial defense or retaliation against direct aggression, unlike factions like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who argue their resistance is against occupation.

3. The presence of US naval vessels off the coast of Israel means that the US, which has pledged to protect Israel's security, can respond to any Iranian attacks on Tel Aviv. This could be done by operating anti-missile systems to shoot down Iranian missiles before they reach Israeli territory or by destroying Iranian naval vessels in the Arabian Gulf from which missile attacks against Israel could be launched.

4. In the case of Iran seeking to target American fleets, whether to prevent them from supporting Israel in the face of Lebanese Hezbollah (if it enters the war with full force) or in reprisal to American strikes on its lands and naval vessels. In this case, NATO could lead to a collective military response against Iran in accordance with the alliance's charter, which requires members to defend any member subjected to a military attack.

In light of these considerations, Tehran is still faced with three complex options:

1. To expose its allies (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) to the prospect of total annihilation of their military capabilities and the end of Hamas' rule in the Gaza Strip.

2. To force Lebanon's Hezbollah to open the northern front in order, thus alleviating pressure on the southern front.

3. To seize the initiative and immediately join in the conflict by attacking Israel and pushing Hezbollah forces to move deep into Israeli territory and fight from within, backed up by Iranian missile strikes and similar Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon and Syrian territory.

In all three cases, Iran will lose. It will either lose its deterrence tools or accelerate the complete collapse of the deterrence trio that it has constructed. This is especially the case if Israel decides to postpone its ground operations in Gaza in order to focus on confronting Hezbollah and destroying a large portion of its military capabilities, as well as attempting to undermine its legitimacy within Lebanon by holding it responsible for exposing the country to total destruction, not in defense of Lebanon, but to protect Iranian interests. 

However, The ramifications of Tehran electing to formally declare war against Israel would be particularly dire, propelling it into direct confrontation with the United States, supported by NATO. Such a trajectory would subject Iranian territories to unparalleled multidirectional assaults, amidst uncertainties concerning potential support from Russia and China. 

Iran appears to be forced to accept the loss caused by the collapse of one side of its deterrence force by allowing Hezbollah to direct limited-scale strikes against Israel. Such a tactic aims to maintain a semblance of support for its allies without instigating a full-scale confrontation. Iran hopes that international efforts to reach an agreement to transfer humanitarian aid to Gaza will result in a shift in events that will keep Hamas and the Islamic Jihad alive, preventing them from completely disappearing and limiting their military strength to a bare minimum.

The Invasion of Gaza

It is difficult to assume that Israel could willingly abandon its invasion of Gaza and dividing it into various zones to fulfill its claimed goals. The most crucial of these is the neutralization of Hamas and Islamic Jihad's armed presence. Only Israeli security considerations and international and regional pressures can reduce the size and scope of the invasion without canceling it, but Tel Aviv will insist on two things in return:

1. The uncoditional release its captives and the return of the remains of its citizens in full This is contrary to the anticipations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which likely envision a scenario involving a prisoner exchange agreement taking effect preceding any decisive military actions in Gaza.

2. Creating an international committee to oversee the demilitarization of Palestinian factions in Gaza and placing it under international supervision.

It is to be assumed that Hamas and the Islamic Jihad will strongly oppose these terms, as Israel hopes. In this case, In the face of such opposition, Israel believes it would retain a degree of legitimacy in persevering with its strategic objectives, amidst the backdrop of humanitarian crisis faced by the Palestinians in Gaza, who are suffering intensively from a shortage of food and medical services as a result of the ongoing Israeli raids.

In any case, there appears to be a close relationship between achieving a humanitarian truce and limiting the possibility of expanding the fighting fronts, as alleviating Palestinian suffering will prevent Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah from exploiting the situation to push for escalation and vice versa.

An Emergency Government 

In Israel, an emergency government was created lately with the arrival of the "National Unity" party or "State Camp" led by Benny Gantz into the coalition led by Netanyahu. The aim of this administration was defined in handling the present war, and so it differs from the national unity government formed in Israel prior to the commencement of the June War in 1967, which comprised parties from all political spectrums. Major opposition parties did not join the new government, the most important of which is Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, and so it does not reflect Israeli national consensus.

In any case, the current Israeli government's war decisions will not be influenced by traditional issues such as internal coalition party rivalry or confrontation between the opposition and the government.

There is a determination within Israeli political elites, regardless of their diversity, to support the government's endeavor to end Hamas' rule in Gaza and avenge the human, material, and psychological losses that Israel suffered in this war, and thus will provide widespread political and popular support for any escalatory decisions that this government will take during the war, postponing any talk of holding it accountable for what happened until after the war.