American officials have supported Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas while also putting pressure on Israeli leaders to proceed with caution, minimize civilian casualties and try to free hostages.
“If Washington thinks they have an ability to squeeze more hostages out in advance of a ground invasion by working with Egypt and Qatar, they will seek to do that,” said Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow and the director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for New American Security in Washington.
“Hamas would seek to let hostages out in dribs and drabs to forever delay a ground invasion,” he said. “But on the flip side, if the U.S. can use the leverage of a pending ground invasion to twist Hamas’ arm to let more people out, they’re going to try.”
U.S. and international pressure has also helped secure the arrival of aid trucks to Gaza. “Originally, part of President Biden’s visit to the region was to set up a pathway to get aid to the public in Gaza,” Lord added. “Trucks have been coming in. It’s obviously insufficient to need but it’s not nothing.”
Netanyahu must be cautious, too, because of the danger a ground invasion poses to Israel’s own troops, which could die in large numbers. “There is the risk of stepping into a very dangerous trap,” warned a former Israeli senior security official, explaining the caution.
Israeli officials also need to be cautious about committing large numbers of ground troops to Gaza when tensions with Hezbollah — another Iran-backed proxy — have escalated. Hezbollah could attack Israeli forces from Lebanon and open a northern front. “Nobody has an appetite for two fronts at this point,” the official said.
Iran-backed militias are also active in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. On Tuesday, U.S. military officials announced that two dozen American military personnel were wounded last week in a series of drone attacks at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. The attacks are believed to have been carried out by Iran-backed forces.
Privately, U.S. officials have pressed Israel to think about what comes in Gaza after Hamas. Some in Israel hope to see a multilateral administration in Gaza with reconstruction funds from Arab states. Others hope that the Palestinian Authority could govern Gaza.
But the truth is that no one knows what entities would have legitimacy in the eyes of Gazans if Hamas is destroyed. And what role, if any, regional actors would be comfortable playing. Netanyahu’s government has not yet publicly articulated a long-term plan.
“Their success is just as much going to be determined by their planning for the end game as the operational planning for the start,” Lord said.