Israel Questions What Might Be Next for the Gaza War


Within moments of Israel and its allies shooting down a fusillade of Iranian missiles and drones this weekend, many began wondering what the latest exchange between Israel and Iran would mean for the war in the Gaza Strip.

The Iranian attack was retaliation for what was widely believed to be an Israeli strike this month on an embassy building in Damascus that killed seven Iranian officials, including three top commanders in Iran’s armed forces. But it occurred against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, where Israel is battling Hamas, a militant group funded and armed by Iran.

Israeli military analysts were divided on whether a more direct confrontation with Iran would alter the war in Gaza, now in its sixth month. The next fulcrum in that war could hinge on whether Israel decides to pursue Hamas in the southern city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have fled amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

Some analysts argued that the implications for Gaza would depend on whether Israel responded with a major counterattack against Iran. Others contended that Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip would be unaffected.

Shlomo Brom, a retired brigadier general and a former director of the Israeli military’s strategic planning division, said that if Israel responds with substantial force to the Iranian attack, it could spark a multifront war that would compel the Israeli leadership to move its attention away from Gaza.

In the case of a significant regional conflagration, General Brom said, Israel might choose to delay its plans to invade Rafah, which Israeli officials describe as the last Hamas stronghold.

“It’s not comfortable for us to have simultaneous, high-intensity wars in multiple theaters,” General Brom added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to send ground forces into Rafah, despite international pressure to back off the operation. On Sunday, an Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that the Iranian attack would have no effect on the military’s plan to invade Rafah.

A large-scale direct confrontation with Iran could potentially bring the war in Gaza to a close, General Brom said. But for the war to end in such a way, it would require a broader cease-fire that encompassed several parties, including Israel, Iran and the Iranian-backed militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

“There’s an idea that in order to resolve a crisis, the situation first needs to become worse,” he said, explaining that an escalation followed by a comprehensive cease-fire with Iran might incline that country to push its regional proxies to stop fighting with Israel.

While the members of Israel’s war cabinet did not issue a formal statement after meeting on Sunday, a separate Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the talks, indicated that the country would respond to the Iranian assault — although there was considerable uncertainty as to when and how.

Other military experts, however, dismissed the link between the Iranian attack and the war in Gaza.

“There’s no connection at all,” said Amos Gilead, a retired major general who served in Israeli military intelligence.

General Gilead said that Israel’s army had enough resources to fight against Iran and continue to wage war against Hamas in Gaza.

Others analysts made a similar point, arguing that the resources needed to fight Iran were different from those needed in Gaza. Israel needs fighter jets and air defense systems to counter Iran, they said. In contrast, they added, the army mainly requires ground troops, drones, and attack helicopters to fight Hamas in Gaza.

“There’s no real tension between these two things,” said Giora Eiland, a retired major general and former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

Still, General Eiland said that the success of the coalition that repelled the Iranian attack, which included the United States, Britain and Jordan, could inspire Israel to take advantage of the momentum to overcome its declining status internationally by ending the war in Gaza.

Though the United States, Israel’s closest ally, has broadly supported Israel’s decision to go to war in Gaza, it has increasingly signaled its displeasure over the mounting death toll and warned against a major ground assault in Rafah. The support the United States provided Israel on Sunday in shooting down Iranian drones and missiles could give it more leverage over its Israeli counterparts.

While General Eiland said such an outcome could help Israel develop good will in the international community and contribute to reaching a solution to end the war in Gaza and skirmishes with Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia in Lebanon, he was doubtful that Mr. Netanyahu would purse such a path.

“He says he wants to achieve ‘total victory’ in Gaza and conquer Rafah, a process that could last two or three months,” he said, referring to the prime minister. “It’s clear Netanyahu has a different mind-set and priorities.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting from Jerusalem.


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