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What Military Experts Say to Look Out for in an Israel-Hamas War

7 minute read

Israel has amassed 100,000 troops as well as a number of tanks on the border to Gaza as part of a likely build-up for an anticipated land attack on Gaza. The army is mobilizing a total of 360,000 reservists, even as airstrikes have hammered the Gaza Strip in the days following the Palestinian militant group Hamas’s surprise attack that killed more than 900 Israelis.

Read More: A Surprise Attack Upends Israel and the Middle East

Israelis and Palestinians alike are now anticipating what just a few days ago seemed almost unimaginable: a large-scale Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Oct. 10 that Israel is moving to a “full offense” and will attack Hamas without restraint or compromise. Israel has declared war on Hamas, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has vowed that the Israeli military will use all its might to “destroy Hamas military capabilities.”

Here’s what to expect from Israel’s war against Hamas and the consequences it will have on Israel, Gaza, and the region:

A long, ground operation is likely

The Israeli government has not yet announced what will follow the Israel Defense Forces’s total blockade of Gaza and the bombardment of more than 1,300 targets in the sealed-off Palestinian territory. But according to experts, a ground invasion seems increasingly likely.

The Israeli Security Cabinet announced on Oct. 8 that the goal of Israel’s military operation “is to achieve the destruction of the military and governing capabilities of Hamas.”

For Israel to land a decisive blow on Hamas, air strikes alone will not be enough, military experts say. “If you look at the objectives, they can only be achieved through a ground maneuver,” says Yaakov Lappin, an Israel-based military analyst. 

Read More: What an Israeli Ground Invasion Would Mean for Gaza

“The initial picture that I believe is forming is one of an extensive ground operation that will involve large numbers of infantry, armored artillery units, close cooperation with the Air Force, intense urban warfare, and searching out Hamas leaders and operatives until most of Hamas’s military is dead,” says Lappin. 

While it is too early to know how long Israel’s military response will last, experts believe that extensive military operations will last into the weeks and months ahead.

Difficult fighting ahead

An attack of the scale that seems likely would be the most extensive Israeli ground operation since at least the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, says Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If Israeli troops do get sent in, they face an adversary in Hamas that knows the terrain and has a track record of hiding behind the civilian population, making military action more difficult. “Gaza is particularly challenging and you’ve had an adversary who has probably spent the last decade and a half since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip preparing for such a moment,” says Eisenstadt.

Complicating efforts further is the elaborate web of tunnels Hamas has built that crisscross Gaza, says Daphné Richemond-Barak, assistant professor and counterterrorism expert at Reichman University in Israel. These provide Hamas with a mode of subterranean transport, a place to hide, and a covert means of communication that are not easily disrupted by Israeli military action. “It neutralizes or diminishes the asymmetry between Hamas and Israel,” says Richemond-Barak.  

Despite these challenges, Israel’s military capabilities far outstrip those of Hamas. It should be able to seriously weaken Hamas, experts say. The important question is how many many lives this will cost on both sides.

Hostages will complicate the conflict

Even as President Netanyahu has promised that “every place from which Hamas operates will turn into ruins,” the hostages that Hamas has already taken may complicate Israel’s aims of a swift and decisive response. Hamas fighters are holding dozens of captives and have already threatened to kill civilian hostages if Israel hits civilians in Gaza.

So far, however, there is little sign that Hamas’s threats will slow Israel’s response. Netanyahu’s far-right partners in government have called for the Israeli army to prioritize an overwhelming response over the captives. Even as Israelis worry about captured loved ones, there appears to be little appetite among leaders to negotiate a deal, which could involve freeing thousands of imprisoned Palestinians, with the group responsible for so much bloodshed.

“It’s a secondary consideration,” says Efraim Inbar, President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “I don’t think we will give in to the blackmail of Hamas.”

That could still change as the conflict drags on. In 2011, Israel exchanged more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a single captive Israeli soldier. Both Qatar and Egypt are reportedly holding talks with Hamas and Israel in the hopes of arranging a possible prisoner swap. But so far, Israeli officials have denied any involvement in negotiating an exchange of captives.

Hamas may also decide to use the hostages as human shields, spreading them out across key military locations in an attempt to protect Hamas strongholds from Israeli strikes, warns Richemond-Barak.

Read More: Biden Faces Hard Choices on American Hostages in Gaza

Israel’s government will have to weigh the political costs of the potential loss of hostages up against the risk of setting a precedent by allowing the enemy’s taking of hostages to get in the way of a military response, says Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on warfare in the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “By not reacting, you may see a lot more hostages taken in the future.”

How heavily will Hezbollah get involved?

Israel Defense Forces and various militants in Lebanon exchanged strikes across Israel’s northern border on Tuesday, raising fears in Israel that Hamas’s ally, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, may get more directly involved in the conflict by opening a second front in the Galilee and Golan Heights. Hezbollah is far better armed than Hamas, and the exchanges along the northern border risk escalating the Israel-Hamas conflict into a regional war.

“There is this kind of incremental ratcheting up by Hezbollah, activities that both test Israel’s responses and also tie down Israeli forces in the north so that there are less forces available to operate in Gaza,” says Eisenstadt.

So far, Hezbollah’s actions seem aimed at demonstrating solidarity with Hamas while avoiding an all-out conflict with Israel, some experts believe. But as Palestinian casualties inevitably continue to grow, the group may face increasing pressure to do more to prove their support to the Palestinian people.

“In this region you never know. It could happen in a blink,” says Richemond-Barak. “I really think that this will determine the impact of the conflict on the rest of the world.”

What happens after war?

As the war looks set to intensify, there is little consensus about who will control Gaza if Hamas’s political and military wings are destroyed, which the Israeli government hopes to do. The group has ruled Gaza since 2007, and some experts worry that the destruction to come may radicalize a new generation of Gazans.

Read More: Five Lessons for the U.S. and the World From the Hamas Invasion of Israel

“The unfortunate problem is if you are too thorough in destroying Hamas, you may create a worse successor,” says Cordesman. Some experts speculate that Gaza may be placed under Israeli military administration or that Israel will launch extensive military operations every few years to weaken future iterations of Hamas yet again. Others hope that the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which has partial control over the West Bank, will be able to regain a foothold in the Gaza Strip.

Few experts think that Hamas can be destroyed outright.

“I have no doubt that through targeted killings and combat Israel can kill a large number of Hamas’s fighters and destroy a lot of its military capabilities,” says Eisenstadt, “but you can’t destroy an idea.”

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