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Hostages believed held in Gaza complicate ground offensive against Hamas

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israeli military officials are saying the country is now ready to, quote, "go on the offense to change the reality" within Gaza. Since Hamas militants launched a surprise attack that killed so many, Israel has mobilized more than 300,000 reservists. Here in Israel, you see them at the airport as they return, at gas stations leading to the south and to the border with the Gaza Strip. And volunteers are helping with logistics and food. But any sort of ground offensive will be complicated because Hamas has taken some 150 hostages, and they're believed to be in Gaza. The group has threatened to execute a hostage every time Israel strikes a Palestinian home without warning. So far, they haven't publicly acted on that threat. And that's where I started when I spoke with Tamir Hayman, the former head of Israeli military intelligence.

I want to start with Hamas's military wing saying they will execute hostages if the bombardment in Gaza continues. You know, with your experience, what do you do in a situation like this?

TAMIR HAYMAN: With all the pain involved, this should not interfere with the operational concept and the strategic vision of our goals in Gaza. Hamas must not get the benefit of its terror activities and the atrocities that it inflicted on the Israeli society. And presenting civilians as a human shield is another war crime, but it will not guarantee it the shield that it seeks.

FADEL: So it won't change any calculations militarily?

HAYMAN: No, it will not.

FADEL: You wrote that there are three components required to achieve Israel's goals - bringing an end to and replacing Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, the destruction of Hamas military capabilities and creating the conditions to allow the release of hostages. Is this a moment where Israel is trying to replace Hamas rule, or do you see it that way?

HAYMAN: I think we should create, design a new architecture, a new concept, and it should not be - it cannot be the concept that was failed.

FADEL: What would that look like, though? Replace it with what?

HAYMAN: Well, there can be a new architecture, which is after destroying the military capability of the military wing of Hamas, Hamas will maintain its social and religious status, OK? It's a - you can really eliminate all Hamas. Hamas is a religious, cultural, social organization. It is a military wing. The military wing can be eliminated by brute force, and this is what we are doing right now.

FADEL: You point out, though, that in the past, these operations have not eliminated the military wing. This is the fifth Gaza war. Why is this going to be different than the four times before?

HAYMAN: It is unprecedented, what we have suffered. And the retaliation will be equivalent to the suffering we have suffered. And I agree. I agree it is very difficult to eliminate totally the military capability, but we can eliminate totally the capability that were crucial to create the special capabilities of Hamas and all of the infrastructure to launch the attack on Israel.

FADEL: The intelligence failure in this moment, as this is what you did for your career, this is what you do - I mean, what led to this point that this attack was even possible?

HAYMAN: This is - this will be the main focus of the after-war investigation. And you cannot really ignore the fact that we are talking about catastrophe, total failure, disaster. There is no - there's not enough words that can describe the failure of the intelligence concept earlier and the operational response. Right now digging into that wound is harmful for focusing on our military victory that we need to achieve.

FADEL: Is Israel prepared for a multifront war? Do you see this as something that will be just with Hamas or something that you'll have to deal with on the north and beyond, a regional war?

HAYMAN: Right now, we are fully deployed, and we are ready for war in two fronts. We prefer to focus all our attention in Gaza, but if Hezbollah in the north will evoke too much violence in Israel, then our response will be as needed. We can escalate to war. I think that both sides, Israel and Hezbollah, do not want to escalate the tensions in the north to a full-scale war. In the state of Lebanon right now, it will be destructive in the manner that Hezbollah would not - could never explain that to civilians in Lebanon. So he knows that. He wants to be involved below the threshold of a full-scale escalation.

FADEL: Major General Tamir Hayman, former head of Israel's military intelligence. Thank you for taking the time.

HAYMAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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