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Israel intensifies airstrikes as momentum builds for a ground offensive

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Over the weekend, Israel Defense Forces struck at targets in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria. The Israeli warplanes were deployed two weeks after Hamas militants attacked Israel from Gaza. And late Sunday, Israel said one of its soldiers was killed and three others wounded by an anti-tank missile when the IDF conducted a raid in Gaza to try and rescue more than 200 hostages. So is a ground invasion close to starting? We turn now to Brian Katulis. He's a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. It's a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to studying that region. Brian, why do you think this possible ground offensive has not started yet?

BRIAN KATULIS: I think there's a couple of reasons. The Israelis and the United States are in this tricky balancing act. They have competing priorities. Israel wants to defend itself and eliminate threats from Hamas, but they also want to get hostages home. And they also want to prevent a wider regional war. You add to it the growing humanitarian crisis where you've got millions of ordinary folks in Gaza, Palestinians, who are just in the crosshairs of this conflict, and you've got this really tricky balancing act. And I think a ground invasion, many fear, could be the spark that lights a wider regional escalation. And it could also cut off the ongoing negotiations to try to bring some of these hostages home.

MARTÍNEZ: Do you think the longer it doesn't happen might somehow calm things down?

KATULIS: It depends on how this all unfolds because Israelis are still being faced with missile strikes not only from Gaza but also from its northern border, and there's threats from Syria. So there are a group of terrorists and militants that continue to attack Israel. And even if this ground invasion is not moving forward right now, the air campaign in Gaza is unprecedented. And it's actually exacting a huge cost, not just on the Hamas terrorist organization, but on the people of Gaza. And many were forced to flee or told to flee to southern Gaza. So even the current status quo doesn't seem like it'll hold because you've got ongoing military operations across multiple borders. It could get worse, and it looks like it might get worse almost no matter what Israel decides to do on the ground invasion.

MARTÍNEZ: So going in is one thing, leaving is another. Do you have any sense what Israel's strategy and exit strategy might be if they do choose to invade?

KATULIS: Well, I think their immediate goal is, again, to eliminate a threat from Hamas and especially this vast network of underground tunnels where Hamas has rockets, ammunition and, it seems like, many of these hostages, and that's part of this. So I think one of the goals, if it goes in on a ground operation, is to eliminate a threat that only grew, I should note, grew under a decade and a half of a blockade that was intended to stop this sort of stuff.

So that's one goal. But in terms of the long-term goal, it's not clear to me that Israel has great clarity about what would come after. Who would rule Gaza, how would they prevent it from becoming a state of anarchy, as it has, you know, in previous instances? And there are echoes of the sort of debate the United States had here before the Iraq war in 2003. The question of how does this end has not really been answered with great clarity from Israel, and I think it's in part because they're still trying to get back on their feet and deal with immediate threats.

MARTÍNEZ: So a ground invasion seems like it's going to happen no matter what, right? If all the things we've talked about are indeed Israel's goal, they can't do that without a ground invasion.

KATULIS: Well, yeah. And there's a reason why they called up more than 300,000 reservists. And you see the images of artillery, tanks and others. It looks like they're poised to split Gaza in half and try to do something here. But again, the longer-term questions I think are very difficult to answer in the current fog of war and the threats that they face.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. Brian, thanks for breaking this down for us.

KATULIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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