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Israel’s allies fear it could be walking into a trap in Gaza as Hamas and its backers seek a wider conflict

Analysis by Sam Kiley, Senior International Correspondent, CNN

London (CNN) — As they watch airstrikes and hot-barreled howitzers pound targets in Gaza, check and recheck their personal weapons, communications and webbing, there can be very few among the thousands of Israeli soldiers poised for combat who don’t quietly wonder: “Is this a trap?”

Hamas, and its backers in Tehran, would have certainly planned to meet a fierce Israeli ground offensive after the terrorizing infiltration of Israel.

It’s possible – even probable – that the singular horrors inflicted on so many civilians were intended by Hamas to guarantee a massive Israeli response, no matter the cost to civilians in Gaza.

Israel’s next moves will determine the shape of things to come – perhaps for decades. It all comes down to Gaza.

Hamas has riddled the Strip with networks of tunnels. It will have laced the landscape above ground with booby traps, and will have plans to meet the IDF with anything from swarms of suicide bombers to snatch teams to take soldiers hostage.

US generals and other officials have been sharing their experiences of urban warfare on a large scale with Israel.

It took Iraq’s military – backed by American, British and other special forces along with relentless air strikes – nine months to drive ISIS out of Mosul in 2017.

The northern Iraqi city was largely emptied of civilians but fighting was house to house. ISIS used tunnel systems it had built to ambush government troops who painfully took Mosul brick by bloody brick.

The bomb-making skills of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and close ally of Hamas, have metastasized across the Middle East. In Gaza, Israeli troops will know they face improvised explosive devices built with charges that can cripple a tank. They’ll know that Hezbollah’s abilities to destroy armor will have been further refined since Israel last did serious battle in Lebanon in 2006 and was shocked by the sophistication of the militia.

Hamas now has anti-aircraft capabilities – Israel’s Apache helicopters providing close support to infantry will be vulnerable to one man with a SAM (surface to air missile).

No doubt Hamas also has crews of propagandists ready to make “kill videos” of their attacks on Israeli troops. Nothing is more likely to inflame, or radicalize, angry young men than films of gore and daring – ISIS taught us that.

Phase two

It’s safe to assume that Hamas would have planned for widespread carnage in Gaza. Indeed that may be the objective of phase two after the October 7 attacks.

“Any miscalculation in continuing genocide and forced displacement can have serious and bitter consequences, both in the region and for the warmongers,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on Sunday.

His words aren’t meant as analysis – they’re a threat.

The White House knows this. A trap sprung against Israel could have wide and dangerous consequences leading to the sort of “Clash of Civilizations” that followed 9/11.

A major concern for President Joe Biden will be the welfare of US hostages in Gaza and for the other 200-plus souls held by Hamas and other groups in the enclave.

But since the weekend, CNN’s own sources in Washington have reflected concerns that a large-scale Israeli ground operation risks igniting a conflagration that could burn out of control – of the sort that took hold in Iraq after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has, for many years, drawn a straight line between Hamas and the so-called Islamic State.  He already sees the Israel-Hamas conflict as a clash of civilizations.

“Hamas are the new Nazis. They are the new ISIS and we have to fight them together just as the world, the civilized world, united to fight the Nazis and united to fight ISIS,” he said at a press conference during the visit of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this week.

Hamas’ latest atrocities were a Grand Guignol of horror, but the militant movement isn’t ISIS. Hamas has in fact worked hard, and violently, to snuff out ISIS elements in Gaza who represented a form of political Islam that it deeply opposed.

Hamas does hope to establish a Palestinian state based on the teachings of Islam. But it has no pretentions to a caliphate. Crucially it also has no history of attacks outside Israel and the Palestinian territories, nor has it harnessed the internet into worldwide attempts at radicalization.

But Hamas is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. World leaders have recoiled from its latest atrocities and have been vocal in supporting Israel.

“The struggle [against terror groups] must be without mercy,” said French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday in Israel.

But he added a caveat that, arguably, is rooted as much in realpolitik as it is in ethics: An effort to avoid getting the West sucked into a conflict that could, or would, be seen as a war against Islam (again).

That “struggle,” he said, “must be without mercy, but not without rules.”

Some 1,400 people were killed in in Israel during the Hamas-led raids. Since then, Israeli strikes have killed more than 6,400 people in Gaza and injured a further 17,000, according to information from Hamas-controlled health authorities in Gaza and published by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah. The Israel Defense Forces say that they’re trying to minimize civilian casualties.

A state of near-total siege has been imposed on the 2.3 million population. The UN says 1.4 million people have been displaced inside the thin strip of land.

A ground operation by Israel, though, would inevitable mean these figures shoot up. On both sides.

There have been pro-Palestinian marches throughout the world protesting at the level of destruction visited already on Gaza by Israel. If a land incursion gets underway it will be much worse – and the protests more loud.

Meanwhile Israel’s enemies – all dedicated to the destruction of the state itself – have been meeting in Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah met a deputy head of Hamas, Saleh Al-Arouri, and the secretary-general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad Al-Nakhla, on Wednesday.

“An assessment was made of… what the parties of the resistance axis must do at this sensitive stage to achieve a real victory for the resistance in Gaza and Palestine and to stop the treacherous and brutal aggression against our people,” Hezbollah said in a statement afterward.

One can be sure that minders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Brigade, Tehran’s leading international military and intelligence arm, were on hand. The Quds brigade has trained, funded and guided all three groups for many years.

They’ll be looking to exploit Israel’s next moves in Gaza as their own “phase two” of the October 7 attacks.

Hezbollah has already been drawing Israeli forces away from an exclusive focus on Gaza by skirmishing along Lebanon’s southern border. The US has blamed Iran for sending Iraqi proxies to hit American logistics bases in Baghdad. The cauldron of conflict has been kept simmering with attempts by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen to fire missiles towards Israel, which were shot down by the US.

Americans and many European nationals are being told to leave many Middle Eastern countries close to Israel; even the Australians too have three planes on standby to handle evacuations.

John Kirby, the spokesman for the US National Security Council, said Monday that the administration was “watching very, very closely” for signs Iranian-backed militia groups are planning to ramp up attacks on US military forces stationed in the Middle East.

Consumed by rage

Iran may be trying to draw US Washington’s attention away from the Israeli theater – but it may also be trying to goad the US into more conflict.

That’s a conflict that the US is trying to avoid. Biden, according to CNN’s own reporting, is advising caution in talks with Israel’s PM. He has reinforced those private discussions with public counsel.

“You can’t look at what has happened here to mothers or fathers or grandparents, sons, daughters, children, even babies and not scream out for justice – justice must be done – but I caution this, while you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it,” he said. “After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. While we saw justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Those mistakes led to the US-led invasion of Iraq, a widespread belief that Islam was under attack from the West, chaos in the Middle East, the so-called Islamic State or Caliphate itself – and world-wide terror attacks.

“When President Biden warns the Israeli government not to repeat the mistakes it made in Afghanistan, he is speaking from significant lived experience. As we all know now, the US overreacted after 9/11 and lost so much of the goodwill initially generated in the immediate aftermath, whether that was in terms of the ‘war of choice in Iraq’ and its aftermath or the expansion of the war in Afghanistan,” said Karin von Hippel, director of the Royal United Services Institute and a former adviser to the US military on combating terrorism.

That’s the conventional wisdom.

Martin Sherman, head of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies and a long-time advocate of a harder line against his country’s regional rivals or enemies, disagrees.

He believes that Israel should go into Gaza, and hard.

“I don’t think that the Arabs will ever really come to terms with Israel… the minimum that Israel can strive for is to be greatly feared and the best it can hope for is to be grudgingly accepted,” he said.

The IDF soldiers poised in their mustering points for what may be a major battle in Gaza might also wonder if, years from now, their sons may be back there again, striking out to be “greatly feared.”

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