New York, Oct 29: For Israel, which has launched the second phase of its war, invading Gaza could become an adventure – or misadventure – like riding a tiger: the difficult part would be dismounting it.
Announcing the second phase - a ground invasion - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged on Saturday, "It will be long and difficult".
Israel could quickly take over the territory if it wanted to, in a no-holds-barred, international opinion-be-damned operation.
Even if it were to finesse the invasion in face of international criticism, Israel would still face the question of what to do with the nearly ungovernable territory from where it had withdrawn in 2005 only to see it fall into the hands of Hamas which launched a deadly attack on Israel.
Netanyahu has set two goals for the war: "To eliminate Hamas by destroying its military and governing abilities, and to do everything possible to bring our captives home".
But he has not said what would happen after that. And there is no clarity on what would be the metric for reaching the first goal either.
Asked by reporters what would constitute destroying Hamas' capability, an IDF spokesperson, Richard Hecht, left it hanging in the air. “I don’t think I have the capability right now to answer that one,” he said.
The two US invasions this century have daunting lessons on the failure of occupation: in Afghanistan it returned the country to the Taliban it had come to oust, and in Iraq it left behind chaos. (One could even go back to Vietnam.)
A Gallup poll of Palestinians conducted just before the 7/10 Hamas attack illustrates the difficulty that Israel would face in governing Gaza.
The poll found that 72 per cent of them don't support a two-state solution, which would imply that they are against the existence of Israel, and 81 per cent don't believe that permanent peace is possible.
A look at history will be a lesson in the ungovernability of Gaza.
Israel captured Gaza from Egypt in the 1948 Arab-Israel War, but gave it up as unmanageable.
Egypt did not try to fully integrate it into itself and tried various ways of governing it till the 1967 war when Israel retook it. Egypt has not asked back for it.
Israel's military hero Ariel Sharon when he became prime minister withdrew from Gaza in 2005 -- a second time for Israel -- dismantling the Jewish settlements there, hoping for peace with Palestinians, after Israel had virtually given up on governing it.
Within months, Hamas won the elections in Gaza and by 2007 it had fought a civil war with Fatah, vanquishing the organisation founded by Yasser Arafat the Palestinian leader who sought to make peace with Israel after decades of fighting it.
Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is the president of the Palestine Authority which is nominally recognised as the governing body of Palestine, but effectively rules only the West Bank, from which Gaza under Hamas has virtually split, creating another barrier to a two-state solution.
Before 7/10, Gaza was already in shambles with a ruined economy propped up financially by Qatar and with an estimated 70 per cent of the population on some form of dole, including from the UN, which has about 13,000 employees working there for its relief operations known as UN Relief and Works Agency.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been tentative in their incursions into so far Gaza the threatened war to annihilate Hamas, which is not just a militant organisation but also the elected ruler of the territory, hasn’t materialised with full fury in the second phase.
A likely reason for holding off the full-scale invasion after having mobilised reservists, ordered the people of Gaza to move south and rained down bombs and missiles is the question of what comes next.
Another reason is the 200 or so hostages taken by Hamas can become human shields.
Yet another is the pressure from the US and its allies to minimise civilian casualties during the invasion.
US President Joe Biden addressed the problem on Wednesday, saying that it is “despicable” and “cowardly” that "Hamas is hiding behind Palestinian civilians” which “puts an added burden on Israel while they go after Hamas."
Having seen the impact of the images of civilians wounded by Israel's aerial attacks have had on public opinion in several countries, including in sections of the US, Biden added: "That does not lessen the need for - to operate and align with the laws of war for Israeli - it has to do everything in its power - Israel has to do everything in its power, as difficult as it is, to protect innocent civilians."
But that problem with civilians would not go away after the conquest of Gaza however well that goes, and Israel faces resistance - and likely guerrilla warfare - in a densely populated terrain.
An Israeli expert on Palestine says that Israel faces four choices, "all of them bad, and it must choose the lesser of the evils."
Writing in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Michael Milshtein, who heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, says a disastrous one advocated by Israel’s religious parties is the reoccupation of Gaza and bringing back Israeli settlements.
It was found unworkable in the past.
Another "terrible choice" is a quick, large-scale invasion that topples Hamas that is followed by a quick withdrawal, which Milshtein says would see other extremists from within and without taking over.
One of the two "lesser of the evils", he says would be to ask the Palestine Authority under Abbas that rules the West Bank to take over the Gaza administration.
But having been ousted from Gaza and finding it difficult to govern the West Bank that would bring its own set of problems.
The fourth alternative, which Milshtein says is a plan the Biden administration "is apparently discussing with Israel."
That would be modelled on the Iraq provisional government structure set up by the US after it took over the country.
It would be composed of local leaders and NGOs and the Fatah figures and would work with the Palestine Authority and have international backing and cooperation of the US and Egypt and possibly other Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu's administration telling the people of Gaza to move south in preparation for the invasion may be a signal that it wants to take over a northern part, but that could still leave Hamas dominating the southern rump.
The big risk for Israel is fighting a two-pronged war if Hezbollah joins in from Lebanon along Israel’s northern flank. Unrest in West Bank spilling over could add to the problems.
Externally, Israel and the US would have to pay a diplomatic price for the invasion.
There was writing on the wall on Friday when 120 countries voted for a resolution demanding a truce in the Israel-Hamas War that was opposed by the US and Israel and only 14 opposed it. (India abstained.)
Those voting for it even included many Western countries, including France.
A full-scale invasion would only inflame the Arab nations further and set back the progress made in Israel building relations with Arab nations, especially with Saudi Arabia, the diplomatic prize Biden is seeking.
He said that his gut feeling is that Hamas launched the attack because of the progress we were making towards regional integration for Israel and regional integration overall.
That scenario is what Iran, the nemesis of Israel and the US, wants.