(This paper was produced in partnership with Asbab.)
- The outcome of any war is uncertain. Thus, we cannot predict how the Israeli war launched on the Gaza Strip, following the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation launched by Hamas on October 7, will end. This position paper explores the following potential scenarios, based on the evolving dynamics of the actors:
- First scenario: Containing the conflict (present scenario): The most probable scenario for the coming weeks is that the conflict will primarily remain between the Israeli forces and Hamas in Gaza, amid regional and international pressure to avoid escalation. Israeli military operations, which include a ground invasion, will focus on weakening Hamas’ capabilities. However, the success of this operation remains uncertain. The resistance of Hamas, the complexities of urban warfare in Gaza, regional and international reactions, and pressure on the Israeli government related to the hostages’ issue are factors that will influence its outcome.
- Second scenario: Regional escalation with a proxy war (high probability): The conflict has a high probability of expanding, particularly in the next three to six months. In this scenario, the conflict will geographically expand beyond Gaza and will attract regional actors. Iran could play an important role by mobilizing its regional network of proxies to challenge Israel’s interests. The United States may launch air strikes against Iranian proxies, while countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will juggle between their security concerns and diplomatic engagements with the United States and “Israel”.
- Third scenario: Large-scale regional war (weak probability): The conflict could escalate and lead to broader instability in the Middle East if disproportionate military responses and uncalculated offensives occur. Such a scenario is more plausible in the longer term. It may include the direct participation of Iran in the war and permanent deterioration in the security environments of countries affected by the war.
- Fourth scenario: Diplomatic agreement (moderate probability): There is a small probability that international diplomatic efforts will lead to a ceasefire agreement. Global and regional powers are leading initiatives and exerting great pressure to promote negotiations. Indirect negotiations, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, may lead to agreements for the exchange of prisoners and hostages.
- Scenarios 1 to 3 show potential gradual escalation paths. The occurrence of each stage increases the likelihood of the next. Also, transiting from one scenario to the next indicates the deepening and widening of the conflict.
- In the aftermath of the Al-Aqsa Flood operation launched by Hamas on 7 October, “Israel” announced a war on Gaza, intending to “destroy” Hamas. At first, the Israeli army launched vicious air attacks on Gaza. It later started a ground operation that has not yet evolved into a full-fledged invasion. The initial plan to launch a full-scale ground invasion was faced with complications on the ground. These include the fierce resistance against the Israeli forces, the presence of 240 Israeli and foreign hostages in Gaza, and the dire humanitarian conditions, which have resulted in a shift in the global position and calling for ending the war.
- Israeli leaders are talking about a long war, that has no precedent in Gaza. Regardless of the internal Israeli debate about the military feasibility of expanding ground operations, the coordinated offensive on Gaza from the air, sea, and land is likely to continue. It has become clear that the destruction of civilian infrastructure is premeditated and aims to make at least half of the northern part of Gaza uninhabitable and force citizens to either migrate towards the south or potentially leave Gaza. This scenario could lead to the imposition of a wider buffer zone in northern Gaza.
- Considering the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the extreme measures taken by Israel in the West Bank, popular confrontations in the West Bank may increase, in parallel with the operations of Hamas and allied groups. Outside the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, Iran-allied militia groups in Syria and Iraq have been targeting American bases. Also, the Houthis in Yemen have officially declared war on Israel and tried to target southern “Israel” with drones and missiles.
- So far, Lebanese Hezbollah has adopted a conservative military approach based on skirmishes at the Lebanese-Israeli border, which are characterized by their increasing intensity. The strategy adopted by Hezbollah will most probably focus on maintaining a “distraction front” rather than opening a “war front”. Hezbollah will likely avoid a large-scale war not only because of the political and economic challenges faced by Lebanon but also to avoid direct targeting by the Americans.
- Despite the mentioned, the strategic priority of Hezbollah is to prevent “Israel” from defeating Hamas in Gaza. However, Iran will decide whether there should be a regional escalation or not. It is worth noting that, over the past years, Iran has invested in Hezbollah as part of a broad geopolitical equation through which Tehran aimed to raise the cost of targeting it militarily. Iran’s current priority is to contain the Gaza war to avoid exposing its vast military influence in the region to direct American targeting and use it instead to deter any potential attacks on its territory.
Israel seeks to achieve the following objectives:
- Inflicting strategic military damage to the resistance infrastructure in Gaza – including annihilating the tunnel network, which protects the armed groups in Gaza – as well as destroying Hamas’ military industry. Moreover, “Israel” aims to target Hamas’ political and military leaders to regain its deterrence capacities, both internally and externally.
- Establishing a new security and political system in the Gaza strip, while excluding Hamas from governance. This would enable Israel and settlers to feel safe again. Israel has no clear conception of such a system and is confused about the shape of the civilian political authority that would govern the Strip as well as the limits of the Israeli army’s role in Gaza. Finally, such plans are subject to internal, regional, and international controversy.
- Liberating hostages or killing most of them in the ongoing military operation to prevent Hamas from achieving a political victory by forcing Israel to undergo a major prisoner swap.
Hamas seeks to achieve the following objectives:
- Countering the Israeli military operation and proving that it is not possible to “eliminate Hamas”, as planned by the Israeli army. Despite the destruction of infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and the huge humanitarian cost, Hamas’ main goal is to thwart the objectives of the Israeli military operation. Such objectives include dismantling the strategic structure of the groups resisting Israel, imposing a political and security authority in Gaza that is affiliated with Tel Aviv, and displacing the civilian population.
- Protecting the gains that Hamas has achieved, in particular the retention of hostages.
- The goals of Hamas are clear, as it has already won the intelligence war on the 7th of October because of the element of surprise. This has enabled the Movement to be in a defense position, with specific goals, even though the cost is high. Meanwhile, the Israeli army desires for revenge. As such, it is facing difficulty in determining its goals, despite the superiority of its military apparatus and its destruction capacities.
- Based on these general aspects, which leave significant room for uncertainty, this position paper has developed four scenarios that outline possible escalation paths for the conflict. It also assessed the likelihood of the occurrence of each scenario, as well as its potential timeframe and impacts.
First Scenario: Containing the Conflict (Present Scenario – Very High Probability)
- This is the most probable scenario, at least for the coming three months, during which “Israel” will focus on rebuilding its military hegemony. Meanwhile, the conflict between “Israel” and Hamas will remain confined to the Gaza Strip, with no major escalation involving regional actors such as Iran, Hezbollah, or other Palestinian factions in the West Bank or Syria. The primary driving factor is the goal of “Israel”, Iran, and the United States to limit the conflict to defined borders and avoid a broader regional confrontation.
- A rapid and decisive military victory may strengthen the position of “Israel”, although such victory is unlikely because the Israeli army is facing fierce resistance and suffering from constant losses. A prolonged conflict with heavy casualties for the Israeli army will lead to internal and international pressures for a ceasefire.
- The success of the ground invasion depends on several factors, of which the extent of resistance from Hamas and the other Palestinian factions, geographical challenges related to the urban warfare in Gaza, as well as regional and international reactions. The densely populated urban landscape in Gaza, with limited open spaces, further complicates the operations of the Israeli army.
- The military operation will most probably not succeed in eliminating Hamas, despite the enormous pressure exerted on the group, and the targeting of its leadership, infrastructure, and military assets. The Movement is deeply rooted among Gazans and has demonstrated an ability to maintain a level of operational capability with its network of tunnels and fortified infrastructure. All these factors will ensure that Hamas remains a major player in Gaza, which will be characterized by its resistance capabilities despite the destruction and won’t fall under the complete control of “Israel”.
- If the ground invasion enabled “Israel” to control Gaza, this would result in wide geopolitical fluctuations. For instance, the reoccupation of “Israel” of Gaza, the ethnic cleansing, or the forced displacement of Palestinians to Sinai could result in a broader regional crisis. Egypt’s reaction to such a development will be decisive, as this will be reflected in Israel’s overall relations with the countries of the region and will interrupt the process of Arab countries’ normalization with Israel.
- Such a scenario will have strong consequences and will lead to a long-term conflict that will destabilize the region. Moreover, it will have a strong impact on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and will strengthen the status quo, which prevents any substantive progress toward a broader peace agreement or towards resolving the Palestinian issue.