A STRANGE sense of trepidation lingers in the air as the crisis over Gaza intensifies. So far – at the time of writing this – an Israeli ground assault has yet to materialise, but coming it almost certainly is. 

“You see Gaza now from a distance, you will soon see it from inside. The ­command will come,” Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant told troops gathered at the Gaza border last Thursday. 

When it does come, the invasion would pit one of the world’s ­strongest ­militaries against highly motivated ­Hamas, ­Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and ­other defenders, energised after ­Hamas’s ­surprise attack on October 7, when their fighters entered Israel and killed more than 1400 people and seized more than 200 hostages.  

Yesterday, there was a glimmer of hope on the hostage front after the release of two US hostages, a mother and daughter that Hamas said were freed for “humanitarian reasons”. The hostages’ release comes amid reports of rising US pressure on Israel to put off a planned invasion of the enclave to allow time for diplomacy. 

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On another upbeat note, 20 Red ­Crescent trucks containing badly ­needed aid ­entered the Gaza Strip from Egypt through the Rafah Crossing. Aid groups, however, have described the delivery as “a drop in the ocean,” while some ­Palestinians say the opening of the ­crossing is just a PR stunt from the international community to show that it cares about Gaza.  

Both developments, however, are ­playing out against the ominous backdrop of ­Israel’s threatened ground offensive. In what is now expected to be its biggest ­military operation since the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have mustered a formidable ground assault capacity.  

For the first time in more than 40 years, the IDF’s entire armoured corps – thought to number 1000 tanks – has been mobilised, as have 360,000 reservists including a ­civil-defence force of 20,000 people.  

All of this is aimed at bolstering an ­already full-time standing army of ­roughly 170,000, although some of these troops are deployed along Israel’s ­northern ­border, to ward off a potential attack from Lebanon by the militants of Hezbollah, Hamas’s Iranian-backed allies. 

For the last two weeks, Israel has been bludgeoning Gaza and is said to have dropped more bombs in a week than the United States dropped on Afghanistan in a typical year during its long-running war there.  

High-rise apartment buildings have been toppled and entire neighbourhoods have been laid waste to, in the course of which more than 3793 Palestinians, ­mostly women and children, have ­already been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.  

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Israel says the goal of the airstrikes is to undermine Hamas fighters’ ability to defend the Gaza Strip when Israeli troops and tanks move in. But human rights activists insist they are acts of collective punishment and as such are war crimes just like those carried out by Hamas when they targeted Israeli civilians a few weeks ago. 

For invading Israeli troops, Hamas ­defenders and especially for Gaza’s ­civilian population unable to flee and with nowhere to go, the days ahead are daunting, to say the least.  

Amongst other defences, Hamas is said to have built a 300-mile network of ­tunnels long known as the “Gaza ­Metro” under the strip, in an enclave only 25 miles long and six miles wide.  

Some tunnels are said to be more than 200 feet underground and able to ­withstand bombardment from above.

Many are equipped with lights and have stockpiles of weapons and living ­facilities that would allow Hamas fighters to ­remain hidden below ground for days, if not weeks. In such an environment, even the most sophisticated drones cannot provide much information about what is happening underground. Israeli troops entering the tunnels would be ­unable to navigate by GPS or communicate by ­radio. 

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While many Israeli soldiers have ­experience of urban warfare from the West Bank, Gaza is an altogether ­different military challenge. Having faced real ­problems back in 2014 during its ­invasion of Gaza, the IDF has since ­invested ­heavily in a training base about 12 miles from the Strip, where the army built a mock Middle Eastern city to put troops through their paces.  

Constructed in 2005 and nicknamed “Baladia,” – Arabic for “township” or “city” – it replicates the narrow alleyways towering blocks and booby-trapped streets Israeli troops would face once ­inside Gaza.  

The IDF has also set up military units specialising in subterranean warfare and constructed duplicates of Hamas tunnels for training. Part of the techniques the IDF uses to hunt for Hamas tunnels in Gaza are modelled on the underground surveys conducted by the oil industry, as well as intelligence methods based on looking for spots where militants’ mobile phone signals suddenly disappear, ­according to some reports. 

“Israel has a lot of experience in ­urban warfare, but the scale in Gaza is much ­bigger,” a former Israeli company ­commander who fought in Gaza in 2014 told The Wall Street Journal in a recent

interview. “The scale of the city, the scale of their weaponry and the scale of their readiness,” the commander added. 

But even if such a massive ground ­operation were to go ahead, Israel’s post-war plan has limited options and none of them are good. The first of these would be to turn the clock back and reoccupy Gaza as Israel did from 1967 until 2005 when it withdrew.  

While this would perhaps play well with Israel’s religious far-right and ­settlers, it would doubtless mean a military mire, and an economic burden as well as a steady toll on military casualties.  

Israel could also march in and “­eliminate” Hamas and march out again, but most analysts believe this would only result in a re-galvanised resistance in Gaza that could arguably be even worse than Hamas. 

Then again, Israel might try to bring back the Palestinian Authority (PA) which governs part of the West Bank. But so discredited is the PA in the eyes of many Palestinians – who see its president Mahmoud Abbas as little more than a ­collaborator or lackey to Israel – that this too is fraught with problems.  

For these reasons, many veteran ­Middle East watchers firmly believe that ­Israel would be making a grave mistake by ­rushing headlong into Gaza with a ground offensive to destroy Hamas ­without fully weighing up the consequences. Among them is The New York Times foreign ­correspondent and columnist Thomas L Friedman.  

“If Israel goes into Gaza and takes months to kill or capture every Hamas leader and soldier but does so while ­expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank – thereby making any two-state solution there with the more moderate Palestinian Authority impossible – there will be no legitimate Palestinian or Arab League or European or UN or Nato ­coalition that will ever be prepared to go into Gaza and take it off Israel’s hands,” warns Friedman. 

Whether Israeli strategists are paying much attention to such concerns, however, is questionable. For the moment there are other much more immediate challenges they must contend with.  

Weighing heavily on military ­planners minds should the go-ahead be given to ­invade Gaza, is the prospect of a so-called second front. For a few days now, ­alongside Israel’s sustained ­bombardment of Gaza, tensions have risen on the Israel-Lebanon border.  

So far, skirmishes between ­Hezbollah and Israeli forces have been confined to tit-for-tat strikes on military ­targets, ­remaining within what Lebanese ­politicians describe as the “rules of the game”, set in place by Israel and ­Hezbollah over the years since they fought a 34-day war in 2006. 

Hezbollah has deep ties to Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, another ­Palestinian ­faction, with all of them backed by their ­regional ­patron Iran. Hezbollah’s ­influence is ­underpinned by its sophisticated ­arsenal and the support of many Lebanese Shi’ites who say the group defends ­Lebanon from Israel.  

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With an arsenal of some 150,000 ­rockets and missiles, including more ­accurate ones than Hamas can deploy, Hezbollah is capable of severely taxing ­Israel’s missile-defence systems.  

For now, Israel is taking no chances and on Friday ordered the evacuation of ­residents from Kiryat Shmona, a city of some 22,000 people close to the Lebanese border after three residents were injured by a rocket strike on a home in what ­appeared to be the most serious attack on the city since 2006.  

The attacks last week prompted IDF chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi ­Halevi to warn that if Hezbollah “makes a ­mistake”, it will face “destruction.” ­Overnight on ­Friday, Israeli army aircraft attacked ­Hezbollah targets in response to ­anti-tank missiles that were fired into Israeli ­territory. Among the targets were Hezbollah military compounds and an anti-tank missile launcher. 

In another indication that the situation at the Lebanese border could worsen, a number of countries including the US, UK and Saudi Arabia have urged their ­citizens to immediately leave ­Lebanon while commercial flights are still ­available.  

“No one wants a war. Not Lebanon, not Hezbollah, not Iran,” Abdallah Bou Habib, the Lebanese foreign minister, said in an interview with The Times on Thursday. 

“But if the US and the West keep giving a free hand to Netanyahu, we are heading toward disaster ... It’s beyond our capacity to control if Hezbollah decides it has to intervene, what would we do? Send our army to stop them and cause a civil war?”  

Most analysts agree that should Lebanon be drawn into the conflict it would be catastrophic for a country already grappling with myriad crises and near economic collapse. The Lebanese themselves remember especially how the 2006 war with Israel cost the country billions of dollars, something it could scarcely afford today. 

And so the most pressing question ­remains whether Hezbollah is prepared to engage in all-out war with Israel. 

“Hezbollah may enter the war with all its might in three situations: ­Extreme bloodshed in Gaza; if Israel starts ­bombing Hezbollah’s stockpiles, hidden all over Lebanon; or if Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei deems it the path to be,” says Anchal Vohra, a journalist with Foreign Policy magazine who specialises in the Middle East. 

Lebanon and the substantial threat posed by Hezbollah aside, Israeli ­strategists will also be looking carefully at the increasingly volatile situation in the West Bank which could make for further potential disruption to Israel’s ­preparations for war in Gaza.  

With a population of 2.7 million ­inhabitants, the 40% of it that Israel does not administer directly are in the hands of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Last week’s unrest in Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin and other places, where Palestinians ­protested against PA president Mahmoud Abbas, starkly revealed where things might be heading. 

The West Bank protesters' refrain of “the people want the fall of the ­president”, harks back to the 2010-12 Arab Spring ­uprising rallying call, “the people want the fall of the regime”, and the Palestinian call now is as much a response to Abbas’s perceived inaction in the face of events in Gaza as it is of him being ­perceived as tantamount to a collaborator with ­Israel. Polls now suggest that fully 80% of ­Palestinians want Abbas to resign.  

In this instance, the Israeli military’s fear is not so much of a third front, in the form of a popular uprising against Israel, so much as a political meltdown that ­requires the presence of more Israeli troops.

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Adding to this bubbling cauldron is the increasing violence by the almost 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem. 

According to the UN’s ­humanitarian office, the week that followed Hamas’s attack was the deadliest for ­Palestinians in the West Bank since it began ­reporting fatalities in 2005, with at least 75 ­Palestinians killed by the Israeli military or settlers, and incidents of settler ­ violence up from an average of three a day to eight. 

Just these past days, Israel’s extreme far-right national security ­minister, ­Itamar Ben-Gvir announced that his ­department was in the process of ­purchasing 10,000 rifles to equip civilian “security teams” based around Israel’s borders and the ­illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.  

This weekend, as glimmers of good news filter through in the shape of hostage ­releases and some aid entering Gaza, the situation still remains dire and on a knife edge.  

Right now, the air of trepidation that lingers over this crisis is felt more than ever and the conflict’s capacity to widen rapidly remains acute. Dangerous and daunting days lie ahead for both Israelis and Palestinians alike.