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Israel prepares for possible war with Hezbollah as Hamas conflict drags on

israel-prepares-for-possible-war-with-hezbollah-as-hamas-conflict-drags-on

Israel prepares for possible war with Hezbollah as Hamas conflict drags on

An Israeli army main battle tank moves along an area near the border with the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, July 2, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and Hamas. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

(TEL AVIV, Israel) — The Israeli military is preparing a phased pullout from Gaza and quietly pressing the government to broker a truce with Hamas as quickly as possible, as the military works to clear the decks ahead of what officials say could be a withering war with the powerful Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

One Israeli official said Tuesday that if the barometer is destroying Hamas’s pre-war capabilities — which included clearly designated battalions with sophisticated coordination and communications — and removing Hamas from Gaza’s government, then Israel has already achieved that.

Multiple Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have signaled that Israel will begin to draw down forces in Gaza as it enters into what it has called “Phase C” of its war, with a significantly reduced number of troops focusing on what one official described as “fighting Hamas hotspots and hunting high-value targets.”

Another Israeli official conceded to ABC News that “Hamas still has a large influence over what’s taking place in Gaza – that’s the main thing. We need to try to create an alternative.”

Israel’s own status map, which depicts the fighting condition of all of Hamas’ 24 pre-war battalions, designates one of the battalions in Rafah as green, which means operational, and another as orange, which is semi-operational.

Hamas’ continued influence in Gaza has not fully mitigated lawlessness there, with European and Israeli officials warning for months that the Gaza Strip could turn into “Mogadishu on the Mediterranean,” a reference to the decades of internecine fighting and instability in Somalia’s capital.

In high-level meetings in Washington last week, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed potential “day after” plans for Gaza, according to four U.S. and Israeli officials who spoke to ABC News.

One of the plans would comprise an international “board of directors” that U.S. officials are likening to a steering committee of nations that would include the UAE, Egypt, and possibly Jordan. Morocco would send peacekeepers to Gaza, with the U.S. somehow providing general oversight and command and control. The response from Arab states to the proposal has been lukewarm, a senior official with direct knowledge of the situation told ABC News.

The “board of directors” would be coupled with a new a “bottom up” force that the U.S. would train and that would include contingents from the Palestinian Authority to lend it legitimacy, though not so many Palestinian contingents that Netanyahu, who has publicly dismissed any Palestinian Authority role in a future Gaza, would reject the plan, a senior Israeli official told ABC News.

The training of the Palestinian force in Gaza would be supervised by U.S. Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, United States Security Coordinator of the Israel-Palestinian Authority who is based in Jerusalem. These units would begin to operate in small enclaves in Gaza.

Officials said it remains doubtful that these kinds of alternatives could be stood up quickly, which would potentially leave Hamas to control the power vacuum in Gaza. But a group of top Israeli officials interviewed this week said crushing an already debilitated Hamas, currently capable only of small-scale attacks on Israel, should be sidelined in favor of countering Hezbollah, which poses an existential threat to the state.

To that end, the officials said, Israel should muster forces and conserve ammunition for an impending confrontation with Hezbollah, which has boasted of tens of thousands of Iranian-trained fighters, many of them seasoned from fighting in Syria’s civil war, and further thousands of missiles and rockets that could well overwhelm Israel’s air defenses.

The Israeli officials said Israel has sufficient offensive munitions for a war with Hezbollah, but could use more from the U.S.

Hezbollah said it began its cross-border war with Israel on Oct. 8, following the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7, out of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Hezbollah has signaled that it wouldn’t agree to the U.S.-brokered cease-fire deal until Israel ends the war in Gaza. The Israeli sources told ABC News that Hamas was stalling on committing to terms on the internationally brokered cease-fire knowing that a potential war with Hezbollah would significantly weaken Israel.

The larger issue is that regardless of the approach, it will take time, which is working against the process, U.S. and Israeli officials say, but is working in favor of Hamas. Multiple, multi-day operations in which Israel has reentered areas it cleared months ago and where Hamas has since regrouped have shown that the terrorist group has slowly and quietly reasserted itself in Gaza.

“Hamas has a large influence over what’s taking place in Gaza and that’s the main reason we need to try to create an alternative,” an Israeli official told ABC News. “You even see that over the effort Hamas has taken to control the looting of aid convoys.”

Right now, Hamas has a head start, and it’s unclear whether an international force can be deployed, or a suitable local force can be trained, before it regains a potentially indomitable level of local control.

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