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Israel says its goal is to remove Hamas from power. What comes next is unclear

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We make an effort now to understand where the Israel-Hamas war may move next. Israel's military is about one week into a ground invasion of Gaza. Its forces have spent close to a month bombarding the area. It's in response to a Hamas attack on Israel. Steve Inskeep of NPR's Morning Edition spent the past week in the Middle East and has been working to understand Israel's endgame. Thank you for being with us, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Ayesha. Thanks so much.

RASCOE: So how have you come to understand how the Israeli military and government are defining victory?

INSKEEP: It seems to me they have refined the objective slightly. Israel initially said - the Israeli authorities said they must destroy Hamas. And we've heard in our reporting around this region how hard that would be. It is defined by Israel as a terrorist group, but Hamas also has a political ideology with widespread Palestinian support. You can't just kill a few leaders or fighters and think it'll go away. I spoke with an Israeli military strategist who put the goal in a more nuanced way. He said the goal was to depose Hamas, get them out of government in Gaza - not necessarily kill the last fighter, but degrade them to the point where they're incapable of running anything.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, is that realistic?

INSKEEP: Well, it's realistic to think that Israeli forces can take the territory in Gaza because Israel has one of the strongest and best-equipped and most effective militaries in the world, and they've operated for a long time in that region, and their tanks are already in. But their plans could be disrupted by other enemies who could widen this war. Or Israel could conceivably be stopped by friends such as the United States and others who don't want the blowback of the many, many, many civilian casualties in Gaza or refugees coming out of Gaza or other potential or very real problems.

RASCOE: So then how might Israel address these potential roadblocks to its plans?

INSKEEP: Well, they're trying to deter and contain enemies with the help of the United States. The U.S. has sent aircraft carriers to the region as a kind of show of force. And there's also some live fire going on. We went to Israel's northern border a few days ago and listened in the darkness as Israeli forces traded fire with Hezbollah, the militia that is just north of Israel in Lebanon. However, neither side seems to want full-scale warfare there yet. An Israeli military strategist told me, quote, "we assess modestly that Hezbollah is not interested in a full-scale escalation." So that seems kind of OK from the Israeli military perspective for now. But the larger challenge may come from Israel's friends, the concern about civilian casualties. The U.S., of course, pushed for a humanitarian pause just this past week when Secretary of State Antony Blinken was here.

RASCOE: I mean, the Israeli government, though, seemed to reject that out of hand, especially because of the hostages, is what Benjamin Netanyahu said. Can they disregard world opinion entirely?

INSKEEP: Not entirely. This senior officer I spoke with admits, quote, "we understand that the international community cannot allow the situation to go beyond some threshold." And so you do see Israel making gestures like letting in some humanitarian aid or opening a corridor out of the encircled Gaza City yesterday, very, very briefly. So Israel sometimes makes adjustments, but they are broadly continuing their campaign.

RASCOE: So suppose Israel does succeed in removing Hamas from power. What happens then?

INSKEEP: Israeli authorities have admitted this week they don't know. Ron Dermer, who's an observer to Israel's very important war Cabinet, said that discussion was premature in an interview on NPR. The military strategist I spoke with told me that Israel does not itself want to control Gaza after the war. It's not clear that any Palestinian group is ready to try that. The Israeli military talks of some future combination of local and international forces that could run Gaza, but they do not know at this point who would be willing.

RASCOE: NPR's Steve Inskeep is in Tel Aviv. Thank you so much for joining us.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

RASCOE: For more coverage and analysis and for differing views on the conflict, go to npr.org/mideastupdates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.