The Israeli military is preparing to invade the Gaza Strip in the coming days with tens of thousands of soldiers ordered to capture Gaza City and destroy the enclave’s current leadership, according to three senior Israeli military officers who outlined unclassified details about the plan.
The military has announced that its ultimate goal is to wipe out the top political and military hierarchy of Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls Gaza and led last week’s terrorist attacks in Israel that killed 1,300 people.
The assault is expected to be Israel’s biggest ground operation since it invaded Lebanon in 2006. It would also be the first in which Israel has attempted to capture land and at least briefly hold onto it since its invasion of Gaza in 2008, according to the three senior officers.
The operation risks locking Israel into months of bloody urban combat, both above ground and in a warren of tunnels — a fraught offensive that Israel has long avoided because it involves fighting in a narrow and tightly packed sliver of land populated by more than 2 million people. Israeli officials have warned that Hamas could kill Israeli hostages, use Palestinian noncombatants as human shields, and have strewn the territory with booby traps aimed at slowing the Israeli advance.
It remains uncertain what Israel will do with Gaza City, Hamas’s stronghold and the enclave’s largest urban center, if it captures it, or what exactly Israeli officials mean when they describe the destruction of Hamas’s leadership. Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, is a large social movement as well as a militia that is deeply embedded within Gazan society.
It is also unclear whether Hezbollah, the larger, Iran-backed Lebanese militia that is allied with Hamas and possesses a vast array of precision-guided missiles and ground forces, might respond to an invasion of Gaza by opening up a second front with Israel along the Lebanese border.
The military has not yet formally announced that it will invade Gaza, though it has confirmed that reconnaissance teams briefly entered the strip on Friday and that Israeli troops were increasing their “readiness” for a ground war.
Tens of thousands of Hamas gunmen are thought to have entrenched themselves inside hundreds of miles of underground tunnels and bunkers beneath Gaza City and the surrounding parts of northern Gaza. Israeli military leaders expect that Hamas will attempt to impede their progress by blowing up some of those tunnels as Israelis advance above them, and by exploding roadside bombs and booby-trapping buildings.
Hamas also plans to ambush Israeli forces from behind by emerging suddenly from hidden tunnel openings dotted across northern Gaza, according to a Hamas officer who was not authorized to speak to the news media.
To make it easier to operate, the Israeli military’s rules of engagement have been loosened to allow soldiers to make fewer checks before shooting at suspected enemies, the three Israeli officers said, without giving further details.
Because of the widespread damage to Gaza City caused by recent Israeli airstrikes, commandos have been given additional training in recent days to help them fight in ruined urban environments, according to a fourth officer, Col. Golan Vach.
The invasion was initially planned for the weekend, but was delayed by a few days at least in part because of cloudy conditions that would have made it harder for Israeli pilots and drone operators to provide ground forces with air cover, the officers said.
In addition to infantry, the Israeli strike force will include tanks, sappers and commandos, the officers added. The ground troops will be given cover by war planes, helicopter gunships, aerial drones and artillery fired from land and sea.
Their goal will be “the rout of Hamas and the elimination of its leaders after the slaughter they perpetrated,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said on Saturday.
“This organization will not rule Gaza military and politically,” Admiral Hagari added.
A second military spokesman said that the army was particularly focused on killing Yahya Sinwar, the top Hamas official whose offices, like those of the Hamas government, are in Gaza City. Israel holds Mr. Sinwar responsible for the atrocities against Israelis last Saturday.
Hamas terrorists and their allies massacred civilians in their homes; shot and killed hundreds of others in the street and at a dance music festival; and kidnapped at least 150 other people.
Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, said the attack was the deadliest single day for Jews since the Holocaust.
“That man is in our sights,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, another military spokesman, referring to Mr. Sinwar.
“He’s a dead man walking, and we will get to that man,” Colonel Hecht added.
Many Palestinians say they fear the invasion will mean a humanitarian crisis and potentially exile.
The Israeli military has said it is seeking to prevent civilian deaths as far as possible. It has warned Palestinians in Gaza City to head to the south of the territory, which is not expected to be the focus of the opening phase of the invasion; hundreds of thousands have heeded that call, but others — encouraged by Hamas — have remained in their homes.
The complexity of the invasion is heightened by the fact that Hamas is thought to be holding many of the Israeli hostages with them in their underground bunkers and tunnels.
Israeli military analysts say they fear that Hamas will use the hostages as human shields, creating a moral and operational dilemma for Israel.
“The only way to get to the hostages is through a ground operation,” said Miri Eisen, a former senior military officer and the director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Israel.
But if such an operation goes ahead, Ms. Eisen said, “The terrorists are going to take those booby-trapped babies and Holocaust survivors and explode them to show us as being cruel.”
Both Israel and Hamas are adept at psychological warfare and may be engaging in it with both threats and leaks for advantage, especially as the hostage situation remains unresolved.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government has not yet decided whether to retake southern Gaza in addition to Gaza City, according to one of the senior military officers.
But if southern Gaza stays outside of Israeli control, some Hamas leaders could still remain at large.
Some military and political leaders want Israeli soldiers to undertake 18 months of door-to-door arrest operations, said Nimrod Novik, a former senior Israeli diplomat and security adviser to the Israeli government.
“Others, I think, are far more sober and not talking about demolishing Hamas — but rather depriving Hamas of their ability to threaten us,” Mr. Novik added.
That might involve removing its rocket launchers, tunnels and other military hardware, but essentially allowing it to continue as a social movement, Mr. Novik added.
The question of who would run Gaza after Hamas is also fraught, analysts said.
Israel could reassert direct control over the territory, as it did from 1967 until 2005, but that would entail governing a large, hostile population.
One plan now discussed widely by diplomats, officials and analysts involves allowing the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, to retake control of Gaza, after it was forced out by Hamas in 2007.
But that would risk making the authority look like Israel’s puppet, said Ibrahim Dalalsha, a Palestinian analyst based in Ramallah, West Bank.
“They’d be coming in on an Israeli tank, in the aftermath of Hamas being eradicated,” Mr. Dalalsha said.
Reporting was contributed by Isabel Kershner in Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel; Jonathan Rosen in Rehovot, Israel; and Carol Sutherland in Moshav Ben Ami, Israel.