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How does this end? With Hamas holding firm and fighting back in Gaza, Israel faces only bad options

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JERUSALEM -

Diminished but not deterred, Hamas is still putting up a fight after seven brutal months of war with Israel, regrouping in some of the hardest-hit areas in northern Gaza and resuming rocket attacks into nearby Israeli communities.

Israel initially made tactical advances against Hamas after a devastating aerial bombardment paved the way for its ground troops. But those early gains have given way to a grinding struggle against an adaptable insurgency — and a growing feeling among many Israelis that their military faces only bad options, drawing comparisons with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This was the subtext of a rebellion in recent days by two members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's three-man War Cabinet — Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main political rival — who demanded that he come up with detailed postwar plans.

They supported Israel's retaliation for Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, including one of the heaviest bombing campaigns in recent history, ground operations that obliterated entire neighbourhoods and border restrictions that the UN's World Food Program says pushed parts of the territory into famine.

But now the two retired generals fear a prolonged, costly re-occupation of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005. They are also opposed to a withdrawal that would leave Hamas in control or lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Instead, they have put forth alternatives that many Israelis see as wildly unrealistic. Hamas, meanwhile, has proposed its own postwar plan.

Here's a look at four ways this war might end.

Full-scale military occupation

Netanyahu has promised a “total victory” that would remove Hamas from power, dismantle its military capabilities and return the scores of hostages it still holds from the attack that triggered the war.

He has said victory could come within weeks if Israel launches a full-scale invasion of Rafah, which Israel portrays as the last Hamas stronghold.

Amir Avivi, a retired Israeli general and former deputy commander of the Gaza division, says that's only the beginning. He said Israel would need to remain in control to prevent Hamas from regrouping.

“If you don’t drain the swamp, you cannot deal with the mosquitoes. And drain the swamp means a complete change in the education system, and dealing with local leadership and not with a terror organization,” he said. "This is a generational process. It’s not going to happen in a day.”

Far-right members of Netanyahu's governing coalition, who hold the key to his remaining in power, have called for permanent occupation, “voluntary emigration” of large numbers of Palestinians to anywhere that will have them, and rebuilding of Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Most Israelis are opposed, pointing to the immense costs of stationing thousands of troops in the territory that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians. As an occupying power, Israel would likely be held responsible for providing health, education and other services. It's unclear to what extent international donors would step in to fund reconstruction amid ongoing hostilities.

There's also no guarantee such an occupation would eliminate Hamas.

Israel was in full control of Gaza when Hamas was established in the late 1980s. Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon coincided with the rise of Hezbollah, and Israeli troops routinely battle militants in the West Bank, which it has controlled since 1967.

Lighter occupation, aided by ‘unicorns’

Netanyahu has said Israel will maintain security control over Gaza but delegate civilian administration to local Palestinians unaffiliated with Hamas or the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the occupied West Bank. He has suggested that Arab and other countries assist with governance and rebuilding.

But so far, none have shown interest.

No Palestinians are known to have offered to cooperate with the Israeli military, perhaps because Hamas has said they would be treated as collaborators, a veiled death threat.

Efforts to reach out to Palestinian businessmen and powerful families “have ended in catastrophe,” says Michael Milshtein, an Israeli analyst of Palestinian affairs at Tel Aviv University and a former military intelligence officer.

He says Israelis seeking such allies are searching for “unicorns" — something that does not exist.

Arab states have also roundly rejected this scenario — even the United Arab Emirates, which is one of the few to formally recognize Israel and has close ties with it.

“The UAE refuses to be involved in any plan aimed at providing cover for the Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip,” Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said this month.

A grand bargain

Instead, Arab states have coalesced around a U.S. proposal aimed at resolving the decades-old conflict and transforming the Middle East.

Under this plan, a reformed Palestinian Authority would govern Gaza with the assistance of Arab and Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, which would normalize relations with Israel in return for a U.S. defence pact and help in building a civilian nuclear program.

But U.S. and Saudi officials say that hinges on Israel committing to a credible path to eventual Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu has ruled out such a scenario — as have Gallant and Gantz — saying it would reward Hamas and result in a militant-run state on Israel's borders.

Palestinians say ending Israel's decades-long occupation and creating a fully independent state in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — is the only way to end the cycle of bloodshed.

Hamas has said it would accept a two-state solution on at least an interim basis, but its political program still calls for the “full liberation of Palestine,” including what is now Israel. Hamas has also said it must be part of any postwar settlement.

Smoke rises to the sky after explosion in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

A deal with Hamas

Hamas has proposed a very different grand bargain — one that, ironically enough, might be more palatable to Israelis than the U.S.-Saudi deal.

The militant group has proposed a phased agreement in which it would release all of the hostages in return for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners — including senior militants — as well as the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, a lengthy cease-fire and reconstruction.

That would almost certainly leave Hamas in control of Gaza and potentially allow it to rebuild its military capabilities. Hamas might even claim victory, despite the extensive death and destruction suffered by Palestinian civilians since Oct. 7.

But thousands of Israeli protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks calling on their leaders to take such a deal, because it's probably the only way to get the hostages back.

They accuse Netanyahu of standing in the way of such an agreement because it could lead his far-right allies to bring down his government, potentially ending his political career and exposing him to prosecution on corruption charges.

Supporters of such a deal say there would be other benefits for Israel, beyond freeing the hostages.

The low-intensity conflict with Lebanon's Hezbollah would likely die down as regional tensions ease, allowing tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border to return to their homes. Israel could finally reckon with the security failures that led to Oct. 7.

And it could prepare for another inevitable round of fighting.

Milshtein says Israel should adopt Hamas' concept of a “hudna” — a prolonged period of strategic calm.

“Hudna doesn’t mean a peace agreement," he said. “It’s a cease-fire that you will exploit in order to make yourself stronger and then to attack and surprise your enemy.”

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