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U.S. has a lot of questions about Israel's potential invasion of Gaza

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For a couple of weeks now, Israeli leaders have been saying they could start a ground offensive in Gaza at any moment. Troops and tanks line the border. There have been raids into Gaza to look for hostages or to kill militants. But the invasion is still pending, and it seems the U.S. has a lot of questions about it, maybe wants to slow it down. We're joined now by NPR's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon, and Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv to talk about what could be going on behind the scenes between these two allies. Welcome to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey there. OK, so, Tom, you kick us off. Again, we don't know when. We don't know exactly what is coming. But all indications point to Israeli forces about to roll into Gaza. When U.S. military officials look at that, what do they see?

BOWMAN: Well, a lot of concerns. There's a concern that this could spread throughout the region, should Israel invade, with the Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon. Hezbollah may fire its vast amount of missiles into Israel. This concern that Israel may not have thought through the implications of a massive ground invasion of Gaza - so you have top officials asking, what are your goals; what about civilians and keeping them safe in Gaza, and also telling the Israelis that this will be tough and brutal - worse, Mary Louise, than the fight to defeat the Islamic State in the Iraqi city of Mosul, you remember...

KELLY: Sure.

BOWMAN: ...Back in 2016.

KELLY: Yeah.

BOWMAN: And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said as much on ABC Sunday. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS")

LLOYD AUSTIN: This may be a bit more difficult because of the underground network of tunnels that Hamas has constructed over time and the fact that they've had a long time to prepare for a fight. So I think you'll see a fight that's characterized by a lot of IEDs, a lot of booby traps and just really grinding activity going forward.

BOWMAN: And, of course, a bigger concern is Iran itself getting involved somehow. That's why you see the American aircraft carriers, the attack aircraft, more munitions and American advisers heading to the region. And by the way, Mary Louise, I'm told this is all part of a longstanding U.S. plan to defend Israel. It's been on the shelf for some time. It's not just kind of a haphazard movement of armaments and troops.

KELLY: Yeah. You know, I'm thinking of President Biden's visit to Israel last week where he said, we understand. We understand Israel's rage. Children were among the more than 1,400 people killed. But he also said Israel should not be consumed by that rage. Learn from the mistakes the U.S. made after 9/11. What exactly is Biden warning about here?

BOWMAN: Well, the biggest mistakes for the U.S. to - telling Israel is the U.S. invaded two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, overthrowing their governments and thinking things will be better, all fueled by fear about more terrorist attacks or suspected weapons of mass destruction. And in both cases, you had guerrilla warfare that lasted for two decades and continuing, of course, to today. Some of that could be true here. You - OK, you destroy Hamas. Who governs in Gaza? And are you creating more militants by your tactics?

KELLY: Daniel, jump in here from Tel Aviv. You just heard Tom Bowman say U.S. officials are questioning, what are Israel's goals here? What are they?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I mean, Israel has been a lot more clear just in the last couple days about what its stated goals are, and the goals are to eradicate Hamas' military capability and its ability to govern the Gaza Strip. So essentially, Israel is calling for regime change in Gaza. Israel and its leaders keep saying the next phase of the war is coming. What is that phase is the question. Now, Israel has created this condition, Mary Louise, where basically they've said Israel needs to remove Hamas at all costs. And this is a very dramatic goal. And now Israel is trying to figure out how to make that work.

There are tens of thousands of Hamas militants in Gaza. What happens with them? I mean, there are a lot of questions. Tom posed some of them. Another one is, is the Palestinian Authority, the internationally recognized leadership of the Palestinians - are they able to take over Gaza if Hamas is toppled? They - the Palestinian Authority barely functions today. They don't want to be seen as coming in on the backs of Israeli tanks. And, of course, Israel says it doesn't want to reoccupy Gaza long-term. They don't want to be responsible for the lives of 2 million Palestinians there.

KELLY: And meanwhile, on the hostages, how are people there in Israel thinking about the hostages that Hamas is holding as Israel is bombarding Gaza and, it sounds like, planning a ground attack?

ESTRIN: Oh, they're thinking about it a lot. I mean, Israel has released - I mean, Hamas has released four hostages just in the last few days, and this really does change Israel's calculus. It does delay a ground invasion. Today Israel dropped leaflets in Gaza using warplanes, basically calling on Gazans to call this number if you know of a hostage. So this really does - really focuses the next days of the war.

BOWMAN: And it's also important to note there are 10 missing Americans. Some of them have been kidnapped by Hamas. And beyond that, you have some 400 to 600 Americans trapped in Gaza. They can't get out, and there isn't enough food and water going in.

ESTRIN: And also, I should just say that Egypt actually is concerned about letting people out of Gaza. They don't want to see millions of Palestinians coming into their country.

KELLY: Tom, quickly, just practical military considerations for the U.S. if this thing does end up getting bigger.

BOWMAN: Well, of course, protecting U.S. troops against Iranian-backed militias is key. And we've already seen some attacks repelled against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. So that's why the added missile defense systems are being sent to the region. Again, Hezbollah getting involved would be even more troubling, really, for Israel. Hezbollah - get this - has some 150,000 rockets and missiles that could overwhelm Israeli defenses.

KELLY: Daniel, last word to you. Do you get a sense that Israel is listening to the Biden administration's advice?

ESTRIN: I do. Israel is listening to the U.S. But, you know, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is known to take his time on big military decisions. And Israel has been saying, this is its final war with Gaza because Hamas will be gone after this war. But, you know, the question is, how? How do you get rid of Hamas?

KELLY: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Tom Bowman in the studio with me. He covers the Pentagon. Thanks, you two.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

ESTRIN: Thank you. 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.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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