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Who should rebuild Gaza if Israel is able to defeat Hamas in the Gaza strip?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The United Nations Relief Agency is warning that without fuel, hospitals treating the wounded in Gaza are collapsing and the ability to distribute the little aid that's gotten into the Palestinian enclave is limited. The Israeli government that has controlled access to Gaza since 2007 cut off food, water, electricity and fuel deliveries after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. So what's behind the strategy of this total siege? Our co-host Michel Martin called up two experts.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Raphael Cohen is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a former army officer. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

RAPHAEL COHEN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Charles Freilich is a former deputy national security advisor in Israel, and he is a professor at both Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. Professor Freilich, welcome to you as well.

CHARLES FREILICH: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, Professor Freilich, I'm going to start with you. As briefly as you can, could you just remind people of why the blockade was started to begin with? And I think in the early days, it wasn't so much a blockade as sort of restricted access. Could you just remind us of why that decision was made?

FREILICH: Well, there was never a blockade. There used to be a completely open border. And then the second intifada, the second Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005 - 1,100 Israelis were killed at the time. And so Israel built a border fence around Gaza. But there were hundreds of trucks going through every day. And there were until the war broke out two weeks ago.

MARTIN: Mr. Cohen, you wrote a piece that - for the RAND blog. I'm citing it because people can read it, you know, for themselves in their - its entirety. You sort of describe this kind of strategy as mowing the grass. And you say, this has been the bumper sticker version of Israeli strategy in Gaza for the last decade and a half, where as, you know, these attacks occur, sort of access to Gaza is restricted. The Palestinians get frustrated. Attacks - more attacks ensue. But then after that, this kind of uneasy equilibrium sort of holds for a while. And then this sort of cycle starts again. Am I sort of fairly characterizing kind of what you said?

COHEN: Yeah. No, that's, I think, accurate. The one thing I would add to that is that Israel's fundamental strategic premise here is that up until the 10/7 attacks is that they could deter and contain Hamas, deter Hamas by targeted strikes against Hamas leadership, containing Hamas through the use of the access restrictions and now the full-on blockade.

MARTIN: Professor Freilich, what would you say about this containment strategy? Do you feel that it has been effective or not?

FREILICH: Well, I think it's clearly failed, and it failed colossally, but it also failed because of Israel's failings, the IDF's failings, the intelligence failure and then the operational failure. There was a feeling in Israel in the last few years that Hamas was showing greater willingness to work, to deal with standard of living in Gaza, quality of life, and to indirectly cooperate with Israel. Well, that was clearly wrong.

MARTIN: I take it that both of you believe that - just based on your writings that I have seen, that you believe that a ground campaign is inevitable. Would that be accurate?

COHEN: Yes. And I think it's going to be inevitable for a couple of different reasons. First, Israel wants to rescue the hostages. You can't do that strictly from the air. Two, Israel wants to destroy Hamas. Doing that strictly from an air campaign perspective is very, very difficult. And three, if you want to really go after the tunnel network, it also requires bombs to penetrate all the way down, including hitting whatever infrastructure lies above it. So for all those reasons, I think a ground campaign is likely.

MARTIN: And do you agree with that, Professor Freilich?

FREILICH: Yeah, certainly. I think that's quite accurate. And I would just add that I think that Israel really has no choice, because it cannot allow what happened on October 7 to go without a severe response, because this could in the end become existential for Israel. If Israel doesn't respond massively now, then Israel will find itself fighting major wars, not just the limited operations of the past.

MARTIN: So then the question becomes, assuming that both of you are correct - and this is not in any way to minimize the great deal of pain and suffering that many people will suffer as a consequence of this - what should happen after that? That is the other subject that you addressed in your piece, Mr. Cohen. So can you talk about that? What is your idea of what should happen after that?

COHEN: So I think it would have to be some sort of comprehensive reconstruction effort. That means dealing with the economic problems. It means loosening the access restrictions in order to allow Gaza's economy to survive. It also - in some ways, even more challenging - is going to be ensuring that the people of Gaza have access to some sort of legitimate form of political representation. Now, that's a tall task. The United States has certainly struggled at that in its recent history, but it is nonetheless, I think, imperative if we're going to break this ongoing cycle of violence that has plagued Gaza for the last two decades.

MARTIN: Professor Freilich, what about you? What would you like to see happen next, and what do you think you'll see next?

FREILICH: Well, I think there's going to be, first of all, a long and bloody ground operation that's going to be bloody for everyone. And the question is whether Hamas can effectively be destroyed as a military organization. And then who takes over if they're toppled? And I don't see any realistic alternative but the Palestinian Authority. I don't think Israel should be the one to bear responsibility for economics in Gaza afterwards. That has to finally become a Palestinian responsibility with international aid maybe. And yes, Israel can continue to allow an open border for commercial purposes, but the Palestinians have to take responsibility for it.

MARTIN: Charles Freilich is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. He's the author of a number of books, and he's teaching at Columbia and Tel Aviv University. We also heard from Raphael Cohen. He's a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, but you can read his writings in a number of newspapers. Thank you both so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

COHEN: Thank you so much for having me.

FREILICH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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