The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted an on-the-record briefing to discuss the military implications of Israel’s impending ground invasion in Gaza. Recorded Wednesday, October 25, 2023.


Bilal Y. Saab
Senior Fellow and Founding Director of the Defense and Security Program

Joseph L. Votel
Distinguished Senior Fellow on National Security

Rachel Dooley (Moderator)
Deputy Director of Communications



The below transcript has been lightly edited but may contain errors.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:00:01] All right, let's get started. Welcome, everyone. I'm Rachel Dooley, and I'm the deputy director of communications for the Middle East Institute. Thanks for joining us today for our on the record briefing on the potential Israeli ground offensive. I'm joined by my colleagues, General Joseph Votel, the former commander of U.S. Central Command and the former commander of U.S. Special Operations, as well as a distinguished senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute, and Bilal Saab, a Middle East Institute senior fellow and the founding director of our Defense and Security Program. As you know, the situation on the ground is moving quickly. And we'll discuss the Israeli military, Hamas's capabilities and the role of the U.S. military, just to name a few. When we get to the Q&A portion, you can use the raise hand function on your screen to ask a question. And if you're called on, we will unmute you and please introduce yourself and your organization. I'll go over this again later as well. But for now, let's get right into it. I'm going to turn to Bilal. Bilal, I want to start off with a question that I think is looking like it's on everyone's mind a bit more. Given the delay, is Israel reconsidering the ground invasion?

Bilal Saab [00:01:13] Yeah, that's a tough one. First of all, thank you all for joining. I can't see anybody, but I know some of you and it's a pleasure to share a few moments with you. Good question, Rachel. I think we all suspected that this was going to happen, what, like two or three days ago? And now this is becoming a little bit more unclear. I would not go as far as to say that the Israeli leadership is reconsidering. I think what might possibly change is the manner with which the Israelis are going to mount their ground incursion. I think it might be more limited than what we all expected because, I think that they're realizing how incredibly difficult it is going to be to achieve all their objectives. And I'm going to get into those objectives in a minute.

Bilal Saab [00:02:11] So when you hear the Israeli government declare maximalist objectives, like we're going to wipe out Hamas, we're going to destroy Hamas, we're going to annihilate Hamas. Yeah, that does the IDF no favors whatsoever, because even the most hawkish of Israel's generals understand that you cannot. Annihilate a deep rooted political military movement that enjoys the support still of a large portion of Palestinians in Gaza. The most you could do is massively degrade and ideally disarm the organization. And even that in itself presents a host of challenges and risks.

Bilal Saab [00:02:56] So they have to deal--and Joe is going to talk about this--they have to deal with three layers of complexity. First is the urban fight. Second is the subterranean fight. Third is the hostages. The hostages complicates everything. It complicates everything about the use of force, the manner in which they're going to engage in combat with Hamas. And that gets me to this inherent tension that the IDF is probably struggling with. Most likely struggling. Which is, on the one hand, you want to go hard against the organization, okay, because you want to degrade their capabilities as effectively as possible and ideally, once again, disarm it. On the other hand, you've got to exercise some measure of caution because you want to protect the lives of the hostages, ideally release as many as possible. There is an inherent tension between these two, and threading the needle is virtually impossible. And this is not just, again, one or two or three hostages. We're talking about hundreds, and Americans, internationals, you name it. And they don't have perfect intelligence on other whereabouts. Once again, Joe is going to get into the details of that fight.

Bilal Saab [00:04:12] So, I want to urge everybody on this call. Because I know we all do this because it's useful. We draw comparisons with past experiences and we try to come up with some conclusions, generate some insights into how this is going to unfold. But my advice to anybody on this call is that there are really real limitations to the comparisons we're going to draw with what's going to happen now and what happened in previous urban fights, whether it's us in Iraq or in Syria or the Israelis themselves. This is an unprecedented situation. This is an uncharted territory, not because of just the magnitude of the operation that the IDF is about to mount. Just because of the sheer brutality and the scale of Hamas's initial attack. There is the psychological, there's the political, there is the emotional element that is going to, in many ways influence the use of force and it's going to influence how we think about how the Israelis are going to respond.

Bilal Saab [00:05:18] And this is not your typical Israeli government. They're in a very vulnerable political position in my in my estimation. And that's in many ways going to once again influence how they're going to use force. So this is not just about how they're going to fight Hamas. This is about a range of issues that really has less to do with the use of force that's going to still influence the use of force. I still am of the opinion, because they have mobilized incredibly comprehensively, they have made declarations, top leadership, that they're actually going in. I find it very hard right now to fully reconsider and not do amount not not to mount a ground invasion. That would also affect the morale of the IDF. And that politically is extremely costly for them because they just announced to the entire population of Israel that we're going to go after the organization. For them now to completely reconsider, I don't think that that's realistic. I think it's a matter now of trying to give diplomacy a little bit more of a chance to try to get as many hostages as possible. They're probably not going to release the Israelis, I'll give you that. But they're going to release perhaps more Americans, more internationals, the elderly, perhaps kids. They'll give some time to that. The Israelis just said some nice things about the Qatari role. And you can see that with official statements by the Israelis. So that's changing as far as how they view the country role. They'll probably be collecting a little bit more intelligence before they go in the reading their maps, doing last minute coaching for the troops.

Bilal Saab [00:06:53] This is going to be, as Joe will tell you, one of, if not the most sophisticated operation the IDF has ever conducted in its history of confrontations with Arab armies. So this is, on the one hand, not that shocking that it's taking a little bit longer for them to get in. But on the other hand, you know, by now, I think everybody expected that they would be going in. So, you know, we have a role to play. The Americans have a role to play in this. Obviously, we have communicated privately, publicly, you know, the limits of our support and how we would like this to unfold. You know, we've publicly we've reassured the Israelis. We've done everything we can to reassure them. But privately, obviously, we're telling them that they're you know, you got to uphold international law. You got to make sure that the hostages are still as safe as possible. We've got to get back as many of them alive as possible. That's what the IDF is struggling with, the politics, the emotions of the Israeli public, the political position of the government and the very complexity of the operation. This is why it's taking a little bit longer than we suspected. I think I've taken more than 5 minutes and let me just stop here.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:08:02] Thanks Bilal for setting that stage. Turning to you, General. From your vantage point, what do you see as the major challenges when it comes to urban warfare in Gaza?

Joseph Votel [00:08:12] Thanks, Rachel and Bilal, thanks for your comments and everybody, thanks for joining us and keeping focus on this on this conflict. So Bilal talked a little bit about the layers of complexity here and talked about the three dimensional terrain that we talk about. You got the surface, urban area and then you got the subterranean component to it. And then, of course, you have hostages. And these are these add a lot of complexity to it. But there are also some other things that are adding complexity, I think, to the to the military decision making for the Israelis right now. One of them, of course, is the sentiment of the population, the Israeli population and the need to to strike back against this for the atrocities that were perpetrated on them.

Joseph Votel [00:09:02] But they also are considering what is happening on their other frontier to the north and and to the east as well. This is an important part of their calculation because there could and very likely will be some type of response, big or small, to any kind of incursion into Gaza. And that's going to be taken into consideration. And then, of course, as we're seeing played out on the news right now, the humanitarian situation and the international dialog around that is absolutely huge, huge influence on decision making. So now back to the problem at hand, kind of an assault into into Gaza and as kind of a military practitioner and then somebody who's been involved in some of these and actually has been involved in trying to train our officers how to think about urban combat, really, there's a several different ways this could play out. And what I want to do is just talk briefly about each of those and then maybe some of the advantages and the costs of each of those.

Joseph Votel [00:10:02] First and foremost is kind of this deliberate clearing of the of Gaza. You know, this is this is one of one of the principal approaches to urban terrain. And in this case, this is a very time, resource-intensive approach, is a very methodical approach. It is block by block. And of course, in a three dimensional terrain right here, it's it's story by story. It's street by street, it's town by town as well. So this would be very brutal fighting. The advantage oftentimes goes to the defender in this case who will make extensive use of booby traps and improvised devices and and other things to really make the path of the Israeli forces difficult. It would require likely continued fire support, fire support operations some of like what we've seen these strikes and then probably some maneuver to try to isolate the areas that Israel would be moving into for the purpose of trying to prevent H amas from escaping or moving around, really limit their ability so that the deliberate assault could achieve its objective of destroying at least, you know, rendering them ineffective as a governing and as a military organization, and certainly as a threat to Israel. Of course, an operation like this requires that people actually hold the terrain after you clear through it, you have to hold it. So that implies some real challenges for Israel as as well. And there's a lot of risks. You know, the risk associated with those are I mean, there's risks with all all of these approaches. This one, I think you can control the risk a little bit more because you do control the patient moving very deliberately in terms of this. So that to me would be, that would be a factor that would go into this.

Joseph Votel [00:11:58] Another approach would be what I would call a kind of a rapid advance to critical objectives and locations. And in this case, there would be a use of continued use of fire support. But in this case, maneuver forces would move quickly towards key locations that would render them, you know, a tactical or operational advantage in this situation. I'm not exactly sure what that might be in Gaza City at this point. There may be some locations that they can get to that would give them, give the Israelis, an advantage and allow them to, you know, control the situation better and have more of an effect on Hamas. This one obviously is going to be characterized by much faster, more rapid movements. As I mentioned in the title, it allows you to conserve your resources a little bit better. It's more directed. It's more focused. It does inclusde some isolation operations or things to protect our forces that are moving in there. But you still would have to kind of control and hold the areas in which you exercise some control. And it may be you go see something and then you move out from that particular area. But it really is designed to get Hamas off balance.

Joseph Votel [00:13:22] A third option that's really kind of emerged, I think, in the dialog over the last couple of days is - I'll just called strikes and raids. And the idea here would be to continue with very heavy strikes to destroy Hamas and its infrastructure, its war making infrastructure, including tunnels and its command and control and its weapons, magazines and other things. It's to really vendor that is ineffective as it can. A huge amount of intelligence gathering as a result of that and then directed raids that would go after Hamas leadership or infrastructure or key locations. But my point in using the word raid is that a raid implies a planned withdrawal. Forces go in and they come right back out after they accomplish a mission. So in this case, you're not necessarily putting a lot of forces in on the ground and keeping them for a long period of time. You're kind of seizing local control for a period of time to do the mission that you've been assigned and then you're bringing forces back up. This is, you know, we've got a lot of experience in doing this. This was essentially the tactic that we used against al Qaeda and ISIS and some other organizations in our own unilateral American operations. There's a high level of risk with this. You are constantly exposing forces. The enemy is watching what's happening, they are adjusting to this. So this is not just because it's, you know, not holding terrain, because not staying there does not imply there's not a great degree of risk with this.

Joseph Votel [00:14:54] And then, of course, a fourth option would be a combination of several of these kind of working in conjunction with each other. So I think you hopefully are getting a picture of just the complexity from a tactical operational standpoint of what the problem the Israeli Defense Forces are kind of going through as they look at this situation in a context of these layers of complexity that we talked about beforehand.

Joseph Votel [00:15:16] Let me just close by just talking about one final aspect, and that is the humanitarian planning of this. The humanitarian planning that must come along with all of this. Obviously, you know, this is a heavily, densely populated area, not much larger than some of our major urban areas here in the United States with a large population and an already challenged infrastructure to support them. So the humanitarian aspect of this has to be taken into consideration and it has to be a part of the planning and it has to involve several aspects. There has to be public information and in some cases, instructions to people. We've already seen some of this, telling people to move from one place to another to do this. We, in our campaign in Mosul, for example, the Iraqi government was quite, quite helpful in helping us communicate to the public, to their public, about getting out of the way. You've got to look at establishing humanitarian corridors, places that are where people can move to that allows them to get out of the area. Obviously, those can be exploited by the enemy. But the fact of the matter is, what you're trying to do is you're trying to create a create a mechanism for people to get out of there. You've got to have assembly locations that they move to and you've got to have the ability to get humanitarian aid resources into them. I think we've seen some movement of humanitarian resources into Gaza. If there is some type of incursion that will be much more pronounced and it'll have to be sustainable over a long period of time. Got to be a lot of planning around this.

Joseph Votel [00:17:02] I would just share from my own personal experience when we did this around Mosul. You know, we had experienced when we fought ISIS in Fallujah, the challenge of civilians in the area. And we didn't, we and our Iraqi partners didn't do that as well as we should have, and we learned about it. So as we looked at Mosul, we tried to apply some lessons and actually engage the humanitarian aid community in helping us with the planning of that. So we had some experience. We had a well-developed architecture of humanitarian aid there that had the resources and had people that were in positions and could correct things and actually help with this. And I don't have an assessment of where we are in Gaza on that. I know that was present. That was a very important aspect for the Mosul operation. We had space, which you don't have a lot of here in Gaza, frankly. So that that plays in there's not a lot of people here. Looks like we're generally trying to keep Palestinians in Gaza right now. So there would be a limit in terms of the space and getting them, so there has to be work to that. And then, of course, as I mentioned at the start of this comment on humanitarian aid, we actually had a government that we were supporting and the Iraqis were actually helping us, you know, in a significant way with communicating to the people in the international community on the humanitarian aid stuff. You don't have that with Hamas right now. They're not representative of the people. And so the international community, it's a different problem set than we have dealt with before. And that may be contributing to some of the some of the so-called delay or the level of planning or discussions that are going on right now with respect to how , how this operation actually plays out. So, Rachel, I'll stop there and I'm happy to answer any questions.

Bilal Saab [00:18:55] Rachel can I just say one last thing before you go? Just there's one difference between those fights that we engaged in in Iraq and Syria and what we're dealing with here. And it might work in our favor and might also complicate things even further. In Iraq and Syria, we're going after every single terrorist, we're trying to kill every single terrorist. We're not as worried about, you know, what conventional arms they have or strategic arms they have. Just the fact that we're going after every single ISIS fighter, that in itself obviously was challenging. But here we're dealing with an organization that has an infrastructure of missiles, rockets, armed drones. And so we don't necessarily have to go every single Hamas fighter. If you degrade that capability, I think it's a significant success for the IDF. I'm not saying it's easy. Obviously, all of it is in the tunnels, but it's a slightly different objective. If you are an IDF, you don't have to go after every single fighter. You could still declare some kind of a victory if you massively degrade what they worry about the most, or the Israelis in general worry about the most, which is the firing of rockets, missiles against, you know, Israeli infrastructure, against Israeli cities and urban centers.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:20:07] Thanks, Bilal. Okay. Thank you both. At this point, we will welcome questions from our participants. Please use the raise hand function. And when I call on you, we will unmute you and then please go ahead and introduce yourself and direct your question to one of our panelists. So I see we have a first question from Dan Lamothe at The Washington Post. Dan, go ahead.

Dan Lamothe (WP) [00:20:31] Hi everyone, thanks for your time today. Question for each of you, if I could. General, as we're watching this play out, we've seen sort of a series of attacks on U.S. forces in the region. And a concern that that could escalate. There's some question of whether or not deterrence is still there. Can you kind of walk us through, I guess, the concerns and the challenges that go with deterring some of these Iranian backed militias? And I guess kind of just elaborate on sort of the wicked problem that goes with deterring that sort of attack while at the same time managing and trying to contain this crisis here?

Dan Lamothe (WP) [00:21:12] And then Bilal, if you could, I guess, touch on, some of the recent comments from the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and how they're having to manage their own politics both internally and externally on this conflict? Thank you.

Joseph Votel [00:21:28] Thanks, Dan. So a really good, really good question here. So, you know, deterrence is really is a factor, it has two key factors to it. One, you have to have the capabilities and then you have to have the will that goes along with that. So, you know, we certainly have capabilities in theater that we have continued to move things in there, you know, whether it's two carriers, whether it's a fighter squadron, whether it's presence of troops on the ground or other systems that we've been able to bring in there. So, you know, I have to believe that we are getting the capabilities in there to address what we need, but also we have to have the will that goes along with that. And certainly at least some of the some of the the dialog that has come from our leaders has indicated, you know, very strongly to Iran and others that would perpetrate attacks on us that don't do this because it will be met with response. We haven't done that so far, to my knowledge, other than shooting down missiles coming from the Houthis. But again, a good example of the capabilities.

Joseph Votel [00:22:36] But I think, you know, I think the calculus around this is one to be very, very careful. I mean, you know, you had mentioned the uptick in incidents against our troops over the last couple of weeks or several weeks here, maybe as a result of this, maybe as a kind of preparatory to this. And, you know, that's gone on for a while. We have unfortunately allowed that to become a little bit of a norm, so to speak, and have not necessarily responded uniformly to these. And so you you, we will have to do that. I think we are at the point where we can probably do that now. And we should, in my view, we should respond strongly to these types of attacks. We can attribute it to that, that response might be our capabilities and might be some of our host nation capabilities. You know, the Iraqis bear some responsibility for this. We are in their country, for at least our forces there, at their invitation, and they have an obligation to safeguard our troops. So they have capabilities, they have diplomatic ways, they have informational approaches that they can use to to address this as well. So we've got to work through all of those things in terms of this. But I think it's important and I think we're getting to a point with the capability build-up in theater where we can and should respond more directly to these threats on our troops. And then, of course, the calculation is, will this be escalation? The school of thought is that by being strong, answering these things, that you are actually keeping things in control. And I think I would have a tendency to agree with that.

Bilal Saab [00:24:32] Dan, thank you for the question. And it's a good one. So, talk about a difficult balancing act, but it's nothing like we haven't seen before as far as the Arab reaction to this. On the one hand, communicate very clearly, if not bluntly, that there are a lot of concerns about accepting more refugees, especially for the Jordanians, more so than the Egyptians. So they've done that in the summit, as you know. But on the other hand, you've got to respect the sentiment of your population, which is obviously pro-Palestinian. So, you know, it's a difficult balancing act, but they've done it before. I'm more worried about stability in Jordan, frankly, given the large Palestinian population, than in Egypt. I don't think this thing is going to get out of hand in terms of the streets rebelling or anything like that. We've seen, you know, episodes before where this kind of situation has been contained. But, you know, it's it's kind of a scripted response. And that's exactly what we're seeing now. I don't think it's going to get out of hand.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:25:28] All right. Thank you both. Gordon Lubold from The Wall Street Journal. I see your hand up.

Gordon Lubold (WSJ) [00:25:34] Hi. Thanks, everybody. General Votel, I guess two quick questions for you, kind of piggybacking a little bit on Dan's question about deterence. You've seen that kind of ebb and flow and especially maybe since you've been out of uniform, you know, the kind of zeroing out or attempts to zero out deterrence in the region, naval assets, air defenses, all the rest of it now being, you know, literally, you know, scrambled to be poured back in. Do you draw any connection between the smaller footprint that's been there the last couple years and what Hamas did? Most people don't. But I just kind of wonder your view on that. And I guess I was hoping you could expand a little bit on the cost of this in and out, in and out, and kind of what it says to allies in the region and adversaries. And then just a quick one on hostage rescue. Sorry I missed a little bit at the top, but I mean, how in any way kind of plausible ways that U.S. forces could play a vital role in actually rescuing these hostages? Because there's a lot of noise about that. So sorry if I missed a little bit earlier, if you already kind of spoke to it.

Joseph Votel [00:26:53] Thanks, Gordon. We didn't really talk much about any of that. You know, to the first part of your question here, whether you can link, you know, our departure or our withdrawal of resources to, you know, directly to the Hamas attack, I don't know if you can directly do it. But I do think we've kind of created a situation in the region with the departure of a lot of our capabilities. And that, you know, has caused people in the region, particularly the bad actors like Iran, like Hamas, to recalculate their ability to do things. So I guess I would draw an indirect relationship to it, but probably not a direct, relationship to it. You know, my feeling is the same today as it was when I was in uniform, and that is that we do have to figure out what a sustainable level of military support and other resources are that we put into the region. And it is not unimportant to our broader strategic objectives, even with respect to China. I mean, in this idea of competition, global competition, it's important for us to be present, it's important for us to back up partners. And it's difficult to do that when we have largely withdrawn a lot of our capability, not just that visible stuff, but all the other invisible stuff that everybody doesn't think about, the analysts, everything else that that came out and part of this that really provided us the real staying power in the region and a good understanding of it. So, yes, I think we have to get to a sustainable level. And I'm hopeful that that one of the lessons we'll take out of that will in fact be that.

Joseph Votel [00:28:39] On hostage rescue piece... You know, if someone had asked me a couple of weeks ago, who are the best at doing hostage rescues, I would have said the United States and Israel. So you've got two countries involved in this who are really at that top tier level of kind of the tactical operational expertise and missions of this sort. Whether the U.S. would actually play a direct role that is, and I define direct role is actually putting a, you know, rescue force on the ground to go in and and do something. I don't know if that is what we might do. We may, if the intelligence supported it, and that was what the administration wanted to do because we wanted to ensure the recovery of American hostages. I think more likely our role is one that could be described as more indirect, that is sharing our assessments, sharing our intelligence, you know, looking at the various technologies and other things that can be brought to bear against hostage rescue. So I think our role is likely an indirect one, and I think it's likely to stay that way, Gordon.

Bilal Saab [00:29:58] Rachel, can I add a point on deterrence because it seems to be of interest to folks here. This is my opinion and Joe doesn't have to agree with me. I think the chief instinct behind the additional troop deployment is really not about deterrence. This is about reassuring the Israelis. I mean, we hope that it would deter the Iranians, but it hasn't done a good job so far, obviously. Then it gets us to the question of what are the layers of deterrence that we're talking about here? Obviously, we haven't been able to deter the Iranians from mounting limited attacks, but we have deterred them from possibly opening a northern front. Right? And now we could talk about that if you want. You know, if we are trying to prevent the large scale stuff, the more direct attacks or the Iranians from thinking outside the box, the more than usual stuff that they built over the years, right, under below the threshold of warfare, then you know, in that case, deterrence has succeeded. But if it's below the usual stuff, then of course it has failed. We are about to see if that's going to continue to succeed, if the northern Israeli front remains quiet. If it's not, then it poses a huge question for us, which nobody can answer on this call. Are we actually willing to go to war in the Middle East once again if deterrence fails on that level, and then the Israelis have to deal with two fronts simultaneously? I don't know the answer to that.

Gordon Lubold (WSJ) [00:31:14] It's a good point. Thank you.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:31:17] All right. Thank you both. Ruba, I see your hand up. Please go ahead.

Ruba Husari (MEI) [00:31:25] Thank you, Rachel. My name is Ruba Husari, I'm an MEI nonresident scholar. First question, General Votel. To what extent do you think the Israeli army generals are willing to back Netanyahu on this? There was reporting in Yedioth Ahronoth this week about unease among those generals. Netanyahu was booed when he was visiting a military base. Second, something I've been thinking about since the U.S. announced it's joining Israel on this... Isn't it surprising that after many, many decades of military help to Israel from the U.S., it is still, it cannot do this on its own? It's just very staggering that, you know, everyone thought of Israel as the fourth biggest military power in the world, maybe first in the region, but it cannot do this on its own. It needs US help. And my third question about your comparison with Mosul. I think there's a huge difference between Mosul and Gaza. And here I'm talking about, as a Palestinian, I worked as a journalist in the occupied territories in Gaza. Hamas is not just fighters, militants. Hamas is a political organization that is so widespread in the society, there is even a sort of mirroring between Hamas and the Hamas organization, the political organization, and the society. They are there. They have the infrastructure. They offer services. So, and while in Mosul, ISIS was funded. The Iraqis never looked at ISIS as one of them. The Mosulites, the Mosul people never looked at ISIS as belonging to them. They are external. They needed to be pushed out. In Gaza it's not the case. And lastly, are you, aren't you worried about the reactions in the region? And I'm not talking about the leaders you spoke to and you mentioned and I'm talking about the population, the population who will see the US as going to war against the Palestinians? You know, how would you manage that? I mean, you can manage the leadership. You can manage King Hussein. You can manage President Sisi. You can manage the risk. But the the the atmosphere, the feelings within the society, within the populations? I think, do you have a thought about that.

Joseph Votel [00:34:09] Thank you, Ruba. Thank you for your good questions. And I'm going to take them in reverse order here. If I could just share a couple thoughts here. So first of all, in terms of worries about the reaction, I am worried about that. I do recognize that that the people in the region feel differently about this and than we do, from a from a senior military standpoint and U.S. government standpoint. You know, I think we have tried to do a good job communicating with our counterparts in countries along the region. But there certainly has to be more communication and more information in the general populations about our role is and what we are attempting to do here. I think one of the things that's been very clear throughout all of this is that I think the U.S. government has been very clear about about it, about the need for a humanitarian focus on this. I think it has been very clear about not trying to, about trying to contain this. So I think there are some messages out there. They're very helpful. Some of these I know don't resonate. So we'll have to look at other ways we do that probably over a longer period of time with that. But I do recognize that there are is a sentiment across the region that may not necessarily be favorable to the United States.

Joseph Votel [00:35:36] Your second question on Mosul. So, yes, let me be very clear. I'm not trying to draw a direct comparison between Mosul and an incursion into Gaza. I'm only drawing on my own experience for how we addressed a major urban area. I do recognize that Hamas's relationship in Gaza is much longer than ISIS's war. And while ISIS was trying to govern, while they were trying to implement and, you know, instruments of a kind of an administration in parts of Syria and in Gaza and in Iraq, they have not had enough. They've only been doing that for a short period of time. And they did not resonate. They were not popular, a popular insurgency or element with anybody to overcome the rule. So I do recognize that there are differences. And the enemy my point was on the physicality aspects of an urban fight. And that's what I was actually trying to draw some attention to.

Joseph Votel [00:36:43] In terms of your third question, kind of working backwards here about the inability of Israel to do it themselves. Well, I mean, my personal view is I think Israel remains an extraordinarily capable military and national security enterprise. Obviously, there was a significant problem here with the intelligence. And in being able to see this and imagine what could happen here, that's definitely something that that they will have to deal with. And we've had to deal with that in our country here as a result of the 911 attacks here. So, I mean, that happened. And they'll have to to address that. The fact that we're bringing in other areas as other resources in the area really I think are for a couple different forms. One of them is this idea of containing and deterring and as Bilal mentioned, trying to reassure not just the not just the Israelis, certainly that are a key part of this, but also the other partners in the region, that we are serious about making sure that the conflict that exists right now doesn't spread beyond the area in which it is currently located and become more of a regional issue. I think my observation back to you is that we the United States, doesn't do anything by ourselves. Our fight against against ISIS was done with a 79 member coalition. We rely on partners. That is, from a national security standpoint, that is our secret advantage. And so the idea of having partnership and being able to back up people and come together around situations is kind of a way that we operate and I suspect many others to include the Israelis do as well. I mean I think we see this in Ukraine here as well. Obviously, you know different different situation, different military there who does require probably more direct assistance in terms of the things that they're doing. But I think the idea of partnership is the one that I would emphasize here.

Joseph Votel [00:38:54] And then on the final question, the willingness of of Israeli leadership to back Netanyahu. I really don't have a good basis to make an assessment on that. I would just share my own personal opinion. I don't, knowing a lot of Israeli officers and having a lot, having been there a long time, I think they are focused on the threat and they're not necessarily focused on the government and who that might be or what their goals might be in long term or some of the policies that they are implementing there. I think there is a collective belief in Israel. My, again my opinion that is that this has been a horrendous attack perpetrated on them and that they have to take action. And I think that is where, I think that's where the mind of most of the Israeli leaders are, in my estimation. And I haven't really talked to any, I don't have any other independent sources of that. Just my own experience, my own assessment of the situation. I don't think they're thinking about the policies of this particular political leader at this point. I think they're thinking about the task at hand for the nation of Israel.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:40:15] Okay, great. We have a question in the chat from Alia Moubayed. What is your expectations regarding Hezbollah's role of reaction in case of ground incursion in Gaza? And how is Israel likely to respond? I.e., would it only confine its response to Lebanon, or would it go wider? And how will the U.S. get involved? And I'll leave it to you two to decide who starts up.

Bilal Saab [00:40:39] You want me to take a stab at it Joe?

Joseph Votel [00:40:40] Go ahead. Go ahead.

Bilal Saab [00:40:42] Okay. Good question. Obviously, it's on the mind of a lot of people and I've written about it myself, so I'm not going to bore you with what I already said in my piece. I'm happy to send it to you. But I would go back to the initial comment I made, which is to urge us to think outside the box about this question and not draw many comparisons with what happened in the past. Even though in this case, I would actually urge you to think about 2006, because it is quite eerily similar in the sense that you've got a politically weak Israeli government that is coming up with some ridiculously unrealistic objectives when it comes to how they're going to fight. If they were to fight in Lebanon by destroying the entire country. How is Hezbollah going to respond? Well, so far, obviously, it's been within the rules of engagement, which they develop over many years. So it's been consistently within that set of rules. But, you know, the problem with this exactly what happened in '06 is that, you know, when you exchange deadly messages, this could spiral out of control easily, especially if you start seeing casualties on both sides, which you already are seeing. You know, one errant missile or deliberate missile that hits an Israeli barracks with like 50 soldiers and then the thing explodes.

Bilal Saab [00:41:58] On a more strategic level, I find it very hard to believe that Hezbollah is going to sit still and watch its Palestinian partner get pummeled, perhaps, you know, completely disarmed and not do anything about it. It's not for love of Hamas. It's because the Iran-led axis Hezbollah in particular, really views the Palestinian theater as a core theater in the struggle against Israel. So losing a major Palestinian means to stand up to Israel is not an option. And so they understand they're probably not going to be able to deter an Israeli ground invasion. But by exchanging these kinetic messages, they're hoping that they can influence at least the manner with which the Israelis are going to engage Hamas. So put some limits on it, shape the thinking of the Israelis, make them think twice. And all of that, of course, has a very high risk of escalation. So I would urge anybody looking into that problem set to focus less on the willingness of Hezbollah to enter the fight or Iran to enter into this fight. It's not about what they want because we know what they want. They don't want to get into this fight. They want to preserve this organization, the Iranians, as a major strategic deterrent against an Israeli attack against their nuclear infrastructure. Right. This is their ace in the hole. They want to protect it. This is a major investment for them. But there comes a point where if you see that your losses in Palestinian theater are becoming greater and greater and you're going to try to contain that, this is where Iran is going to use Hezbollah for more war fighting, war fighting purposes, as opposed to just limited deterrence.

Bilal Saab [00:43:35] And so you can already see the the perimeter of kinetic activity along the borders is expanding already. I mean, this is escalating for our own eyes. First, the perimeter was two kilometers, then it was eight kilometers, then it was 15 kilometers. You're going deeper and deeper and deeper. And so you could see that this is not going to end well. Right? Regardless of what Hezbollah wants or what Israel wants, which I still believe, they do not want a confrontation. But the more you exchange these deadly messages, the higher the risk of a confrontation. And having a politically weak Israeli government is basically telling you that this could just like Olmert was in '06. This could easily spiral out of control and it's going to make '06 looks like a walk in the park, only because of the capabilities both sides have. They both learned lessons from that '06 confrontation. The IDF is much better prepared as well as much better prepared. And of course, the question about what the American response is going to be, I don't think we're going to get involved militarily directly, obviously. And Joe can correct me on this one. I think we'll just continue to provide diplomatic cover. Obviously, military assistance like we've always done. I think the memories of our involvement, militarily speaking, in Lebanon are way too painful. The political cost is enormous for this administration. There's no practical, really benefit for us. Aiding the Israelis, I think they can handle this just fine on their own. It's more about continuing military assistance and providing diplomatic cover. Hope we don't get there. But this situation is so combustible, and the tensions are so high that, frankly, it matters not what the willingness of either party is. They could just stumble into this exactly what happened in '06 and one thing leads to another.

Joseph Votel [00:45:16] Yeah. Well, thanks. Thanks for all. And really good question. I think the role of Lebanese Hezbollah, like the role of Iran and in a variety of the other Iranian aligned militia groups that are, you know, posturing themselves around the Israeli frontiers is really to, you know, in the in the event of a of an operation into Gaza, would be to complicate harass, redirect resources of the of the of the Israeli Defense Forces and the tension of the government and really try to buy some time for Hamas, I think, to move to do other things here, to reconstitute, to get out of the way, to whatever whatever they would need to do. I think that's a very likely thing that they will do. Whether that will translate into a much broader campaign, I think has yet to be seen. Lebanese Hezbollah, like the others I mentioned, it has the luxury of being an observer right now. And so just watching what Israel is going to do and then responding to that as opposed to having to think for themselves how they actually orchestrate something with this. So I think that's an aspect of it.

Joseph Votel [00:46:31] In terms of U.S. involvement in this, I think the thing that I worry about is that if there is a direct attack on U.S. interests to a diplomatic location, U.S. forces, and that results in casualties and mass destruction, something like that, that I think would compel the United States to have to respond to that in a more direct manner than just condemning it and providing more support to Israel. I think in that case, I think that is a different dimension for us, and I think we would have to respond to something. I think we should respond to something like that. My personal view. But I think that's that's kind of where it is. Otherwise, I think we're probably going to try to to walk the razor's edge here as much as we can and try not to get directly involved in this while, you know, kind of continuing to pursue our own interests, which includes, you know, supporting Israel and and then, you know, preventing humanitarian disaster in the region and then this conflict spreading much more widely.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:47:47] Great. Thank you both. We have another question in the chat from Eric Schmidt at The New York Times. General Votel, can you please expand on the subterranean fight? What special personnel units, technology and tactics would Israel use to fight in the tunnels that haven't been destroyed by air strikes? And given the extensive scope of the tunnels, how difficult is this challenge now?

Joseph Votel [00:48:07] Thanks Eric, and thanks for your question. So, you know, just as as everybody has heard here, we're talking about 300 miles of underground tunnels in this really small concentrated area in Gaza. So it is extensive. And, you know, as you've seen from some of the images on TV, these aren't just burrowed holes in there. They are reinforced. They've developed, they have lights in there. They have telephone lines that are running through there. They are putting command and control down there. They put some of their medical capability down there. They're storing supplies down there. So these are, I think, are quite extensive and quite well prepared. And while I've never been in a Hamas tunnel, I've been in a Lebanese Hezbollah tunnel, and I was struck, absolutely struck by how sophisticated their tunneling methods were and how robust this tunnel system was and the ability to move people through there. And it's not as compressed as you might think. So I think we have to respect the threat that these tunnels pose to to the Israeli Defense Forces. And while I do know there's a lot of strikes going on that are designed to be, designed to, you know, disrupt those collapse, I mean, and I hope that that's the case in terms of this. Ultimately, we can't see that. And that has to be confirmed. And that can only be confirmed by putting the eyes on the ground.

Joseph Votel [00:49:39] How the Israelis do this? I mean, they have, you know, they have specialized engineer organizations, just like we do. They have explosive ordnance organizations, just like we do that will go in and handle some of the booby traps, the explosives that are part of this. I would imagine they, like us, would try to make maximum use of unmanned systems to get in and look at these things before we actually put troops in there. You've probably been to AUSA or any number of trade conferences here. You've seen the proliferation of robotic devices, whether they're those that move along the ground or those that can fly through. And of course, the sophistication of these things is they can be, you can navigate them through tunnel systems and in compressed spaces. So my expectation is that they will make maximum use of of those types of systems to, again, make sure they have the best understanding of what they're going after, what's in there, what the situation is, before they actually start putting troops down in there to confirm or deny the destruction or actually clear through through these things. I would also imagine that they would you know, they if they went in there, they would do kind of surface driven operations where we kind of try to drill down into these things and get into them, not have to run the whole gantlet of going through these things, but going in and and trying to disrupt them at different spots as to where they are. I don't have a good insight into the level of intelligence that the Israelis have on this. I got to believe that they've got pretty good knowledge of this. But I think this is a pretty difficult aspect of this and something we haven't really contended with as extensively in some of our own planning.

Bilal Saab [00:51:34] Eric, if you don't mind me adding something to what Joseph said, and it's good to hear from you. If the hostages were not there, the IDF would have had a full menu. But because of the hostages, there's just all sorts of methods that the IDF cannot use. Whether it's pouring cement, whether it's heavy ordnance, whether it's flooding the thing with water, whether it's even the limited liquid explosives that you can throw in there, you can you can't smoke them out. You can't flush them out. So threading that needle of destroying the tunnels, but keeping the lives of the hostages intact is going to be incredibly challenging. And yes, they have the equipment, the specialized equipment. Thank you, Darpa. Some of it locally manufactured, but some of it we actually have provided them ourselves. You got to remember that a lot of that stuff could easily malfunction subterraneanly right. So it's not like it's going to be perfect equipment in there and they can have a perfect ability to communicate, move, shoot, navigate, breathe, all of that stuff. And we're not even talking about Hamas countermeasures. I mean, it's not like Hamas is waiting there and they're not expecting the Israelis to come. They're going to have all sorts of, you know, their own tactics and their own ways of fighting. The specialized units are going to go in there. And then do you clear first and then you destroy? Or do destroy, then clear them? Maybe you're going to have to do both simultaneously, as Joe was saying. This is a problem from hell. But all I wanted to say is, and I hope that you emphasize this in your coverage, the very presence of the hostages makes this ten times more complicated than your typical subterranean fight, which is already challenging.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:53:10] Thank you both. I see we have a few more questions, but we're running a bit out of time, so if you didn't get anything answered, please email me at I'll share it with the correct person and we can go from there. But I just wanted to give you both below and General Votel a few moments, if you'd like to give final thoughts and then we can wrap it up.

Bilal Saab [00:53:36] Go ahead, Joe.

Joseph Votel [00:53:38] Yeah. Well, thank you. I don't think I have a whole lot to offer here. I do appreciate the level of questions, and certainly I think everyone can appreciate the complexity of this situation. And of course, the most important aspect of all of this, of course, is the humanity, the human dimension, and and making sure that innocent Palestinians who frankly, in my view, are also being held hostage by Hamas, are taken care of and safeguarded as best they can. But also that Israel has the ability to address this threat that is perpetrated, this attack on them as it has to be addressed. And and, of course, that's what we've been talking about for the last 45 minutes here. So thank you. Thank you very for having me to talk to you today.

Bilal Saab [00:54:26] Rachel. How about I use my time to answer a question? Because I don't have anything interesting to say for final thoughts.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:54:30] Alright, sure thing.

Bilal Saab [00:54:34] If there is a question I'm happy to address and if I can't address it, I'll send it to Joe.

Rachel Dooley (Moderator) [00:54:36] Sounds good. Eric Schmidt from New York Times, again, seems has a follow up. All right. I think that was an error. So I think that's all we've got. We'll just wrap it up right here. Thank you all for joining us for this on the record briefing. And if you have any questions or want to take a look at any of our additional resources, we have it all on our website at And I want to thank our two distinguished panelists, General Votel and Bilal Saab. Thank you both for spending the day with us. And thank you all for coming.

Bilal Saab [00:55:26] Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, everybody.

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