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Israeli forces are expected to go into Gaza. What does the operation look like?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Israel's military forces are gathering along the border of the Gaza Strip, apparently in preparation for a ground invasion that Israel says will be necessary to eliminate the Hamas fighting force that attacked southern Israel earlier this month. At the Pentagon, U.S. military leaders are keeping in close contact with their Israeli counterparts, and President Biden has continued to express strong support for Israel and also cautioned against an escalation of the conflict that draws in other regional players. General Frank McKenzie has studied just this sort of scenario as commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Army operations in the Middle East and coordinates with allies. He retired last year and is now at the University of South Florida, where he directs the Global and National Security Institute. And he is with us now to tell us more. General McKenzie, thanks so much for joining us.

FRANK MCKENZIE: Thanks, Michel. I'm glad to be with you.

MARTIN: You were actually in Israel a few months ago with a group of retired senior military leaders. And I understand that you visited the border checkpoints in Gaza. So given that, what kind of fighting is likely in that sort of environment?

MCKENZIE: Well, it's a - it's one of the densest urban environments in the world. That's the first thing that captures you when you come up to the border fence and observe it. It's high-rise buildings, very densely packed in a very small area. It's going to be a uniquely challenging environment for the Israelis. And I would think right now what they're doing is they're practicing what we call your tactics, techniques and procedures, how you're actually going to do the operation. And I think the jury's still out on how they're going to do it.

Is it going to be a - you know, a broad front attack? Are they going to go in narrowly? Are they going to merge with their special operations forces and conduct pinprick raids? I think all of those things are on the table as they bring their forces up to the border and prepare to go in.

The one thing that I believe is certain is I think they're going to go in. It's just a question of how. But, you know, for me, the larger issue is - and I know that the IDF is grappling with this - what's the end state? What do you want it to look like on the other end of the operation? You know, what kind of governance are you going to put in place there? I don't think you want to occupy that territory forever.

I think they - I know they're thinking very hard about that, and that really needs to be the source of a lot of careful study because we, the United States, have not always gotten that same problem right. They have an opportunity here to think about it before you go in, because once operations commence, they're going to take on a intensity, scope and drive that is unique to those who have not experienced it before. So before you go in, you want to try to envision where you want to be at the end of it. And I believe they're trying to do that right now.

MARTIN: That is obviously a great concern. And also I think I just - look, I think it is fair to say that the concern is what would be the impact on civilians, given that the understanding is that Hamas has always been interspersed with the civilian population. And of course, it bears remembering that there are Americans there right now. There are people of other nationalities right there. Do you have a sense of whether the Israelis have a plan to try to protect civilians?

MCKENZIE: I think two things are worth noting in this regard. First of all, the Israelis are going to try very hard to mitigate civilian casualties. They have elaborate procedures for it. I've been exposed to those procedures. Many of them are modeled on the things we do. And - but I also know that mistakes are going to be made, and there are going to be unanticipated civilian casualties. We should just know and recognize that right now, despite the very best efforts of the Israelis, and they will go to great lengths to minimize civilian casualties.

On the other hand - and here's the other element of this equation that is really quite disturbing - what Hamas is going to do is they're going to try in every way they can to maximize civilian casualties. They need that event to occur, to operate in the information space. So in effect, while yes, there are 200-plus hostages there, in effect, really the entire civilian population of Gaza is being held hostage by Hamas, and they're going to use them as human shields, and they're going to try to get the Israelis into situations where they have to make some very difficult choices about what to strike and what not to strike. They do that by placing their rockets and missiles in mosques and schools and hospitals, their command posts in places like this. It's an old tried-and-true tactic, and they will employ that to great effect in this upcoming campaign.

MARTIN: And it also bears pointing out that there are American citizens there and citizens of other nationalities who just happened to be there visiting family who are not technically hostages. And I just - I think that is of grave concern to a lot of Americans. Before we let you go, as briefly as you can, how likely do you think it is that this war could escalate into a regional conflict?

MCKENZIE: I think it's uniquely possible. It's possible because Lebanese Hezbollah sits on the northern border of Israel. They'll calculate their entry based on their own strategic self-interest. They share a vision for the destruction of Israel. If they think they have an opportunity to come in, they will come in. They won't come in because of what's happening in Gaza necessarily. They'll come in to satisfy their own self-interest. Same thing with Iran. The forces we're putting in the theater now are all designed to deter that activity.

MARTIN: OK. That is retired General Frank McKenzie. He is now the executive director of the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida. We reached him in Tampa. General, thank you so much for sharing this expertise with us.

MCKENZIE: Thank you, Michel. Have a good day. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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