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Israel's last ground war in Gaza offers clues for what one might look like now

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We have been using the word imminent a lot in our coverage this week, the context being an imminent ground war that Israel appears to be preparing for in Gaza. More than 300,000 Israeli reservists have been called up. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is vowing to, quote, "crush" Hamas. Well, the last time that Israel launched a major ground invasion was 2014. Our reporter Emily Harris covered it that summer from Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

EMILY HARRIS: So this is going to potentially mean house-to-house searches, potentially more on-the-ground combat. It could raise the intensity of the fighting to a different level than we've seen so far, at least in most of Gaza. And also, it could increase the number of casualties on both sides.

KELLY: Well, to try to understand how things might play out this time, we want to look back. How did things play out in 2014, and what lessons might both Israel and Hamas have taken from it? Reporter Gregg Carlstrom covered the invasion in 2014 and now covers the Middle East for The Economist. Gregg, thanks for being here.

GREGG CARLSTROM: My pleasure.

KELLY: So you were in Israel in 2014. Describe - how did it feel on the eve of that ground invasion?

CARLSTROM: The ground invasion in 2014 was almost an understated part of the war. It was a war that had sort of been building up all summer. It began with Hamas kidnapping and killing three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank. There was then a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem who was killed in response. And there were mass protests that followed that. And for the first few weeks, it really was an aerial conflict between the two. That changed about midway through the war, and Israel sent in limited numbers of ground troops. And the objective was to search out and destroy cross-border tunnels that Hamas had dug from Gaza into Israel. But it almost wasn't the main focus of the war.

KELLY: That's interesting. I mean, it does sound similar in some ways to what we appear to be watching unfold today, with Hamas airstrikes on Israel, Israeli airstrikes coming into Gaza, clearing and, I guess, eventually prepping the way for infantry.

CARLSTROM: So far, yeah. I think the difference is in 2014, there were some members of Prime Minister Netanyahu's government, some right wing politicians, who were pushing for a large-scale ground invasion of Gaza. Netanyahu ignored those demands, partly because the army told him this would mean weeks of bloody urban combat. And so what happened were these much more limited incursions near the border between Gaza and Israel. I think now what it seems like the army is gearing up for is exactly what the right was pushing for in 2014, which is sending several divisions' worth of Israeli troops in with a goal of, at least temporarily, controlling the whole of Gaza.

KELLY: One thing that feels very different this time is the some-150 hostages being held by Hamas. Do we know how that may be factoring into Israeli calculations?

CARLSTROM: We don't. You would think, ordinarily in Israel, if there were hostages being held, that there would be great public demand to try and free them, whatever it takes. But I think the public mood is a little different this time. Some of the rhetoric that we've heard from Israeli politicians in the coalition has been to the effect of, we can't let them dictate our war plan. And, effectively, these hostages end up becoming collateral damage.

KELLY: I want to ask about the cost of everything that unfolded in 2014. There's the human toll, of course. I have seen - it was more than 2,000 people were killed, mostly Palestinians in Gaza. I've seen estimates of several billion dollars' worth of damage of homes and schools and infrastructure, and that the rebuilding hasn't been completed from then. And what - I guess now some of these repaired buildings just get leveled again.

CARLSTROM: They do. It is a very perverse and depressing cycle in Gaza. I remember being there not long after the war in 2014, and driving through a neighborhood in eastern Gaza that had been heavily, heavily shelled by the Israeli army. And so block after block of homes had been destroyed. And I came across some teenagers who were there gathering up the rubble in carts. And they were taking it off to a factory somewhere else in Gaza that would crush that rubble and then use it as the substrate for the roads that they were building in Gaza. And so this is a place that has been under very, very tight Israeli and Egyptian blockade for almost two decades now. So this is how you end up with people using the rubble of a home that's been destroyed in an airstrike to build the road, because there's just - there's not enough material. There's not enough money to do reconstruction after these seemingly endless rounds of war.

KELLY: Gregg Carlstrom with The Economist, thank you very much.

CARLSTROM: 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.