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As Gaza fighting continues, both sides voice fears about a land war

GAZA CITY -- The olive orchards and wheat fields lining the Gaza Strip border with Israel were always sparsely populated, but on Monday the area was a virtual no-man’s land.

Fearing an Israeli ground invasion of the coastal strip, hundreds of families have fled.

“I don’t worry so much about the airstrikes, but I don’t want to be here when Israeli soldiers come,’’ said Iyad Badawi, 40, standing less than a mile from the border during a quick visit to his home to make sure everything was OK. During the last Israeli ground operation four years ago, a neighbor was killed, he noted. “No one’s coming back until there’s peace again.’’

PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence

Gazans aren’t the only ones anxious about a possible Israeli ground incursion. A growing chorus of Israeli politicians, ex-military commanders and pundits are voicing doubts about the wisdom of expanding Israel’s six-day air operation to include soldiers on the ground.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has signaled that a ground invasion could be imminent if cease-fire talks in Cairo falter. More than 45,000 reservists have been called up and troops are massing along the border area in southern Israel.

But many Israelis are asking whether a ground operation is worth risking the lives of their nation’s soldiers and what would be achieved beyond the accomplishments of an air campaign.

Though rocket attacks into Israel by Gaza militants continue, most Israelis view the Gaza campaign so far as a resounding success. Israel killed dozens of Hamas militants, including several high-ranking commanders. The dead have included Ahmed Jabari, head of the Izzidin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement.

The campaign also has decimated Hamas’ cache of Iranian-made Fajr-5 long-range rockets and forced the militant group to expose some of its new offensive capabilities, such as a homemade long-range rocket dubbed the M-75 and a drone-making factory, which Israel destroyed.

“It would be a mistake if the achievements of this operation -- which are considerable -- are lost or minimized by the ground phase,’’ said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. “There are always things you can’t hit from the air, but you have to ask yourself: Are there enough ground targets to justify expanding the operation?”

Former Israeli Defense Minster Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the threat of a ground operation might be helpful in bringing the militant Islamist group Hamas to the negotiating table, but he questioned the need for an invasion of troops.

“A ground operation is unnecessary,’’ he said on Israeli television Sunday night.

Former National Security Head Giora Eiland voiced similar public skepticism, saying Israel would gain little from getting dragged into a ground fight that would drive up the casualities on both sides.

Even some inside Netanyahu’s right-wing cabinet are privately expressing reluctance to approve a ground operation for fear it might turn into a military quagmire or hurt Israel diplomatic relations, Israeli media reported.

It was the high civilian death toll four years ago during Israel’s last ground attack on Gaza that led to an international backlash that damaged Israel’s global standing. The U.N. Goldstone Commission concluded that Israel may have committed war crimes by targeting civilians in that conflict, which left more than 1,200 Palestinians dead in 22 days. Israel rejected the commission’s findings.

House-to-house ground fighting would also increase the chances of Israeli soldiers dying, something that could turn public opinion against the campaign. A poll released Monday found 84% of Jewish Israelis support the current Gaza operation, but only 30% want to see a ground invasion.

So far no Israeli soldiers have died, but three civilians were killed by a rocket attack on southern Israel last Thursday.

Leaders of the Qassam Brigades say they are already forming “suicide squads,” including female bombers, to attack Israeli soldiers who enter Gaza. “If Israel wants to intimidate us with a ground invasion, we will be ready for them,’’ Hamas official Mosheer Masri said Monday.

Hamas learned the lessons of Operation Cast Lead four years ago and now its rocket-launching sites and other infrastructure are hidden in congested areas or underground, making them much harder for soldiers to reach, experts say.

International pressure is also mounting to prevent an Israel ground attack, with President Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking out against such a move over the weekend.

For many, the government has failed to articulate the goals of a ground assault. So far Israel has said the mission is to stop the rockets. More than 1,000 have been fired at Israeli cities during the past week.

Unlike four years ago, Israel has not said it intends to topple Hamas. In fact most observers believe that Israel would prefer to keep Hamas in power rather than create a power vacuum that might be filled by more extremist Islamists groups. That might force Israel to reoccupy the restive territory.

It’s also unlikely that the new Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt would accept the ejection of Hamas, an offshoot of its movement. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi warned of “dire consequences” should Israel invade with ground troops.

But experts say Israel may be planning a more limited ground operation. Some had speculated that it might only reoccupy the Philadelphi corridor with Egypt in order to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai peninsula. Or it could cut Gaza in half by seizing a swath in the middle of the rectangular-shaped territory.

Ground forces could also hunt down secret weapons caches and hideouts for Hamas leaders, analysts said.

“This is not an all-or-nothing situation,’’ wrote Amos Harel, a military analyst for Haaretz newspaper on Monday. “There is a wide range of possibilities in deploying units on the ground, and there are many degrees of force short of full occupation of the Gaza Strip, a prospect that it seems no one on the Israeli side is interested in.”

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