The Stark Reality of Israel’s Fight in Gaza

The Stark Reality of Israel’s Fight in Gaza

Israel’s military operations in Gaza have weakened Hamas. Most Hamas battalions have been degraded and are scattered. Thousands of its members have been killed, and at least one senior military leader has been eliminated.

Yet Israel has not achieved its primary goals of the war: freeing hostages and fully destroying Hamas.

The war and the tactics of the Israel Defense Forces have come at a great cost. Vast numbers of Palestinian civilians have been killed in the Israeli campaign; hunger is widespread in Gaza; and deaths around relief efforts have generated condemnation.

Six months into the conflict, the question of what Israel has achieved — and when and how the fighting could come to an end — is creating ever more intense global strains around a war that has cost Israel support from even close allies.

Israel’s own military casualties have begun to climb, with about 260 killed and more than 1,500 injured since its pulverizing ground assault began in the weeks after the Hamas-led terrorist attacks on Oct. 7.

Israeli officials say that about 133 of the hostages taken remain in Gaza. But talks to secure the return of at least some of them in exchange for a halt in the fighting and the release of Palestinian prisoners have hit a snag. Hamas has rebuffed the latest proposal and claims it does not have 40 hostages who meet the terms of the first part of the proposed deal, raising questions about how many are still alive and how many are held by other groups.

The war has settled into a deadly pattern of skirmishes and airstrikes as Israeli forces continue to operate in Gaza, targeting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters. Last week, with tensions between Israel and Iran increased, the Israeli military said it struck more than 100 targets and killed dozens of fighters in the central part of the enclave, including a Hamas security officer who served in the group’s intelligence wing.

The Israeli military says Hamas casualties continue to mount but that no Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in Gaza since April 6. That suggests that the pace of the fighting and Hamas’s capabilities have waned for now.

But both sides are bracing for a larger operation in the southern city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold that Israel has not invaded.

And there is more uncertainty about what will follow Rafah, with questions about who will govern Gaza and provide its security if the fighting is to end.

This article is based on interviews with American and Israeli officials, members of Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military planning, sensitive diplomacy or secret intelligence assessments.

Despite Hamas’s heavy losses, much of its top leadership in Gaza remains in place, ensconced in a vast underground network of tunnels and operations centers, calling the shots in the hostage negotiations. Those tunnels will allow Hamas to survive and reconstitute once the fighting stops, current and former U.S. officials say.

“Palestinian resistance to Israel, manifested by Hamas and other militant groups, is an idea as much as it is a physical, tangible group of people,” said Douglas London, a retired C.I.A. officer who spent 34 years at the agency. “So for as much damage Israel might have inflicted on Hamas, it still has capability, resilience, funding and a long line of people most likely waiting to sign up and join after all the fighting and all the destruction and all the loss of life.”

In an annual intelligence assessment released in March, American spy agencies expressed doubts about Israel’s ability to truly destroy Hamas, which the United States has designated a terrorist group.

“Israel probably will face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come,” the report said, “and the military will struggle to neutralize Hamas’s underground infrastructure, which allows insurgents to hide, regain strength and surprise Israeli forces.”

After six intense months, the war has come down to Rafah.

The Israeli military believes four battalions of Hamas fighters are based in the city and that thousands of other fighters have taken refuge there, along with around a million civilians.

The Israeli military says those battalions must be dismantled.

Israeli officials said the only way to destroy those battalions is with a major push into Rafah by ground forces. Israeli security experts contend that destroying the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that supply Hamas with arms will also be a critical goal.

But the planned invasion has become a point of friction between the United States and Israel.

Israel has not developed a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah, U.S. officials said. Without one, the death toll in Gaza — already about 34,000, according to health officials there — will climb even higher. The Israeli government disputes those numbers, saying they do not distinguish between Hamas fighters and civilians killed during the war.

“I have not yet seen a credible and executable plan to move people that has any level of detail about how you not only house, feed and provide medicine for those innocent civilians, but also how you deal with things like sanitation, water and other basic services,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters earlier this month.

U.S. military officials say that Israel should model its plan on the siege of Mosul, Iraq, in 2017 by Iraqi forces and the U.S. Air Force. The operation destroyed large swaths of what was once Iraq’s second-largest city. While roughly 3,000 civilians were killed as a result of Iraqi or U.S. military action, by some estimates, the coalition successfully evacuated a million residents from the city ahead of the assault on the city.

For Rafah, American military planners want Israel to carry out targeted raids on Hamas strong points, but only after civilians have been relocated.

Israeli officials say they expect civilians to move to safer areas. But U.S. officials have said that with much of the strip nearly uninhabitable, Israel needs a better plan.

“This is an opportune time for Israel to transition to a new phase focused on very precise counterterrorism operations, particularly given the situation of 1.2 to 1.3 million Palestinians all clustered within Rafah and its environs,” said Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired U.S. Special Operations commander who served as the American security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The movement of civilians within Gaza, and the Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah, is a major sticking point not just between the United States and Israel but also in the talks about a temporary cease-fire to secure the release of hostages.

On Thursday, William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director, placed the lack of progress in the talks squarely at the feet of Hamas and its negative reaction to a U.S.-backed proposal presented this month.

“It’s a big rock to push up a very steep hill right now,” Mr. Burns said. “It’s that negative reaction that really is standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief.”

U.S. officials say privately that the only way to get Israel to stop the Rafah operation is through a hostage release deal.

But Israeli officials say they believe it is only the looming operation in Rafah that has kept Hamas in negotiations.

As the talks continue, there is rising anger among families of hostages about Israel’s failure to bring their loved ones home.

Gilad Korngold, whose son Tal Shoham is one of the hostages, said he was overcome with feelings of “despair, frustration, anger and fear” because of the government’s failure to strike a deal to free the hostages.

“They abandoned them,” he said in an interview. “Time is running out. We don’t know how they’re doing, if they’re eating or drinking, or if they’re getting medicine. We don’t know anything about them.”

Mr. Korngold said three members of his family were killed on Oct. 7 and that six others who had been abducted were released during a short-lived cease-fire in late November.

“Hostage recovery comes down to thoughtful and unified negotiations, and that will likely not happen until Israel withdraws the hammer,” said Jay Tabb, a Marine officer who fought in Iraq and served as a top F.B.I. executive working on counterterrorism and hostage issues.

Since the beginning of the war, Israel has tried to destroy the extensive tunnel network below Gaza.

The system runs for hundreds of miles, at points reaching 15 stories below ground, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. It contains larger complexes of underground rooms, used for command posts and refuges. Hamas has used the tunnels to hide its leaders, hold hostages and allow fighters to escape Israeli attack.

Israel has not been able to destroy the tunnels, which Hamas has spent years building. But Israeli officials say they have taken out most of the key nodes, the underground strategic complexes that Hamas has used to command its forces. About 70 percent of the complexes have been eliminated, said an Israeli military intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comply with army protocols.

Israeli officials also say their military has killed as many as 13,000 Hamas members, though experts caution that any figures are probably imprecise given the chaos of the war. And in March, Israel killed Marwan Issa, who was the deputy commander of Hamas’s military wing and a presumed planner of the Oct. 7 attacks. He is the highest-ranking Hamas military leader eliminated during the war.

As a result of the fighting, 19 of Hamas’s 24 battalions are no longer functioning, the Israelis say.

Between the losses and damage to the underground complexes, Hamas’s ability to command its forces has been severely reduced.

But veterans of the United States’ wars say the number of enemy soldiers killed, or command posts destroyed, has proved a totally irrelevant fact and a deeply misleading measure of success in a military campaign.

To be sure, American intelligence agencies assess that Hamas has lost a significant amount of combat power, and that rebuilding will take time.

But that does not mean Hamas has been destroyed. Israeli officials said the group and other militant organizations still have many forces above and below ground. In northern Gaza, 4,000 to 5,000 fighters have held out, the Israeli military intelligence official said.

U.S. officials and analysts say Hamas is likely to remain a force in Gaza when the fighting is over. But how quickly it can rebuild will depend on Israel’s decisions in the next phases of the war and in its aftermath.

Both the Israeli military and the Palestinians are bracing for what comes next.

While Israel has continued to conduct strikes on Rafah, several Palestinians said they were struggling to survive.

“We’re going through a dreadful experience,” said Khalil el-Halabi, 70, a resident of Gaza City sheltering in a tent in Rafah. “Why do we have to live through this misery when we had nothing to do with Oct. 7? We just want to go back to our homes.”

Despite American pleas for restraint, Palestinians, Israelis and military experts expect that Israel will go into Rafah. The real question is what will happen after that.

Israel’s attacks have devastated Gaza. Palestinians returning to the southern city of Khan Younis after the Israeli military pulled out this month were confronted with an apocalyptic scene — endless islands of rubble, destroyed roads and the smell of human remains.

“I feel like Khan Younis was hit by a magnitude-50 earthquake,” said Mohammed al-Hassi, a medic from the city. “Entire neighborhoods have been erased, and people can’t even recognize where their homes once were.”

Some Israeli officials say grinding down Hamas may take years..

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, told a group of Israelis in January that the war could last “a year, a decade or a generation,” according to a person who participated in the meeting.

American officials blanch at suggestions that intense Israeli operations could go on for two more months, let alone two more years.

They say Israel should declare victory over Hamas and move to a different kind of fight: one that targets senior Hamas leaders but does not brutalize civilians; one focused on preventing Hamas from resupplying and rebuilding, rather than pummeling the fighters that remain.

Equally critical, American officials say, is coming up with a plan to return the governance of Gaza to Palestinians. U.S. and Arab officials are pushing to announce steps toward a demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and his government are against such moves. But Israeli officials have been reluctant to engage with Americans on their plans for Gaza, including who they intend to hand power over to, and what proposals for security and governance they would accept.

On Thursday, the United States vetoed a Palestinian bid to be recognized as a full member state at the United Nations, saying the step requires negotiations.

In the absence of Israel allowing a functioning Palestinian government to take charge, chaos and lawlessness have taken over as Israeli troops have withdrawn from parts of Gaza.

Current and former U.S. officials said that while Israel has not, and cannot, destroy Hamas, it has made the likelihood of a repeat of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack remote.

Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, agreed. “We’ve already achieved the most important thing: dismantling Hamas as an organized army capable of an Oct. 7 attack,” he said. “It can’t do it again.”

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