Can Israel achieve its war goals in Gaza?

Since the start of the war in Gaza, Israel’s armed forces have pursued their twin objectives — “dismantling” Hamas rule in the territory and rescuing all remaining Israeli hostages seized by the group — with ferocity and determination.

Three months on, however, many in Israel, including Gadi Eisenkot, a member of the war cabinet, have begun to question whether either or both of those aims can be achieved.

Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli intelligence officer and expert on Palestinian affairs, said Israel faced a dilemma. “We’ve reached a T-junction: either you reach a full deal [with Hamas for the hostages] and withdraw, or you go for the full toppling of the Hamas regime and the conquest of all of Gaza,” he said. “You need to choose.”

Senior leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defence minister Yoav Gallant and the army’s top brass have nevertheless emphasised the need to continue fighting — even as Israel has dialled down the intensity of its offensive in Gaza.

They maintain that only military power will facilitate the hostages’ release and that leaving Hamas in control of Gaza is unthinkable. Israel is still striving, as Netanyahu has said repeatedly, for “total victory”.

“The long-term agreements with Hamas [in the past] had only one reason: they understood that they might pay a military price,” says one senior Israeli military official. “This is the effect of pressure. We need to use military force. Only through conversations with them, it simply won’t work.”

But critics of Netanyahu’s strategy argue that the more than 130 remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza — whose fate dominates the conversation in Israel about the war — probably do not have weeks, let alone years, to survive in the harsh conditions of wartime captivity.

At the same time, there are questions over whether Hamas can be toppled as Gaza’s governing and military power under the existing strategy. Its three most senior leaders, Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, remain at large.

In pockets of decimated north Gaza, Hamas fighters and operatives have already re-emerged after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew.

“You left Gaza City, so how can you set up the ‘day after’ Hamas if Hamas comes back?” asks Milshtein. “Every place you leave it can easily revert to what it was . . . without [Israeli] boots on the ground. So what does ‘victory’ actually mean?”

Hamas leaders Mohammed Deif, left, and Yahya Sinwar remain at large © Wikimedia commons/Getty

After the shock of the October 7 assault by Hamas, in which 1,200 people were killed and another 250 taken hostage, according to official Israeli figures, the IDF launched an intense three-week campaign of air strikes, followed by a mass ground invasion initially targeting north Gaza.

At its height in late December, the IDF had nearly four divisions of armour and infantry, backed by artillery and close air support, operating across the battered Palestinian territory from Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south.

Israel mobilised hundreds of thousands of reservists at the start of the war, although a large proportion have now been sent home to rest.

One reason for the drawdown is the potential for a larger conflict with Hizbollah militants in Lebanon. But another is that the war in Gaza has reached a turning point after shifting to its “low intensity” third phase.

The impact of the war is already devastating. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 26,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities; 85 per cent of the population has been displaced; swaths of the enclave have been reduced to rubble; and international aid groups warn of a deepening humanitarian disaster.

Yet for all that, the IDF’s military achievements so far had been more tactical than strategic, said several Israeli military analysts and officials.

The IDF estimates that some 10,000 Hamas fighters have been killed, out of a total 30,000, with 17 of the group’s 24 battalions “dismantled” — that is — no longer functioning as organised military units.

Hamas fighters surrender at a hospital in Gaza, according to the IDF © Israel Defense Forces/EyePress/Reuters

But Milshtein argues this “doesn’t guarantee anything: these are conventional military terms being imposed on a much more flexible force . . . who have shifted to guerrilla war par excellence”.

Instead of large-scale units trying to engage massed Israeli formations, Hamas fighters have dispersed into small cells and squads, deploying sniper fire, improvised explosive devices, and especially rocket-propelled grenades to lethal effect.

Since the start of the IDF ground offensive in late October, 220 Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 1,000 injured — below expectations, said analysts and officials, but still painful for an Israeli public that every evening commemorates the fallen on the main television broadcasts.

Complicating the war for Israel, Hamas fighters and leaders have taken refuge in a labyrinthine underground tunnel system, estimated by the Israelis to be more than 500 kilometres long, that has exceeded Israel’s prewar intelligence assessments.

Israel had found about 1,600 tunnel shafts and destroyed hundreds, the IDF said. But given the scale of the challenge, says the senior Israeli military officer, the goal cannot be to eliminate every last inch of the vast network, but rather “denying the underground dimension from Hamas . . .[by] hitting the strategic centre of gravity of the [tunnel] system”.

Israel was targeting critical infrastructure such as underground command and control centres, main passage links, and weapons production facilities, said Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser.

“I’m also not sure there’s enough TNT in Israel to destroy all the tunnels,” he added.

Israeli soldiers in a tunnel in northern Gaza. The IDF says it has found about 1,600 tunnel shafts and destroyed hundreds © Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

One clear achievement is the vast reduction of rocket fire from Gaza, allowing most of Israel, including its south, to return to a semblance of normality. According to the IDF, Hamas and other Palestinian groups have fired some 12,000 rockets since the start of the war, with a quarter landing inside Gaza.

Yet Hamas still retains the capability to launch barrages, especially from areas that Israeli ground troops have not yet reached. And the group was probably choosing to conserve its arsenal, said a person familiar with Israel’s war plans.

The IDF, which has cut its presence inside Gaza to two divisions, has counselled patience and flexibility. “The war is not over. It will continue for the foreseeable future . . . at different levels of power in different geographical areas,” said the senior Israeli military officer.

Israel wants to make the “low intensity” phase of the Gaza campaign as sustainable as possible, while preparing troops for a possible conflict in Lebanon, said analysts and officials.

Smoke billows across the Israel-Lebanon border. IDF soldiers are preparing in case the conflict with Hizbollah escalates © Hasan Fneich/AFP/Getty Images

The IDF had also begun conserving munitions in Gaza in case the conflict with Hizbollah escalates, said the person familiar with Israeli war plans.

In Gaza, one reinforced division of seven brigades has encircled Khan Younis, the strip’s second-largest city and a Hamas stronghold. Fierce fighting took place there over the past week above and below ground, as IDF forces searched for senior Hamas figures.

They are also searching for the hostages, who Israeli intelligence believes have probably been placed around Sinwar as a human shield.

It remains unclear if, and how, the IDF will send forces further south into Rafah to seal off smuggling routes connecting Egypt to Gaza — a critical objective for Israeli war planners but hugely complicated by the mass displacement of Gazan civilians and Cairo’s objections.

A second division of the military has cut Gaza in two, holding a corridor that divides the north and south of the territory while conducting targeted operations in both directions. Additional brigades have been redeployed on the outskirts of Gaza. Some of these forces are conducting targeted raids into northern Gaza, while others are clearing a likely 1km-wide “buffer zone” on the Palestinian side.

The overall strategy, said supporters of the Israeli war plan, was to slowly degrade Hamas’ capabilities through a campaign like the one waged by the IDF in the early 2000s in the occupied West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

“In 2002 it took us a month or so to take the [Palestinian] cities, and three or four more years to ‘clean’ the West Bank, reduce the number of terrorists and infrastructure. And we’re still there going in almost every day today,” says Amidror.

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, and absent a surprise battlefield achievement, Netanyahu and the IDF appear to be settling in for a long campaign of attrition against Hamas. “We can continue for another year or more,” said the person familiar with Israel’s war plans. “And we’ll see who breaks first.”

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