Israel advances rapidly in Gaza, but eliminating Hamas leaders to take time

Israel advances rapidly in Gaza, but eliminating Hamas leaders to take time

THE Israeli army has been advancing quicker than its own commanders anticipated in encircling Gaza City and reaching Hamas headquarters, but accomplishing the goal of eliminating the group’s political and military leadership would take time, a commodity Israel is currently short of. 

Taking into account American pressure for a humanitarian pause, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told American broadcaster ABC News on Monday that Israel might agree to "small cease-fires, an hour here and an hour there," for delivering humanitarian aid, emphasizing that a full cease-fire "will delay the war effort."

Israel’s vision of a knockout victory over Hamas is simple: assassinating or capturing the organization’s entire military and political leadership, killing all the planners and perpetrators of the Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel, eliminating all Hamas arsenals and firepower, and denying the organization any ability to run the Gaza Strip or maintain its sovereignty there.

'Give us time'

No Israeli decision-maker is willing to bet on how long it will take to achieve such ambitious goals. Politicians and generals have been preparing the Israeli public for a long war. When pressed, they talk about a month or two of high-intensity warfare, followed by a force drawdown and continued operations in Gaza to complete the tasks. 

This second stage would allow time to build a mechanism for transferring control of the enclave to a third party. Force commanders on the ground, some of whom spoke to Al-Monitor in recent days, believe these goals are achievable: Give us time and backup, and we will do the rest, they say. 

They will have their work cut out for them in convincing Israelis that the Hamas threat has been eliminated. The Oct. 7 carnage destroyed the nation’s collective and personal sense of security. Restoring Israelis' self-confidence and convincing residents of the Gaza border communities to return to their homes at the site of the worst civilian disaster to strike Israel in its 75-year history will be a residual uphill battle. 

The top brass says the war plan is advancing faster than expected, with forces exerting unprecedented pressure on Hamas. Three divisions are currently operating in Gaza with artillery, helicopter gunships, drones and fighter jets backing up their advance every step of the way. The forces have encircled Gaza City from the north, south, west and east, hemming in the Hamas command and control centers located inside and below the beleaguered town. The Israeli Combat Engineering Corps has been exposing and bombing every Hamas shaft and tunnel along the troops’ advance.

According to the military, Hamas has so far avoided for the most part confronting the troops head on, opting to exploit its advantage in ambushing and attacking them from tunnels, and booby-trapping their route. 

The number of Israeli casualties, as of now, is at the low end of the preliminary estimates provided by planners. Based on similar battles fought by US and other troops over the past decade — against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Mosul and Raqqa, for example — the projections indicated a daily death toll of four to 20 fighters. At the moment, the numbers are lower. On the other hand, Hamas is not showing any signs of breaking and has maintained much of its military strength.

"This will not end until we reach the command bunker of Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif," a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, referring to the top Hamas leader in Gaza and the chief of its military wing. "It will be expensive and ugly, but we will not leave Gaza before that happens."

Hamas knows that ultimately it does not stand a chance against what Israel describes as an unprecedented "rolling curtain" of artillery and aerial fire. 

This week, I visited the 162nd Armor Division, aka the Steel Formation, which directs all the firepower at Gaza. A representative of the military advocate’s office embedded with the unit approves the targets in accordance with the international laws of war and intelligence information. The UN and other rights groups have accused Israel and Hamas of not following international laws of war.

"We enter a new area only after the population has left and we have taken all measures to get them to leave. We only strike targets used for terrorist activity and Hamas operatives," one of the senior officers explained. "We accompany the forces with a screen of fire and destroy everything that threatens them, using everything the division has to offer, including close air force cover."

In a clear indication of things to come, the military’s top spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, has repeatedly mentioned in his recent daily briefings that al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, shields the underground Hamas nerve center and military command. Reporters have also been presented with video and audio clips, photos and testimony to prove that Hamas was launching rockets at Israel from tunnel shafts located dozens of meters from the hospital.

Hospital compound not off-limits

Military and security officials admit that Israel will eventually have little choice but to roll into the compound and purge it of the Hamas commanders. To that end, advanced discussions are underway on equipping field hospitals inside or near the Gaza Strip, on the Egyptian side, as an alternative to al-Shifa hospital. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have already begun setting up such facilities. 

Preparing public opinion for a potential operation at the hospital site as the pinnacle of its war against Hamas, Israel has repeatedly insisted that it cannot guarantee wartime immunity to hospitals harboring assailants. 

A senior Israeli source told Al-Monitor that the Hamas leadership was mistaken in thinking Israel would avoid the hospital compound. “Wherever Hamas is located, we are allowed to harm it. This is a murderous ISIS-style terrorist organization that commits horrific war crimes on a daily basis. They will not escape punishment this time," he said speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel has met the goals set out in its updated planning for the first stage of the ground offensive, launched 10 days ago. The military estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 assailants have been killed, including some 15 officers at tactical command levels (battalion and brigade). Commanders are satisfied with what they describe as almost perfect coordination among air, ground, naval, intelligence and other support units. 

But this performance does not diminish from the magnitude of the intelligence and tactical failure that allowed some 3,000 Hamas assailants to slaughter 1,400 Israelis, and take back to Gaza more than 200 hostages, according to Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates. The Hamas-run Health Ministry has claimed that over 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Oct. 7. Israeli authorities have raised doubts about those claims, but the war — now in its second month — is the deadliest since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

The military’s wish for time and patience should be addressed mainly to Washington, where patience with the disastrous civilian death toll in Gaza is waning. The demand for a humanitarian pause, already presented to Israel by top American officials, is expected to intensify as early as next week. IDF commanders say that Israel must find a way to persuade the Biden administration to allow it more time as a prerequisite for a real and effective victory over Hamas. 

Ben Caspit, Al-Monitor