- Israel is more than three months into its fight against Hamas following the Oct. 7 terror attacks.
- But as the Israeli military enters a new phase of the war, it faces a no-win situation.
- Analysts say the IDF is balancing its response to calls to reduce combat intensity with its goal of crushing Hamas.
Hamas’ brutality has drawn Israel into what looks like a no-win situation, a war in which it is trying to destroy the militant group but can’t keep up the same pressure without backlash over the devastation it brings.
After three months of hard fighting in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military is facing a major dilemma as it moves into a new phase of its bloody war against Hamas: balancing its aim of crushing the militant group and its response to growing calls to reduce combat intensity to avoid endangering innocent Palestinians in the crowded enclave.
To achieve its aims, which might not even be possible, Israel will need to fight with the same intensity in Gaza’s south as it did in the north if it is to have any hope of degrading Hamas’ capabilities, but this aspect of the conflict is exactly what has caused so many problems, a retired general told Business Insider.
“They’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t, because if they don’t, they’re not going to achieve the objectives that they set out to,” said Maj. Gen. Charlie Herbert, a former officer in the British army. It’s not an ideal situation.
The ongoing war, which was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel, has featured a devastating Israeli aerial bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion of Gaza. Operations began in the northern half of the coastal enclave but have since transitioned to the south, which has seen the bulk of recent fighting. Now, Israeli officials are signaling the movement toward a third phase that they say will be more targeted and surgical.
In a document released last week, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant outlined his vision for the transition. Northern Gaza, he wrote, will see a “new combat approach” that includes raids, unspecified aerial and ground activities, special operations, and destruction of Hamas’ vast tunnel network that permit its hit-and-run tactics.
Gallant said efforts in the south will focus on decapitating Hamas’ leadership, who remain at large in Gaza and beyond, and returning the more than 100 hostages who are still held captive by the militants.
“This is a cross-stage effort. It will continue for as long as is deemed necessary,” he wrote, adding that the fight will continue until Israel achieves its goals: returning all the hostages, eliminating Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, and demilitarizing Gaza.
War analysts say that for Israel to achieve its goals, it will need to continue operating with the same intensity that it has over the past three months. But it is exactly that intensity that has led to a soaring death toll in Gaza, international condemnation, widespread calls for a ceasefire, and even pressure from the US, a key ally, to lower the temperature of the conflict.
“Israeli forces have degraded several Hamas units and rendered others combat ineffective, particularly in the northern Gaza strip, since the beginning of the clearing operations,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote in an early January assessment after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced they would pull some troops from the northern part of the enclave.
“But Hamas’ military forces are neither defeated nor destroyed at this time. Decreased Israeli pressure would, in fact, allow Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities and infrastructure,” ISW analysts said, adding that any “reconstitution is inconsistent with the stated Israeli war aims, which are to destroy Hamas militarily and politically.”
Israel says it has killed or captured up to 9,000 of the estimated 30,000 Hamas militants, and some experts warn that the death and destruction of Israel’s campaign could create more terrorists by radicalizing survivors. Gaza’s health ministry pegs the death toll at over 22,000 — it doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants, but a majority are believed to be women and children.
More than 180 IDF soldiers have been killed in the ongoing hostilities, adding to the more than 370 who were murdered on Oct. 7 alongside some 700 civilians.
An Israeli military spokesperson said on Monday that Hamas no longer functions as an “organized military framework” in the north and confirmed that the IDF is operating differently there. The main focus is now central and southern Gaza, especially areas around the city of Khan Younis, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said at a briefing, adding that fighting will continue into the new year.
The IDF did not respond to Business Insider’s request for comment on the challenges as it enters a new phase.
Herbert, the former officer in the British army who completed several tours in Afghanistan and served as the senior NATO advisor to the country’s interior ministry, said that the IDF’s overwhelming force and firepower are essential to accomplishing it goals, but also are what precisely has triggered the growing pressure to scale down the campaign.
While it is entirely possible that Israel can defeat Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, it is less likely that the IDF can actually eliminate Hamas as a political organization or quash what it stands for, Herbert said.
A more effective approach, he argued, would have involved diplomatic and economic efforts rather than solely the military element. And even if Israel does manage to completely eradicate Hamas, an unlikely outcome, this still opens the door to an alternative group filling the void in the future.
Questions remain over how Israel is planning for a post-war Gaza. Some fear that the IDF is doomed to reoccupy the enclave, something it hasn’t done in nearly two decades and could set the stage for violent resistance.
Others have voiced concerns that the country may repeat US mistakes following its 2003 invasion of Iraq: failing to create a solid post-conflict plan, which led to an array of consequences like the expansion of Iranian power in the region and a prolonged insurgency.
In Gallant’s document outlining the future of the war, there is a fourth phase dubbed the “day after.” It’s broken down into visions for security and civil life: Hamas won’t pose a threat to Israel, Gaza will be fully governed by Palestinian civilians without ties to militant groups, and the IDF will have operational freedom of action there.
Among the other details, Gallant also wants a multinational task force charged with “rehabilitation” and “restoration” active in the enclave.
Gallant’s plan was reportedly met with disapproval by some of Israel’s more right-wing lawmakers, some of whom have received international condemnation for plans of their own. But it did touch upon some — though not all — of what the Biden administration hopes to see in the region when the war is over.
Speaking to reporters on Monday amid his latest trip to meet with Middle Eastern leaders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there’s “broad agreement” on a few objectives for the future of the region. These include that Israel can live without fear of terror attacks, unity between the West Bank and Gaza under local governance, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
“No one thinks that anything will happen overnight,” Blinken said. “But we agreed to work together and to coordinate our efforts to help Gaza stabilize and recover, to chart a political path forward for the Palestinians, and to work toward long-term peace, security, and stability in the region as a whole.”
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