Amir Levy/Getty Images
Israel remains committed to a long-term timetable to take out Hamas despite growing U.S. impatience
Israel’s military achievements in Gaza are significant but many challenges remain and the most intensive battles may be yet to come
Even as a stream of U.S. officials arrived this week to discuss with Israeli leaders the need to lower the intensity of fighting in the next phase of the war in Gaza, Israeli military experts believe the country needs more time to defeat Hamas — and that some of the most intense battles might be yet to come.
The IDF estimates that it has already eliminated more than 25 Hamas battalions in fighting so far and killed many of the organization’s senior commanders, including Ahmed Al-Ghandoor, who directed the terror group’s operations in Northern Gaza, and Rawhi Mushtaha, a political and strategic leader considered to be very close to Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, according to information published by the IDF Spokesperson’s unit.
In addition, Israel’s current National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi said earlier this month that in total some 7,000 Hamas terrorists had been killed in the fighting, and although the army would not confirm that figure to Jewish Insider, it has reported almost daily on the killings, capture, or surrender of hundreds of terrorists, particularly in the last few weeks.
On Sunday, the IDF also revealed that it had uncovered a massive tunnel system spanning some 2.5 miles starting just a few feet from the Erez crossing, the checkpoint that prior to Oct. 7 had been used by hundreds of thousands of Gazans to reach medical treatment and work placements in Israel. The tunnel, which the army said was reinforced with concrete and equipped with electricity, ventilation, sewage, communication networks and rails, snaked below hospitals, schools, kindergartens and other sensitive sites.
Brig. Gen. (retired) Amir Avivi, CEO of the Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), told JI that one of the more enduring tasks now faced by the army is to dismantle this vast tunnel network, an effort that would likely employ a variety of methods, including flooding the shafts with seawater and bulldozing the structures or filling them in with cement.
“This process will take a very, very long time,” said Avivi, noting that while the army was mostly in control of the northern part of Gaza, the area “was not completely clean” and much of the threat was coming from small groups of Hamas terrorists still hiding in tunnels.
Avivi, who previously headed the army’s engineering corps and was responsible for the Gaza region, said the same process the IDF had employed in the north would now follow in Khan Younis, which is considered to be one of Hamas’ strongholds in the south.
“It should take the army around two weeks to take full control of Khan Younis and then there will be two main areas left to deal with – the refugee camps of Deir al-Balah and Bureij in central Gaza and the southernmost city of Rafah,” he said.
“It is a long process, and the army is doing it step by step,” Avivi continued, adding that overall, “it could take another two or three months to fully dismantle the Hamas governmental and military capabilities.”
But U.S. officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the latter of whom was in Israel on Monday, are reportedly pressuring Israel to wrap up the main bulk of the fighting by early January and then move to a more low-intensity operation, including potentially withdrawing most IDF troops to the Gaza periphery.
Avivi said that such an idea was, “completely detached from reality on the ground” — a sentiment echoed by others with whom JI spoke.
“If the expectation in the U.S. is that they will go into elections and things will be quiet then they do not understand that what is happening right now is not just about Gaza,” Avivi said, noting that there is also the additional threats emanating from Iran’s terror proxies, mostly Hezbollah, which sits on Israel’s northern border, but also the Houthis in Yemen.
“Israel has to push forward, and the government is saying every day that it is going to destroy Hamas,” Avivi emphasized. “Israel cannot destroy Hamas without taking over the camps, Rafah and the Philadelphi Route [along the border with Egypt].”
Brig. Gen. (Retired) Yaakov Nagel, Israel’s former acting national security adviser and now a senior research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, also said that Israel would not be rushed and not get distracted over post-war planning conversations unless the goals to eliminate Hamas’ military, capture and even assassinate the Palestinian terror group’s top leadership and to return alive the remaining 129 hostages are accomplished.
“Israel has three main objectives in this war and all three of them need to be fully fulfilled,” Nagel said.
“Some of the missions contradict each other,” Nagel admitted, referring mainly to the operation to save those kidnapped during Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel versus continuing to ramp up military pressure to destroy Hamas’ military infrastructure and governing capabilities in the Strip and capture or kill its leaders.
On Friday, the IDF announced that three hostages who had managed to escape from Hamas captivity were inadvertently killed by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, where fierce clashes with Hamas terrorists are still ongoing.
“Gaza is the biggest terror base in the world and from time to time there are operational accidents and casualties,” said Nagel.
Despite the tragic incident — and the ongoing battles in Shejaiya, as well as Jabaliya, a city just north of Gaza City — Nagel added that so far “the war against Hamas above ground is going almost the way that we planned it and we will probably finish the first phase sometime at the end of January or the beginning of February but then, we have a long way to go to destroy what is beneath Gaza.”
Nagel said the second phase, which Sullivan said last week should see a reduction in its intensity, could take up to two more years. That’s not taking into consideration other regional players who are also creating tension, such as the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, a terror proxy of Tehran.
Nagel also mentioned the need for Israel to secure the Egypt-Gaza border. Smuggling tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, he noted, were the conduit through which Hamas secured much of its massive weapons arsenal, including long-range missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as the heavy machinery needed to construct Gaza’s vast advanced subterranean system.
Danny Orbach, a military historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that in every war success could only be measured within the framework of achieving the stated goals.
“Israel’s achievements so far are impressive from a professional point of view,” he said. “Hamas had a fighting force of around 30,000 and Israel has killed around 7,000 and injured many more.”
Orbach also noted that Hamas’ attacks in northern Gaza appeared to be less coordinated than they were ten weeks ago and that Israel now occupies most of the northern region, with the last vestige of Hamas’ defense being in Jabaliya and Shujaiya.”
He explained that in Khan Younis, which is further south and is Hamas’ main center of gravity, the IDF’s upcoming battles there “will be hard and long.” Israel reached the city two weeks ago and is following a similar strategic pattern as in northern Gaza.
Orbach said that the military’s tactic was to start by encircling an area in order to isolate the fighters inside and then engage in raids of increasing intensity using special units that are eventually replaced by more stationary regular military units.
“So far, this tactic is going quite well,” the military historian noted, adding that the army’s various branches – the navy, the air force and ground forces, as well as cyber and intelligence units – are well-coordinated, which has contributed so far to its military success.
Orbach told JI that “anyone who thinks that Israel will withdraw to the borders is out of touch with military reality.”
He said he believed the U.S. pressure was more an attempt at calming internal public opinion in America than at pressuring Israel because “there is no logical military way to destroy the Hamas regime without having real boots on the ground.”
“Bilateral relations are not based on dictates, they are based on conversation,” Orbach pointed out. “Especially in the Israel-U.S. relationship, they cannot ignore their partners and Israel has not ignored the requests of the U.S., to open the Kerem Shalom [humanitarian] crossing to allow more aid into Gaza, including fuel, even though it would have been better not to do so.”
Alternatively, he said, America will likely listen to Israel and not force it to “give up a core issue in this strategic war.”