After a long period of more than 100 days of war, Israel’s limited progress in its goal of eliminating Hamas has raised questions among the military leadership about the possibility of achieving the country’s key war objective in the short term: the elimination of Hamas and the liberation. of the Israeli hostages who are still being held captive in Gaza.
In this phase of the war, Israel’s dominance of Gaza was not much anticipated in the initial war plans. This slower-than-expected progress has caused some commanders to privately express dissatisfaction with the government’s civilian strategy towards Gaza, concluding that the release of more than 100 Israeli hostages in Gaza may require diplomatic rather than military interventions.
The duality of Israel’s goals—the liberation of the captives and the destruction of Hamas—now seem incompatible, as shown in interviews with four senior military commanders, who preferred to remain anonymous due to restrictions on openly discussing their personal views.
In addition, there is a problem between the time needed for Israel to completely eliminate Hamas—a long war with the group of underground tunnels—and the pressure from Israel’s allies to end the war immediately. , in front of more and more civilians. died.
The generals also noted that a protracted war to completely dismantle Hamas would likely result in the deaths of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since October 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel, causing an estimated 1,200 deaths and 240 injuries, according to Israeli calculations.
Although Hamas released more than 100 hostages in November in exchange for 3,000 terrorists imprisoned in Israel, they have stated that they will not release the remaining captives unless Israel completely stops the war. Most of the remaining captives are believed to be under the control of Hamas cells in an underground network of tunnels that stretch hundreds of kilometers beneath Gaza.
Gadi Eisenkot, former army chief and member of the war cabinet, revealed a division within the government by saying in a television interview that the idea of rescuing hostages through military operations was a you “illusion.”
“The situation in Gaza is that the goals of the war have not been fulfilled,” declared Eisenkot, adding, “For me, there is no problem. The mission is to save civilians rather than kill an enemy.
This situation has exacerbated the military’s frustration with the skepticism of Israel’s civilian leaders, according to four commanders.
The commanders blamed part of the army’s condition on the battlefield on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s skepticism over a post-war plan for Gaza. Without a clear long-term vision for the territory, the military cannot make short-term tactical decisions about how to control areas of Gaza that are not yet accessible. The capture of the southern part of Gaza, adjacent to Egypt, requires greater coordination in this country, which is not ready to participate without guarantees from Israel about the future post-war plan, three commanders commented.
Reached for comment, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that “the prime minister is leading the war against Hamas with unprecedented achievements in a decisive manner.” In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu promised to achieve “total victory over Hamas” and the rescue of the hostages.
The Israeli military declined to comment on the commanders’ statements.
The generals fear that a long campaign, without a post-war plan, will reduce any remaining support from Israel’s allies, limiting their willingness to provide additional ammunition.
Foreign leaders have expressed alarm at the number of casualties caused by Israel’s campaign: more than 24,000 Gazans have died in the war, according to Hamas, which has led to accusations—strongly rejected by Israel—of genocide. Gaza authorities did not specify how many of the dead were fighters, but the Israeli military said the figure included more than 8,000 fighters.
The families of the hostages strongly advocated the release of their loved ones through diplomatic channels rather than military operations. There have been cases where some hostages taken to Gaza have been declared dead, but it has not been determined whether these deaths were caused by Israeli forces or Hamas.
Of the more than 100 hostages released since the start of the war, only one survived a military operation. Others were exchanged with Palestinian terrorists during the November ceasefire.
By focusing on destroying the tunnels, the Israeli military runs the risk of making mistakes that could result in the deaths of many Israeli citizens. In December, three Israeli hostages lost their lives at the hands of their own soldiers, despite waving a white flag and shouting in Hebrew.
Andreas Krieg, a war expert at King’s College London, described the situation as unfathomable. According to Krieg, the Gaza tunnels are not a good environment for rescue operations. “If you try to free the hostages with special forces in the tunnels, you can kill them directly, with explosives, or in a shootout,” he said.
Although many tunnels have been destroyed, the fact that some remain intact does not keep Hamas in an invincible position, making it less likely that they will release the hostages unless a complete cessation of hostilities is agreed.
The only viable alternative is a diplomatic deal, which could include the release of hostages in exchange for thousands of Palestinian terrorists detained by Israel, along with a ceasefire. Three of the commanders interviewed considered this diplomatic route the fastest way to return the Israelis still in captivity.
Some members of the Israeli governing coalition believe that the limited progress of the war is due to the recent decision of the government, under pressure from the United States and other allies, to slow down operations. However, military leaders indicated that their campaign was hampered by a more sophisticated Hamas infrastructure than Israeli intelligence officials expected.
Before the Hamas terrorist invasion of southern Israel, officials estimated that the network of tunnels under Gaza stretched up to 100 miles; Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, announced in 2021 that it would be closer to 300 kilometers. Military officials now believe that the network stretches up to 450 miles, with at least 100 miles under Khan Yunis alone, spread over several levels, and about 5,700 access roads, which makes it difficult to disconnect.
Finding and excavating each tunnel is a dangerous and lengthy process, full of pitfalls, according to the Israeli military. Once inside, even the highly trained Israeli commanders lost much of their military advantage, as the tunnels were narrow and the fighting was reduced to hand-to-hand combat.
Initially, the Israeli military estimated that it would establish operational control over the main cities of Gaza by the end of December. However, by mid-January, the advance towards Rafah and full control of Khan Yunis had not been achieved.
After appearing to reestablish control of northern Gaza late last year, the army said the war had entered a new, less intense phase, withdrawing about half of the 50,000 troops deployed. there. This created a power vacuum, allowing Hamas to reassert its authority in the region.
Recently, Hamas terrorists in northern Gaza launched a series of rockets into Israel, and Hamas officials began restoring order and social services in northern cities.
Top Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Sinwar, Deif, and Issa, remain at large.
Some Israeli politicians, such as Danny Danon of the ruling Likud party, advocate using more military pressure to force Hamas to release more hostages without a permanent ceasefire. However, military analysts, such as Dr. Krieg, argued that increasing military strength was likely to be ineffective.
“This is an unwinnable battle,” said Dr. Krieg, adding that usually, in an unwinnable war, you reach a point of recognition and retreat, something Israel has never done.
Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained that all of Israel’s goals could still be achieved and rejected the idea of a ceasefire. “Stopping the war before the goals are achieved will send a message of weakness,” he said.