The IDF invasion is progressing, and the military is starting to seriously “clean” even some deeper parts of northern Gaza of Hamas terrorists. This has left top IDF officials, if not euphoric, feeling that they have taken control of the war narrative.
But even if they are achieving their daily tactical objectives and even if they say their success is moving faster than they expected, it is extremely unclear how much fundamental progress has been made in toppling Hamas regarding many key parameters.
To date, about a week into the invasion and despite its many successes, the IDF is far from having killed or arrested the vast majority of Hamas’s forces. It also has not succeeded in even slowing, let alone eliminating, its rocket fire on either the Gaza border communities or the Tel Aviv area. In addition, the IDF – and the country – suffered a reeling blow this week when dozens of soldiers were killed in Gaza.But let’s frame these challenges and setbacks against the IDF’s clear successes.
What have the IDF’s clear successes been in Gaza?
After an initial horrific first day on October 7, the positive trajectory for the IDF versus Hamas has been clear.
Within days of October 7, 1,500 Hamas terrorists in Israel’s South were killed, and by the end of the first week, Hamas was cleared out of the South.
Israel then spent a couple of weeks hammering Hamas with unrelenting airstrikes.
About a week ago, the IDF started a slow-motion, incremental invasion of northern Gaza, with some smaller incursions also into other parts of Gaza.
At press time, the IDF had killed thousands of Hamas terrorists, including the 1,500 killed in the early days.
With large numbers of troops, the IDF has penetrated into Gaza neighborhoods that it had not entered in nearly 20 years, including the Shati refugee camp near the coast, the Zeitun neighborhood, and the al-Furqan neighborhood.
SO FAR, the mix of using armored personnel carriers in conjunction with artillery, tanks, drones, and aircraft is mostly succeeding in flushing out Hamas’s would-be ambushing forces without a significant loss of life to IDF forces.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad are estimated to have a fighting force of 15,000-50,000. Whatever “thousands killed” means, which the IDF has said it has achieved, that is nowhere near even the lower estimate of enemy forces in Gaza.
How much of Hamas’s forces must be killed to render it unable to maintain control of Gaza is hard to say, but it is difficult to see that happening if less than 60%-80% of its forces are not arrested or killed.
So how does the IDF achieve this, which it has not to date?
Some of this depends on where Hamas is hiding.
If a majority of its forces are in tunnels in the north, then once the IDF blankets the north with more troops and destroys or enters the vast network of tunnels (some estimate 1,300 for all of Gaza), it will find and arrest or kill most of Hamas.
But what if a majority of Hamas forces are hiding in Gaza’s dozens of hospitals? A recent UN estimate said that 117,000 Palestinians are taking refuge in Gaza’s many hospitals.
If only 10% of those “refugees” double as Hamas fighters who are temporarily fading into the civilian populace, how will the IDF be able to know when it encounters Hamas terrorists? And when will the IDF make the difficult decision to approach and take control of sensitive locations like the hospitals in question?
Of all of the hospitals, Shifa Hospital, which is in northern Gaza, is known as the most important because many top Hamas officials are said to hide there anytime war breaks out. When will the IDF take over Shifa, and will it use air power and artillery or go in with special forces?
As soon as the IDF does “take the plunge” to systematically take away tunnels as well as hospitals, mosques, and UN facilities, as hideout spots for Hamas, the terrorist group will drive up the cost in IDF deaths and Palestinian civilian deaths.
Israelis have not flinched all that much to date from losing a couple dozen soldiers in the war’s recent fighting, given that Hamas slaughtered over 1,000 civilians and killed around 1,400 Israelis total in the first day or so of the war.
But when the invasion starts going systematically into the areas where Hamas is hiding, and a couple dozen dead Israeli soldiers rises to over 100 – or reaches the 2014 IDF intelligence estimates of the cost in lives of an invasion being 500-1,000 IDF soldiers – will the Israeli public still maintain support?
Another possibility is that most Hamas forces fled to southern Gaza with the one million civilians who fled there from northern Gaza.
The IDF has activities in the south, but the invasion has not started there in a serious way.
If most Hamas terrorists are in the south, then until the IDF starts invading there in a serious way, the true fight will not have started (this despite approaching a month into the war).
WITH ALL of these questions in the air, a fundamental question for Israeli resilience and toleration of continuation of the war will be whether the IDF can reduce rocket fire substantially.
The IDF has excitedly announced that several top rocket commanders and anti-tank commanders had been killed and countless rocket crews had been bombed, but as of Wednesday, Hamas was still managing to fire at a steady pace both at the Gaza border communities and at Tel Aviv and other areas in the center of the country.
If Israeli soldier casualties go up and rockets continue without a quick end in sight, and without killing enough Hamas forces to bring an effective end to Hamas’s ability to control Gaza once the IDF leaves, support in Israel for a continued invasion of several months could falter.
Likewise, the longer the invasion continues, with all of the visual, public relations, and diplomatic problems it carries, the greater the pressure will be from the US and the EU for Jerusalem to halt the invasion – whether “the job” is finished or not.
The latest attack on the Jabalya refugee camp, which seems to have hit many civilians as well as many Hamas terrorists, or some similar future incident, is a case in point.
The US and EU will say that Israel did far more than ever before against Hamas, that they gave the Jewish state greater backing for this than usual, but that the cost in Palestinian civilian lives has gotten too high (it already dwarfs the number of Israeli civilians killed, even if the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry numbers are exaggerated), and that it is unclear whether the IDF can succeed in any reasonable amount of time to fully uproot Hamas in any scenario.
An interesting twist is whether simply killing top Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif would be enough to topple Hamas without cleaning out a majority of its forces. Chances are probably not. As powerful as that duo is, there were many Hamas leaders before them who were killed, and the terrorist group and other terrorist groups in Gaza have always made comebacks.
As long as the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved or someone ruling Gaza is powerful enough to maintain stability and avoid conflict with Israel, simply killing top leaders is unlikely to end the anti-Israel “resistance,” which is a decades-old ideology.
This also fuels the next question that we are not even close to: who will Israel try to hand control of Gaza over to?
The question is “try,” because no one may be willing to take control: whether the Palestinian Authority, the UN, a Western coalition, an Arab coalition, or a hybrid of the above. And anyone who dares to take control may fall to whatever Gaza resistance comes next.
In a small but more positive trend, Hezbollah is being somewhat pushed backward from Israel’s northern border, The Jerusalem Post understands.
Though the Lebanese terrorist group has and will still manage to fire off rockets and anti-tank missiles, constant preemptive strikes by IDF drones, aircraft, artillery, and tanks against Hezbollah terrorists approaching close to the border have sometimes forced the group to attack from slightly deeper in its territory.
While this is more of a tactical win than a strategic win, combined with the strategic picture of Israel succeeding at keeping Hezbollah from intervening with more of its war powers, it has freed up Israel’s hand in the south.
Whether that free hand will move fast enough and skillfully enough to end the Hamas threat after over 15 years remains the open question.•