As Gaza War Grinds On, Israel Prepares for a Prolonged Conflict

As the war in Gaza rages on, the situation in the battered enclave is one of devastation and despair. More than 29,000 people have been killed, according to Gaza health officials, the majority in a relentless Israeli bombing campaign. Neighborhoods have been flattened, families wiped out, children orphaned, and an estimated 1.7 million people displaced.

While global scrutiny grows over Israel’s conduct in the war, the Israeli military, by its assessment, has delivered a major blow to the capabilities of Hamas, killing commanders, destroying tunnels and confiscating weapons. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal of destroying Hamas remains elusive, according to current and former Israeli security officials.

They anticipate a protracted campaign to defeat Hamas.

An Israeli military intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under military protocol, said that Israel was engaged in a comprehensive mission to unravel Hamas’s military capabilities.

“Is it possible this mission will be left for my children?” he said. “The answer is yes.”

U.S. officials say they believe Hamas has been constrained by the Israeli operations, but that Israel will not be able to achieve, in the foreseeable future, its goal of eliminating the group’s military capability. The officials requested anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.

Israel launched its assault on Gaza after a Hamas-led attack against Israel on Oct. 7 in which an estimate 1,400 people were killed or taken hostage,

Since then, Israel asserts it has killed more than 10,000 militants, but it hasn’t explained how it calculates the number and analysts say it is difficult to get a precise figure in the chaos of war. Israeli officials say the military has dismantled the command structure of 18 of Hamas’s 24 Gaza battalions, killing commanders, deputy commanders and other officers, effectively rendering the units ineffective.

But thousands of Hamas fighters, attached to remaining battalions or operating independently, remain above and below ground, according to the former and current security officials.

Hamas has revealed little about its own losses, although it has publicly mourned the deaths of at least two senior commanders, Ayman Nofal and Ahmad al-Ghandour. The group regularly issues statements saying it has hit Israeli soldiers across the enclave.

“The resistance is still able to inflict pain on the enemy,” Youssef Hamdan, Hamas’s representative in Algeria, said this month.

During the most recent fighting in Gaza, Israeli analysts say, Hamas has avoided direct confrontations with Israeli units, which Israel has cited as a sign of weakness.

But other experts say that Hamas has a reason for the strategy. The Hamas leadership, according to the Western officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, believes that if any meaningful amount of its military strength survives the war, it will represent victory.

Mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been meeting to try to hammer out a cease-fire deal. But Israel has shown no signs of relenting, pressing ahead in three distinct combat zones.

When the Israeli military’s 401st Brigade invaded Gaza in late October, it took an entire week of ferocious gun battles to reach the northwestern tip of Gaza City, according to military officials. Around three weeks ago, the brigade did it in two hours.

That contrast was a reflection of the blow the army had delivered to Hamas’s military capabilities in the north, dismantling its command structure, the former and current security officials said. Groups of Hamas fighters in the region were now operating in isolation, without support from the broader military wing, the military intelligence official said.

But the fact that Israeli soldiers were returning after withdrawing weeks earlier also indicated that Hamas was still active there. The Israeli military believes that at least 5,000 militants remain in the north, the intelligence officer said.

That would represent a small but formidable force capable of launching rockets into Israel and attacking ground troops, Israeli military officials said.

“Hamas hasn’t been completely defeated in northern Gaza,” said Col. Nochi Mandel, the chief of staff of the Nahal Brigade, which operates in the north. “We’ve done a lot of work, but there’s still more to do.”

The army returned this month to the vicinity of Al-Shifa Hospital, the scene of intense combat in November, to fight militants regrouping in the area, he said, and would go back to other parts of the north in the coming weeks. Colonel Mandel, however, emphasized that the army was no longer encountering strong resistance.

For the estimated 300,000 Palestinian civilians believed to still be in the north, the raids have been sudden and unpredictable, intensifying the humanitarian crisis. It has made it difficult to navigate the area, where food has become scarce and lawlessness is rife, residents say.

Yahya al-Masri, a doctor at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, said he had to walk an extra two miles to work last week when clashes erupted between his home and the hospital. “You try to avoid the fighting but there’s no feeling of safety,” said Mr. Masri, 28.

Current and former Israeli officials said Israeli forces would most likely continue to sweep northern Gaza to tamp down the Hamas insurgency for the foreseeable future, at least until there was some kind of political settlement for postwar Gaza.

Since the collapse of a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in early December, Israeli troops have advanced through the southern city of Khan Younis — sweeping westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli military officials have said that the city has been one of the most significant centers of Hamas military activity.

Israeli forces are targeting Hamas’s extensive underground tunnel network in and around the city, the intelligence official said. The official added that many key subterranean command centers had been destroyed, but most of the tunnel network remained intact.

Hamas fighters have conspicuously avoided confrontations with the army in Khan Younis, hoping to outlast their opponents in the safety of their underground warrens, military analysts said.

“The army is being very aggressive there without facing much competition from the other side,” said Amos Harel, a military affairs analyst for the Haaretz newspaper.

Over the past month, Israeli troops have focused on the western edge of Khan Younis, which includes two major medical complexes — Al-Amal and Nasser Medical Center — in order to target what officials called the last bastions of organized Hamas resistance in the area.

Israeli forces stormed the Nasser hospital on Thursday, and the military arrested hundreds of people inside who it said were affiliated with Hamas and other militant groups. Many Palestinians sheltering inside the complex fled for Rafah.

Ahmed Moghrabi, a surgeon at Nasser, described joining those fleeing as Israeli drones overhead called for the remaining displaced Palestinians to evacuate the hospital. As he left Khan Younis, he said he saw the devastated city outside the hospital walls for the first time in nearly a month.

“No more buildings. No more streets. Bodies rotting,” he said. “I can’t stop crying.”

Israel’s leaders have said that Israeli forces would ultimately enter Rafah, the southernmost city on the border with Egypt, to fight four Hamas battalions they say are based there. The Israeli military says that roughly 10,000 Hamas fighters remain in the area.

But it is an operation that would potentially cause widespread civilian casualties. About one million people are believed to be sheltering in the city, according to the United Nations.

As they await an expected Israeli invasion, Palestinians huddling in tents, apartments, and schools in Rafah have been overcome with uncertainty and exhaustion amid widespread hunger. Israel has said that there were no firefights inside the hospital, but that there was extensive fighting around it.

“You’re terrified all day and night,” said Sobhi al-Khazendar, 30, a lawyer sheltering in Rafah. “Everything is so confusing. You don’t know what to do, whether to stay put or look for another place to go.”

Mr. Netanyahu has promised to evacuate civilians from combat zones there, but his words appear to have done little to mollify rising criticism from the United Nations and the Biden administration about an operation to target Rafah.

Israeli officials say that a Rafah operation is essential for rooting out Hamas’s remaining forces and destroying tunnels between Egypt and Gaza used to import arms.

Israel’s military has already drawn up multiple plans for a ground operation in Rafah, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the military’s chief of staff, told reporters last week. The timing of the operation would require a decision from the country’s civilian leaders, he said.

In recent days, a rift has emerged within Israel’s war cabinet about when to begin a Rafah operation, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.

Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the Israeli cabinet from the opposition after the Hamas-led assault on Oct. 7, both favored making a deal to free all of the hostages held by militants in Gaza before conducting an operation, the official said.

The official said Mr. Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, his closest ally in the five-person cabinet, wanted to invade Rafah before concluding such a deal to release hostages. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on whether there was a rift regarding Rafah in the cabinet.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington and Iyad Abuheweila from Istanbul.