12.8 C
New York

Hamas ‘dismantled’ but not destroyed, IDF says, as Gaza war enters new phase


JERUSALEM — Israeli military briefers show journalists a map of Gaza in the colors red, yellow and green. The map does not show the rubble, suffering or death. But it does illustrate the case made by the Israel Defense Forces that it is steadily winning its battles — if not yet the war — against Hamas.

The IDF says it has “dismantled” 20 of the original 24 Hamas battalions. Dismantled does not mean destroyed; its remnants are still capable of waging a lethal insurgency, evidenced by this week’s heavy fighting in the north.

But the IDF could soon turn its focus to the four “completely operational” battalions, which it says are in the southern city of Rafah, the sandy strip along the Egyptian border that is also home to some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians. Thousands of families there are huddled into tents, scrounging for food, above a network of Hamas tunnels that the IDF suspects hold not only thousands of fighters, but also its “most wanted” commanders — alongside more than 100 Israeli hostages.

Israeli officials say an offensive against Hamas militants in Rafah could be one of most difficult of the war — and last for weeks. American officials have warned that, without proper planning on how best to protect civilians, an operation there would be “a disaster.”

For the first time, the United States did not veto, but abstained, on a U.N. Security Council vote on Monday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by abruptly canceling a high-level delegation to Washington to discuss the Rafah offensive and aid delivery.

The politics of the war — and the growing rift between Israel and the United States over Gaza’s humanitarian crisis — have obscured a changing battlefield, one that looks very different than it did just a month or two ago. This story is based on interviews with Israeli defense officials, who mostly spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security rules, military analysts, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, as well as Palestinian eyewitnesses to the fighting in Gaza.

Until now, despite growing pressure from the Americans and the international community, the Israeli military has worked at its own pace. But the clock appears to be ticking, and the IDF is eager to consolidate its gains.

“It is now warfare. It is not a full-scale war. It is very different,” said Amos Harel, senior defense analyst for newspaper Haaretz, describing the change in intensity and reduction of IDF forces active in Gaza.

“The IDF tactical advantage is clear,” he added. “But that is hard to turn into a decisive victory.”

On a day-to-day basis, there is less bombardment, less artillery and tank fire by Israel, officials say, and less ambushes, RPG assaults and sniping by Hamas.

Far fewer Israeli soldiers are dying. More than 100 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza in December; 11 troops have died so far in March.

The IDF would not reveal the exact number of troops in Gaza today, but confirmed that there are currently members of just two divisions in the strip, down from five divisions at the war’s peak — which would equal a force reduction of at least 60 percent.

Almost all of the Israeli reservists have gone home.

After nearly six months of fighting, the Israeli military might not have complete control of the strip, officials say, but they have freedom of movement. IDF forces are positioned across the length of the enclave’s perimeter and along a newly-constructed corridor that bisects the strip, dividing north from south.

“We are now in the third phase of the war,” said Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry for Strategic Affairs and now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Michael said the IDF is now carrying out more precise raids — aimed at targets where its intelligence officers say Hamas is regrouping, such as the al-Shifa medical complex in Gaza City. Hamas has denied using the hospital for military purposes; aid groups have expressed growing alarm about doctors and patients trapped by the fighting.

The IDF first surrounded the hospital 10 days ago with armor and troops. Special forces and paratroopers conducted the raids. The IDF and intelligence forces say they have killed 170 fighters in the area of the hospital and detained over 800 suspected militants. The numbers could not be independently confirmed.

“We heard the sound of clashes, small-arms fire and some explosions,” said Rami al-Suwaiti, a resident of Gaza City. But unlike past street fights, he said, the clashes appeared limited to one area and didn’t spread to outlying neighborhoods.

Outside two areas of active fighting — around al-Shifa in the north, and al-Amal hospital in the south — civilians say they see far fewer Israeli soldiers on the ground today.

“The Israeli army has taken control of all areas of Gaza City and the cities of the north, and its return now to the various areas is considered very easy, compared to the first weeks of the war and the ground invasion,” said Mahmoud Basal, spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense.

Hamas fighters, who once carried out coordinated resistance, are now more likely to conduct guerrilla hit-and-run strikes with smaller two-to-four man units, military officials said, or with a lone sniper.

Palestinians civilians in the north do see Palestinian fighters from time to time, but “confrontations with Israeli forces are very limited,” according to one Gaza resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns.

Israelis continue to own the airspace; frequent bombardments remain a feature of the war. Over the past 24 hours, Israel Air Force jets struck more than 60 targets across the strip. Even as troops withdraw from the battlefield, residents say, aircraft and drones remain ever-present in the skies above.

“Reconnaissance planes watch everything over Gaza City,” said Basal said. “The planes are called to fire missiles if they spot a target.”

At the beginning of the war in October, the IDF estimated there were 30,000 Hamas fighters in the al-Qassam Brigades, the group’s armed wing, and another 10,000 or 15,000 in allied militias.

The IDF claims that their forces have killed 11,500 to 13,000 Palestinian militants. They believe a few thousand other operatives might have “gone home,” or left the fight. Others, officials say, are buried in the rubble and in the tunnels.

These numbers are difficult to confirm, as the IDF does not list individual Hamas fighters killed, nor does it keep its own tally of civilian deaths.

Similarly, the Gaza Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but says a majority of the more than 32,000 people killed have been women and children.

Asked how the Israeli military confirms that a Hamas militant has been killed, the international spokesman for the IDF, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said troops estimate the number of fighters they have shot “who have a gun and are shooting at us” in after-action reports.

“They don’t go and take a photo,” Hecht said.

The IDF says it has killed 24 battalion commanders and 89 company commanders, though even the deaths of top leaders are hard the verify. It was the White House that first confirmed that Marwan Issa, the deputy commander of Hamas’s military wing, was killed in an Israeli strike earlier this month in central Gaza.

“The rest of the top leaders are in hiding, likely deep in the Hamas tunnel network,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at the time.

Yehiya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza and the architect of Oct. 7, remains at large. So does Mohammed Deif, the top military commander of the al-Qassam Brigades.

In the early months of the war, Hamas responded to the Israeli ground invasion with intense if ineffectual rocket fire, launching more than 13,000 projectiles toward Israel.

In the last two months, rocket fire from Gaza has become rare. IDF officers say that Hamas has expended its stockpiles, while the ongoing assault makes it hard for them to make more. Yet Hamas and its allies retain some capacity.

On Monday, they fired six rockets toward the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, where sirens were heard for the first time in two months. Most landed in empty fields. No one was injured.

Brief statements on the web channel operated by the Qassam Brigades also point toward a drop in Hamas attacks. Since March 20, the group says, its forces have focused on targeting Israeli tanks and soldiers in the Khan Younis area, in the south, and around al-Shifa.

Netanel Flamer, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, and an expert on Hamas and asymmetric warfare, said that precision raids by IDF special forces on areas where militants are regrouping will be “the model” for future fighting. This will go on, he assumes, “for as long as it takes.”

Balousha reported from Amman, Jordan. Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

Related articles

Recent articles