(CNN) — Three months ago, addressing citizens shaken by a horrific day of Hamas attacks, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a promise.
“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) will immediately use its full force to destroy Hamas’ capabilities,” Netanyahu said. “We will destroy them.”
Now, the IDF is moving into a new phase of its war against Hamas in Gaza, and there are signs that its objectives are changing as well.
“This record is not very favorable for military operations that seek to dismantle a deeply entrenched military political movement,” Bilal Y. Saab, research associate for the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House, told CNN.
Saab declared, “The IDF leadership understands well that the maximum they can do is to severely degrade Hamas’s military capabilities.”
Israel has had some successes in this regard: its forces claim to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters, including some high-ranking members, and destroyed parts of the group’s vast network of tunnels under the enclave.
But challenges still remain and the end game is far away. Some countries at war set time limits. Israeli officials have warned of a protracted war that could extend into 2024 and beyond.
This conflict will be exposed by an international community alarmed by the extraordinary humanitarian crisis and increasing civilian deaths in Gaza.
And as international pressure grows, so too may domestic unease toward Netanyahu, an embattled prime minister eager to point to a solid victory.
“There is a race against time,” Saab said, outlining the key issues facing Israel’s leadership. “At what cost is this strategic success going to come, and how much time do the Israelis have to achieve that strategic success without incurring more significant international outrage?”
“A new approach to combat”
The destruction of Hamas, the objective Netanyahu declared on October 7, was an idealistic, elusive and, according to many analysts, impossible goal.
“This type of mission cannot be accomplished: we have seen it fail many times over the years,” Saab said.
Hamas’ influence extends far beyond Gaza, meaning that the group’s complete defeat is, at the very least, too ambitious for Israel, if it could be achieved.
But it is not clear whether IDF leaders keep that broader goal among their priorities. IDF intelligence chief Major General Aharon HaLiva left out the destruction of Hamas while listing military targets in a speech on Thursday, Israeli media reported.
And later on Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant unveiled plans for the next phase of the war in Gaza, emphasizing a new war approach in the north and targeting suspected Hamas leaders in the enclave’s southern sector. Are present.
According to Gallant, in the third phase, IDF operations in northern Gaza will include “raids, destruction of terrorist tunnels, air and ground activities, and special operations.”
“This phase will be less intense, but it will take longer,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former Knesset (Israeli parliament) member of the Kadima party, told CNN.
If the most realistic goal is a serious reduction in Hamas’s combat capability, many analysts say solid progress has been made in the past three months.
Plessner said, “The definition of success will not be capturing or killing all Hamas operatives, but ensuring that Hamas can no longer effectively rule Gaza.” “Hamas is organized like an army, with command and control centers, regiments and brigades. This command structure is being seriously challenged and destroyed.”
Speaking to reporters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu last week said the Israeli military was “fighting with strength and new systems above and below the ground” and, according to Army Radio, claimed they had killed 8,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza. Has been killed.
CNN cannot confirm this figure. Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says about 23,000 people have been killed in the territory since the war began. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants, but both the Gaza ministry and its counterpart in the occupied West Bank suggest that about 70% of those killed or injured are women and children.
Israel believed there were about 30,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza before the war began on October 7, Israel Defense Forces told CNN in December. The IDF told CNN that the fighters were divided into five brigades, 24 battalions and about 140 companies, each of which included anti-tank missile, sniper and engineer, and rocket and mortar batteries.
Hunt for Hamas leaders
Israel also claimed some success in attacking Hamas tunnel shafts, an extremely difficult complex for IDF troops to infiltrate. The IDF released a video this week that it said showed the destruction of a passageway of tunnels under al-Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest medical complex, which Hamas has been accused of digging.
Last month, it released other videos it said showed a network of tunnels connecting to the residences and offices of senior Hamas leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar and Muhammad Deif.
But Israel has so far failed to achieve its goal of finding and killing Hamas’s most senior leaders in Gaza.
“This is where intelligence is king,” Saab said. Gallant and other officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of their efforts to eliminate senior Hamas leaders. The Defense Minister promised in late December that Sinwar “will soon face the barrel of our guns.”
A longtime member of the Palestinian Islamist group, Sinwar was responsible for building the military wing of Hamas before building important new ties with regional Arab powers as the group’s civilian and political leader.
Saab said, “Organizations like this change commanders easily. I don’t think anyone in Hamas is irreplaceable.” “But if you remove the symbolic heads of the organization, who knows it might have less of an impact, especially on those who have military responsibilities.”
Israel’s new phase of war is unlikely to bring relief to Palestinians trapped in Gaza, where the humanitarian crisis has reached extraordinary levels.
But Netanyahu is more likely to bow to domestic pressure, which is particularly growing over the ongoing captivity of more than 100 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7.
Netanyahu’s office told CNN on Friday that Israel believes 25 hostages have been killed and their bodies are in Gaza. 107 hostages injured in a Hamas attack last year are believed to still be alive.
The return of those hostages remains an objective in the new phase of the war, and failure to achieve it will increase political pressure on a decisive leader whose popularity among Israelis has declined since October 7.
“There was a clear disparity from day one: there is support for the war and the IDF’s goals, (but) trust in the Israeli government is at a historic low,” Plessner said. “There’s a huge gap there.”