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Israel's campaign to eradicate Hamas in Gaza is progressing with deliberate caution. Having meticulously prepared for this form of warfare for years, the terrorist group is now strategically using the civilian population of the strip as a living shield. Operating in small mobile units, it has proven itself to be an exceedingly elusive target. Consequently, what was initially envisioned as a brief operation spanning a few months is now stretching into an indeterminably prolonged conflict — one with no apparent end in sight.

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Content
  • From “lawn mowing” to complete annihilation

  • Relocation: From Gaza to Khan Yunis

  • Human shields

From “lawn mowing” to complete annihilation

The previous not-so-successful Israeli strategy in Gaza was unofficially dubbed “lawn mowing.” Essentially, it implied responding to Hamas attacks by unleashing hundreds and thousands of rockets and projectiles on the region, destroying as many military targets and combatants as possible, and doing so without resorting to a widespread mobilization of Israeli reserves and without sending in too many ground forces. As a result, Hamas incurred losses, often quite significant ones, but never in such critical quantities that it threatened the organization's survival.

The action of Hamas also followed a predictable pattern. After having its nose bloodied, Hamas would work to restore its combat capability, then launch new strikes, and ultimately receive another retaliatory operation from Israel. Hence the term “lawn mowing”: military intervention was required regularly, each time Hamas recovered from the last bout. This predictable and inevitable resurgence of its combat potential was likened to the predictable and inevitable growth of grass.

The two sides had followed this back-and-forth since 2005, when Israel evacuated all civilian Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and withdrew its troops. However, the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, which inflicted an unprecedented number of casualties among both Israeli military personnel and the civilian population, made a significantly more aggressive Israeli response all but inevitable. This time, Israel aims to annihilate Hamas as a military organization and achieve complete demilitarization of the Gaza Strip, and the terrorist group has had to reconsider its own defensive strategy as a result.

The Hamas October 7 attack on Israel necessitated a complete reconsideration of the defensive strategy in Gaza

As a result, Israel’s forces in Gaze are forced to confront a largely underground combat organization whose members do not adhere to the rules and traditions of war. Hamas fighters disguise themselves as civilians, use medical and humanitarian facilities for military purposes, and employ unarmed individuals as human shields. Hamas itself lacks a president, general, or marshal whose killing or capture might force the group to surrender. Yes, Hamas has leaders, but they are quite numerous, and the organization has long been accustomed to the arrests and eliminations of its key figures, quickly replacing departed commanders with new ones.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that, apart from military objectives, Israel has other considerations in this war. For instance, it needs to free hostages still held somewhere in the Gaza Strip, prevent the involvement of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” in the conflict, and maintain good relations with the West, where calls for a ceasefire are growing louder.

Israel needs to free hostages, prevent the involvement of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” in the conflict, and maintain good relations with the West

However, the main stated goal has been and remains the destruction of Hamas. Israelis promise to literally “wipe it off the face of the Earth.” However, despite the war having been ongoing for almost four months, Israel is still far from achieving this goal. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, by the end of January, Israeli forces had eliminated no more than 30% of the total number of Hamas militants. This comes after many weeks of full-scale war, the destruction of almost half of all residential homes in the Gaza Strip, and the loss of thousands of lives among the enclave's civilian population.

Before the war began, Israel estimated the number of active Hamas militants in Gaza to be around 30,000 people. Assuming that no Palestinians joined the group after October 7 (which is a bold and ill-founded assumption), destroying the group’s combat capability would require killing or capturing about 20,000 people. Future battles promise to be even more brutal and destructive.

Relocation: From Gaza to Khan Yunis

Until recently, the majority of the Israeli army's operations were concentrated in the northern part of the sector, in the city of Gaza. Now, military activity is shifting southward — to the city of Khan Yunis. This is the homeland of several Hamas leaders, including a man named Yahya Sinwar, considered to be one of the main organizers of the October 7 attack.. In Khan Yunis, Hamas's popularity is higher than in the city of Gaza, with more members of the organization residing there, making the resistance potentially much more fierce.

In the early days of the ground operation in Gaza, Israeli troops discovered that Hamas was significantly more combat-ready and dangerous than had been previously assumed. For instance, the militants now possess anti-tank systems that launch rockets at supersonic speeds. Due to their high velocity, these rockets cannot be intercepted by the active defense system installed on Israeli tanks and armored vehicles. The militants also use drones and radio-controlled explosives, they actively mine roads, and they are adept at moving in small groups to minimize losses in case of detection.

Beneath the Gaza Strip's coastal area, a vast network of underground tunnels with warehouses, bunkers, and surveillance cameras has been meticulously excavated
Beneath the Gaza Strip's coastal area, a vast network of underground tunnels with warehouses, bunkers, and surveillance cameras has been meticulously excavated

Hamas's entire strategy and tactics revolve around its network of underground tunnels and bunkers, connecting residential areas, hospitals, and military warehouses. Through these tunnels, Hamas fighters receive ammunition and reinforcements, evacuate their wounded, and, most importantly, change combat positions in an organized and covert manner. When Hamas is forced to retreat under pressure from the Israeli army, their withdrawal is not a panicked flight; it is a well-planned movement from one fortified firing position to another. It is now evident that Hamas has spent years preparing for the exact war Israel is waging against it. To this end, over the course of 15 years, an entire city fortified by 6,000 tons of cement and containing approximately 2,000 metal structures was constructed underground at an estimated cost of at least one billion dollars.

Human shields

Before the war, it was estimated that 500 km of tunnels had been laid under Gaza. Now, it turns out their length is at least one and a half times greater, with Israeli troops discovering at least 5,700 tunnel entrances. The majority of these entrances are located in basements and on the ground floors of buildings, including residential homes, shops, mosques, and hospitals. This is also intentional: Hamas has turned the war against itself into a war against the civilian population of Gaza. Since the supply routes and relocations of militants are fully integrated into the urban infrastructure, disrupting them is impossible without destroying this infrastructure. This, in turn, leaves people without homes, jobs, places of worship, and educational institutions.

Hamas has turned the war against itself into a war against the civilian population of Gaza

Destruction of civilian infrastructure always entails the death of the civilian population. The Gaza Ministry of Health has reported more than 25,000 casualties since the start of the war. In Israel, these figures are met with skepticism, as critics point out that the Ministry of Health is a Hamas-controlled entity capable of manipulating statistics for propaganda purposes. However, there is no other data available: apart from the ministry, no one else is keeping track of the deaths in the region.

Survivors are now threatened by epidemics and famine as they live literally under the open sky, lacking proper sanitation conditions and receiving far too little humanitarian aid. However, Gazan civilians’ plight is not always the result of Israeli action or international indifference — often enough, aid intended to help the innocent suffering masses ends up in the hands not of refugees, but rather Hamas fighters, who seize it to replenish their own stockpiles. According to U.S. sources, the supplies in these Hamas warehouses — and the fighters it sustains — is sufficient for at least several more months of intense combat. That combat will continue to jeopardize the lives not only of Palestinian civilians, but also of Israeli military personnel and of the 133 civilian hostages who are still in Hamas captivity. Their relatives have become the core of a new Israeli protest movement demanding an immediate end to the war and the release of the captives. Protesters block roads, organize rallies, and have even managed to stage a rally inside the parliament building.

Pressure on the Israeli government also comes from its main international partner — the United States. The U.S. administration aims to achieve a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza, during which negotiations between the warring parties can be conducted regarding the fate of the hostages and of the peaceful residents of the region. This pressure, along with the relatively modest results of the months-long operation, has become one of the main factors prompting Israel to alter its military strategy in Gaza. Thus far, none of the main organizers of the October 7 attack have been found or eliminated, and Hamas’s governing bodies, despite significant losses among the mid-level command, retain their functionality.

An Israeli army convoy moves along the border of the Gaza Strip.
An Israeli army convoy moves along the border of the Gaza Strip.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

Following the first and second phases of the war — massive bombardments of Gaza and large-scale battles in the northern sector — Israel has transitioned to a third phase: the systematic clearing of residential quarters where Hamas fighters are located. This involves the use of fewer Israeli military personnel, but it does require army engineering units to simply demolish buildings — and often entire streets.

In the West, there are concerns that by demolishing Gazan infrastructure, Israel is expanding the buffer zone between its territory and Palestinian lands, and members of the Israeli government have previously stated directly that the size of the Gaza Strip might be decreased as a result of the war. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet has sought to assure outside observers that the block-by-block destruction is only a temporary measure, and that the demolished houses, as part of the enemy’s military infrastructure, simply needed to be demolished.

Whether or not the Israelis are indeed gradually expanding the buffer zone by “carving out” pieces from the Gaza Strip, that action is unlikely to substantially lengthen or shorten the current war. It is likely beyond Israel's capabilities to completely destroy the group in four, eight, or even twelve months. Unless Israel’s aims change, the fighting appears set to continue indefinitely.

Hamas, despite losing at least 9,000 fighters compared to around 300 Israeli soldiers killed in action, still holds a more advantageous position. To achieve victory by its standards, the terrorist group needs only to survive, ideally while maintaining some semblance of its political organization and a capable cadre from the leadership of its military wing. Around this skeleton, Hamas would likely be able to grow new muscles, as the war Hamas provoked against the homes of its constituents has only increased the movement's popularity among Palestinians themselves. There will be no shortage of volunteers prepared to take the places of those killed, injured, and captured.

Perhaps that's why, as the current war continues, Israel is already preparing for a new one. It is in the process of acquiring dozens of modern combat planes and helicopters from the United States.

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