Gaza War: Israel’s Next Choice Could Be Its Hardest Yet

January 30, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelGazaHamasIDFIranMilitaryDefense

Gaza War: Israel’s Next Choice Could Be Its Hardest Yet

Jerusalem faces a potential two-front war in Gaza and Lebanon amid a widening proxy conflict engulfing the Middle East.

Israel’s Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant met with members of the Israeli Artillery Corps near the Gaza border on Monday, January 29. He shared coffee with them, brewed in a metal tin, and poured into a simple paper cup. It was a cold day, one of the coldest of the winter, as a storm had slammed Israel all weekend. Gallant brought good news and also tough warnings about the future as he met with the men.

The defense minister, who has worn all-black outfits since the Hamas attack of October 7 on Israel, said that the “hourglass” had flipped in Israel’s favor. The time was running out for Hamas, in a sense. Half of the Hamas fighters active on October 6 are now either dead or wounded in battle. The total number of those fighters has been estimated from 25,000 to 30,000. Now, half of them were out of action, and most of Hamas’ organized battalions had also been scattered and broken.

“This is a long war, but in the end, we will break Hamas. We must keep going until we eliminate them as a governing system, and as a military organization capable of launching attacks against the State of Israel,” Gallant said, predicting that the fighting would go on for months.

Israel’s leadership has generally forecasted a war that will continue for months or even years. One Israeli radio station, Reshet Bet, had a discussion asking if the war might continue into 2025. This has been the way that Israeli leaders have prepared the public for a long war. 

After Israel was founded in 1948, the country fought largely short wars for much of the twentieth century. As a small country facing tough adversaries, it couldn’t call up reserves for long wars of attrition. Therefore, it defeated Egypt in 1956, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in 1967, and Egypt and Syria in 1973, in wars that lasted less than a month. The wars got longer after 1980, with a war in Lebanon that dragged on for almost two decades. Beginning in 2000, the Second Intifada lasted five years. More recent conflicts in Lebanon and Gaza since 2005 were much shorter.

Now, Israel faces a new challenge. The generals running Israel’s war today in Gaza are all products of a generation whose formative experience was the wars of the 1980s and 1990s. As officers, they served in several operations in Gaza where Israeli forces would enter the strip, eliminate Hamas targets, and then leave or simply carry out airstrikes against Hamas. For them, the IDF was all-powerful, and Hamas was a problem to be managed. Now Israel knows that Hamas is a major threat, and the question is how to eliminate it and replace its governance role in Gaza.

The fighting in Gaza has gone on for almost four months. The first month was dominated by an air campaign, like the U.S.-led coalition conducted against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991. The second phase was a major ground maneuver. Three divisions stormed Gaza and destroyed ten Hamas battalions in the northern portion of the strip. The third phase, which began on December 1, was a targeted large raid into the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis by the Ninety-Eighth division of paratroopers and commandos, which has now become a two-month battle to root out Hamas inside Khan Younis. Khan Younis is the hometown of the Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. If the IDF generals earned their spurs in Gaza throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Sinwar got his reputation as a “butcher” in Khan Younis, killing “collaborators” in the late 1980s. Now, the IDF is fighting him in his backyard. The IDF believes they are close to defeating Hamas in Khan Younis.

If Hamas is defeated in this southern Gaza city, it won’t have many places to run to. It can go to the Egyptian border area of Rafah, where it continues to control the aid that enters Gaza from the international community. It can hide among the more than one million Gazan civilians who have fled fighting to the coastal Mawasi area. Other than that, Hamas can only lurk in tunnels or try to filtrate slowly back to northern Gaza disguised as civilians. The terrorist group has done this before, so it’s not like this is not in the cards for what it can and will do.

Herein lies the challenges for Israel as a new phase arrives. There are diminishing returns in Gaza. The IDF wants to defeat Hamas. However, it has transitioned to a more low-intensity conflict, partly in the wake of American and international calls for lower civilian casualties in the war. If the IDF estimates are correct and Hamas lost half its strength, will it lose another half of what remains in the next month or two of fighting? That remains to be seen. 

In addition, the IDF and the Israeli public want to see the return of more than 100 hostages held in Gaza. On the diplomatic front, Egypt has publicly opposed an incursion into Rafah by the IDF because it would bring Israeli forces close to the border. This border area has long been a place where Hamas seeks to smuggle weapons into Gaza. If Hamas does not collapse, or a hostage deal does not take place, the next phase of operations in Gaza will lead in directions that will be complex for the IDF, both on the battlefield and on the diplomatic front.

Meanwhile, in northern Israel, Hezbollah continues its attacks. On the evening of January 29, the IDF said that “fighter jets carried out airstrikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, two hours after an earlier strike. The targets included Hezbollah’s infrastructure and an observation post located in the southern Lebanese areas of Markaba, Taybeh, and Maroun El Ras.” The IDF noted that these strikes came after several “incidents” in which projectiles were launched from Lebanon. “These activities by Hezbollah represent a breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. The IDF remains committed to protecting Israel’s borders from any threats,” the IDF Telegram account announced.

Hezbollah has launched more than 2,000 rockets from Lebanon into Israel since October 7, according to the IDF. Hezbollah also carries out anti-tank guided missile (ATMG) attacks and uses drones to attack Israel. The drone attacks are similar to the attacks that Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have also carried out against U.S. forces. For instance, on January 27, Iranian-backed militias killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan in a drone attack. The Hezbollah threats to northern Israel are part of the wider attacks that Iran has indirectly launched in the region, including in Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen, where Houthi militants have targeted shipping in the Red Sea.

Israel’s choices in the north are complex. While Israel’s Chief of Staff recently said the likelihood of war in the north with Hezbollah was higher than in the past, Israel prefers a diplomatic solution where Hezbollah agrees to withdraw some of its forces from the border.

On both the Gaza front and the northern front, Israel will be entering its fifth month of war with many of the challenges unresolved and key questions unanswered.  

About the Author: Seth Frantzman

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Creative Commons.