Israel Faces Pressure to Shift to “Low Intensity” Conflict in Gaza

Israel Hamas War in Gaza Merkava Tank
December 18, 2023 Topic: Israel-Palestine Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelPalestineIDFGazaCivilian Casualties

Israel Faces Pressure to Shift to “Low Intensity” Conflict in Gaza

The change of approach that the international community expects from the IDF may leave Hamas in power. 


Israel faces increasing challenges in Gaza as it continues to fight Hamas while facing calls from the White House to wrap up its combat operations. These twin problems for Israel, the need to execute a fast campaign, and respond to the international community’s concerns have placed the Israel Defense Forces between a rock and a hard place.

The campaign in Gaza began in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Israel mainly relied on its air force in the first three weeks, carrying out thousands of airstrikes on Hamas targets. In late October, the IDF began a ground operation in northern Gaza. Israel set its sights on the opening moves of the ground operation on surrounding Hamas in northern Gaza and cutting it off from southern Gaza. To accomplish this goal, it sent the Thirty-Sixth Armored Division, one of the heaviest IDF units, to cut Gaza in two south of Gaza City. Once that unit reached the sea, the IDF assaulted numerous neighborhoods around Gaza City.


These first phases, the air campaign and the surrounding of Gaza City, were accomplished by early November. Israel and Hamas came to an agreement in which Israel would release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Hamas releasing hostages, primarily women and children. Hamas was holding 240 hostages at the time, including a number of foreign workers it had kidnapped on October 7. The hostage deal fell apart on December 1, and Israel resumed its military campaign.

The first week of the renewed ground offensive brought new surprises. The IDF sent its Ninety-Eighth Division, including commandos, to strike at Khan Yunis, the hometown of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Sinwar is the local Gaza-based Hamas leader, whereas other Hamas leaders reside in Doha, Beirut, and other places. The strike at Khan Yunis initially appeared like it might be able to catch Gaza’s Hamas commanders in their hiding place. However, days of fighting revealed that even though the IDF can find the homes of Hamas members and secure parts of neighborhoods, it can’t capture the high-level commanders. Eventually, the Ninety-Eighth settled in for the long haul of fighting street by street. Its rapid advance enabled the IDF to use an airdrop to resupply the unit, trying out precision airdrop technology that might be useful in other operations. 

This has led to a hard slog in Gaza and mounting casualties. By December 17, a total of 454 Israeli soldiers had been killed since October 7, more than 115 of them in fighting since the ground operation began. On December 13, the IDF announced that ten soldiers had been killed in a day’s fighting, including a famed battalion commander from the Golani infantry brigade. Days later, another disaster befell the IDF as soldiers mistakenly shot three hostages who had fled Hamas captivity. The twin events showcased the challenges Israel faces in its goals in Gaza. The leadership of Israel, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the IDF generals, have vowed to bring the hostages home and defeat Hamas. 

Gallant acknowledged the heavy price Israel was paying in Gaza. “We are willing to keep going until we achieve our goals: Destroying the Hamas [terrorist] organization, eliminating its military and governing capabilities and returning the hostages home to their families,” he said on December 16. Gallant also said that the war in Gaza would be a long war. The IDF head of Military Intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva, also said that Israel was closer to fulfilling its goals in Gaza. He outlined what this meant: “[to] continue to apply pressure on the enemy, to continue to kill the enemy, destroy them.” He also noted that there were many months ahead in the campaign. 

As the war in Gaza drags on towards its two-and-a-half-month mark, there are increasing calls from the United States and European countries for Israel to transition operations to a more “low intensity” conflict. In the UN, 153 countries voted for a ceasefire in Gaza on December 12. Even countries that have backed Israel’s campaign against Hamas are now shifting their messaging. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna called for an “immediate and durable truce” on December 17. The UK and Germany are also talking up a ceasefire. 

The question now becomes what the next phase of the war will bring to Gaza. Israel has increased the amount of aid that can enter Gaza through its Kerem Shalom crossing. Other countries, such as the UAE, have helped set up a field hospital, and Jordan recently conducted an airdrop for civilians in Gaza. More than 1.5 million Gazans have been displaced by fighting. Israel encouraged civilians to leave areas in northern Gaza and around Khan Yunis. However, this presents a conundrum for Israel. The IDF hasn’t wanted to leave civilians in the rear of operations, meaning that when it fights Hamas in a densely populated neighborhood such as Jabalya and Shujaiya near Gaza City, the goal is to first get civilians to leave. This takes time. It means nothing can be done quickly in Gaza. The campaign can’t be executed like the U.S. march on Baghdad in 2003, for instance, where divisions rolled through cities, heading for Baghdad. 

It also means that in areas that the IDF works hard to take control of, the area may revert to some kind of chaos after. This appears to have happened at Al-Shifa Hospital, where the IDF fought to eject Hamas from areas near the hospital and even recovered the bodies of two hostages in November. Now, the WHO says the hospital continues to host tens of thousands of displaced people. It’s not clear who will administer these areas that Israel either secures or withdraws from as the advance in Gaza shifts tempo. The goal is to defeat Hamas. That can’t happen if Hamas simply returns to areas from which the IDF had driven them. At the same time, it’s not clear how Israel will completely defeat Hamas if it won’t filter civilians back to areas in northern Gaza and provide for some administration of those areas in order to then advance into areas Hamas still controls. 

Hamas had an estimated twenty-four battalions when the war began. Israel estimated in early December it had eliminated 7,000 terrorists in fighting. However, the continued fighting in northern Gaza shows that Hamas battalions continue to exist in some form there. If Israel transitions from major combat operations, as reports suggest the United States is advising Israel to do, then there will be questions about how the rest of Hamas battalions will be defeated. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin flew to the Middle East on December 17, arriving after U.S. Centcom commander General Michael Kurilla visited Israel. Together, the top U.S. defense officials and brass are showcasing a close U.S.-Israel partnership but also a potential shift in messaging about Gaza. 

The shift to ending major combat operations conjured up the U.S. transition in Iraq in May 2003, just two months after the war began, to ending major operations. This didn’t end well, as an Iraqi insurgency sprang up. Hamas appears well positioned to benefit from a pause in fighting, “low intensity” raids, or a conflict of attrition. Israel’s leadership also is not inclined to see the Palestinian Authority governing Gaza. Without them, it appears Hamas will continue to rule over civilians in areas in Gaza. A third alternative has not yet been proposed. 

About the Author 

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.