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New fighting against Hamas in northern Gaza lays bare holes in Israel’s military strategy

The IDF has launched another assault on Jabalia, the refugee camp where it claimed victory over the militias last December. Washington has warned its ally of the risk of getting bogged down in an ‘enduring insurgency’

Israeli tanks move through the southern Strip, near the border between Israel and Gaza, May 13.
Israeli tanks move through the southern Strip, near the border between Israel and Gaza, May 13.Amir Levy (Getty Images)

Last December, three months after the war broke out in Gaza, the Israeli army announced that it had “dismantled the operational capabilities” of Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, in the largest refugee camp in the Strip, Jabalia. The official discourse was triumphalist. “Jabalia is no longer what it was,” said the divisional commander who led the operation, Yitzhak Cohen. “We have killed hundreds of terrorists and arrested some 500 suspected terrorists,” he added, announcing the demolition of the three Hamas battalions stationed there.

Four months later, a division initially set to invade Rafah — the area in southern Gaza that tens of thousands of civilians are forcibly evacuating on the orders of the Israeli army — reentered Jabalia on Sunday, due to the reorganization of the militias. Both there and in Zeitoun — a district of the Gazan capital where the army had considered Hamas to be defeated — the intensity of the fighting is evidence that, after more than six months of the Israeli offensive, the “total victory” advocated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far from being achieved by the current operation to eliminate the last four remaining Hamas battalions, all of which are in Rafah.

Uncoincidentally, the military establishment has — anonymously, but in an apparently coordinated manner and for the first time since the war began — come out to criticize Netanyahu. Without a realistic plan for the “day after” the end of the conflict, Israeli troops are doomed to the myth of Sisyphus, with Hamas filling the gaps left by each withdrawal to launch insurgency actions, taking advantage of the militias’ knowledge of the terrain.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these doubts in a television interview with CBS. “What are we seeing right now? We’re seeing parts of Gaza that Israel has cleared of Hamas where Hamas is coming back, including in the north, including in Khan Younis [...] As we look at Rafah, [the Israeli army] may go in and have some initial success, but potentially at an incredibly high cost to civilians, but one that is not durable, one that is not sustainable. And they will be left holding the bag on an enduring insurgency because a lot of armed Hamas will be left no matter what they do in Rafah.”

Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Rafah, May 7, 2024.
Smoke rises after an Israeli strike in Rafah, May 7, 2024. Hatem Khaled (REUTERS)

Combat deaths and Hamas ambushes

For a month now, most Israeli soldiers have been on the road that cuts through Gaza from north to south, and in positions that divide it and prevent passage from one end to the other. After weeks of more aerial bombardment than troop and armored movement, announcements of combat deaths and videos of Hamas militiamen ambushing troops have been circulating again. Such images marked the first months of the uneven standoff but had become a rarity. Last weekend, the army announced the deaths of five Israeli soldiers while Hamas reported dozens of armed clashes.

The militias’ main show of force, however, has been to display that they can still fire rocket salvoes into Israel, even over relatively long distances. When Israeli forces entered Jabalia, Hamas fired more than 20 projectiles. Most were intercepted, but one slightly wounded three people in the town of Ashkelon. There have also been launches from Rafah against Beer Sheva, a city of more than 200,000 inhabitants located 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Strip and which had not been targeted in months.

In addition to the daily war reports provided by Israeli military spokesmen Daniel Hagari, there is intense activity on social networks among Palestinian spokesmen confirming the activity. Throughout Sunday alone, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades issued more than 20 alerts of attacks against Israeli troops. Some were accompanied by videos such as one showing a drone dropping a small bomb on an enemy tank. Others detail an attack staged alongside the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad. The Hamas notices detail in brief brushstrokes fighting and clashes in Jabalia, Zeitoun and Rafah, where the Israeli army seized the Palestinian side of the vital border crossing with Egypt last week (cutting off humanitarian access) and has been extending orders to evacuate parts of it.

In just a few days, Israel has gone from proudly parading its flag on the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing to returning to Jabalia. A second ceasefire agreement appeared to be in the offing, but now the Israeli authorities have admitted that, at least for now, the opportunity has passed and that “military pressure” is the only way to bring a truce closer by pressuring Hamas to lower its demands. Israel had largely ironed out its differences with its main ally, Washington, after the Iranian attack, but is now being reproached, more or less openly, on an almost daily basis. Blinken said during his CBS interview Monday the U.S. believed Israeli forces should “get out of Gaza.” “We believe two things. One, you have to have a clear, credible plan to protect civilians, which we haven’t seen. Second, we also need to see a plan for what happens after this conflict in Gaza is over. And we still haven’t seen that.”

U.S. intelligence sources have also told The New York Times that they do not believe the political leader of Hamas in the Gaza strip and Israel’s most wanted man, Yahya Sinwar, is in a tunnel in Rafah to take advantage of the network’s subterranean connection to Egypt, but somewhere in the town of Khan Younis, another Gazan urban center occupied by the Israeli army and from which it has now withdrawn.

On Monday, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, took advantage of a particularly symbolic holiday to insist that there is no room for half-hearted victories: Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, on which the population observes a two-minute silence in tribute. Since the Hamas attacks last year, 716 soldiers, policemen, members of the intelligence services and local security patrols and 834 civilians have been killed in the conflict, nearly all on October 7, 2023.

“It’s either us — Israel, or them — the monsters of Hamas. It’s either existence, liberty, security and prosperity, or torture, massacre, rape and slavery,” Netanyahu said during his Memorial Day speech at the country’s largest military cemetery in Jerusalem. “We are determined to win in this struggle. We will achieve the goals of victory, first and foremost, bringing all of our hostages home.”

“This is a war without a choice, a war that will shape our lives for decades to come,” Gallant said at the same event. “This is a war that will continue until we bring back our hostages, dismantle Hamas’s rule and military capabilities, and restore prosperity and creativity to the State of Israel and a smile to the faces of its citizens.”

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