In a little over a week, Israeli ground forces have fought their way into northern Gaza’s urban areas with a speed that has surprised even their own commanders. But the most complex stages of the war might still lie ahead.
As they move closer to the center of Gaza City, Israeli troops are encountering dug-in Hamas fighters in larger numbers who attack and then pull back or disappear underground, slowing the Israeli advance, soldiers and current and former officials say.
“The further we went in, the harder the battle became,” said an Israeli captain who led a reservist tank unit into northern Gaza in the initial days of the invasion and fought into the heart of the city.
Israel’s strategy is to kill enough Hamas fighters and leaders to destroy the organization before it has to curtail the operation, while Hamas’s goal is a stalemate that will enable it to survive, damaged but still a force in Gaza, analysts say.
Israel is under growing international pressure to prevent civilian deaths and ease worsening humanitarian conditions—pressure that could force a halt to the war before its aims are achieved. The U.S. is backing Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas, and Israeli officials say they won’t accept a cease-fire or even a formal pause in fighting until some of the estimated 239 hostages are released. But even Israeli officials admit that moving quickly is critical.
“The main issue now is time,” said Matan Vilnai, a former head of Israel’s southern command who previously commanded Israeli forces in Gaza. Hamas may be conserving its forces for a more intense battle inside Gaza City, he added.
With the clock ticking, Israeli commanders still face a series of difficult decisions: whether to attack bunkers near or underneath hospitals and other civilian facilities that it claims Hamas is using to shield itself from attack; how to clear the tunnel system where at least some of the hostages may be; and whether to shift its invasion next into southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of residents have fled to escape the fighting. Hamas says it doesn’t use civilians as shields.
Israel launched its military campaign in response to Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attacks on civilian communities and military bases in southern Israel, which killed around 1,400 people, most of them civilians. Israel launched a punishing air campaign focused on northern Gaza and mobilized its reserves for a large-scale ground invasion that began Oct. 28.
According to health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave, Israel’s campaign has killed over 10,800 people in Gaza, the majority of them women and children. The figures don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israeli officials say several thousand militants are among the dead, including a Hamas brigade commander and over 60 other midlevel leaders.
Hamas has killed at least 34 Israeli soldiers since the ground incursion began and injured over 260, according to the Israeli military.
The battle in Gaza City parallels in some ways the challenge the U.S. faced in 2017 in northern Iraq, when as many as 5,000 die-hards from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, made a last stand in the city of Mosul. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the city, used as human shields by ISIS in an attempt to discourage artillery shelling and bombing.
The last neighborhoods of Mosul were retaken by Iraqi forces after a campaign that took almost nine months, killed thousands of people and displaced nearly a million civilians. Though costly, the victory was a turning point that eventually led to the collapse of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
The U.S. intelligence community doubts that Israel can achieve its stated military goal of eliminating the U.S.-designated terrorist group, a person familiar with the intelligence said. While the campaign can damage Hamas and its infrastructure, it cannot eliminate the ideology, the person said.
“I think a more realistic goal is to buy security for a matter of years, but not forever,” a congressional official said.
Israeli troops and armored vehicles have sliced through the center of the Gaza Strip, cutting Gaza City off from the rest of the enclave. Other troops have pushed south along the coast and from the northwest, encircling the urban grid where most of Hamas’s fighters are believed to be located.
“It’s only the beginning,” said Zohar Palti, a former senior official in Israel’s Ministry of Defense and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “We are starting to push on them very significantly, but still they have a lot of capabilities,” he added, referring to Hamas.
One of Israel’s objectives—Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City’s western perimeter—could also be its most challenging. It sits atop a Hamas command bunker, Israel says, a claim that Hamas denies. Warplanes attacked an ambulance near the hospital, saying it was transporting Hamas operatives. Israel has sought to get civilians in and around the hospital to leave, but many remain, including patients, either unable to move or frightened to join others who have moved south over the past week.
Tens of thousands of Gaza residents have fled, many saying the fighting and shortages of food and water has made it impossible to stay.
“Every day’s bombing is worse than the day before,” said Hazem Abu Ghalyoun, a Gaza resident, who said he and his family took refuge first in a school but had to depart there as the fighting drew closer. “We are forced to flee. We don’t want to leave, but what can we do? They bombed the house next to us.”
Some Israeli officials said that despite the intense battles so far, Hamas commanders might be preserving the core of their forces.
“They may be hunkering down—sending out troops to strike at armored vehicles and then disengage and go back underground and hide—using delaying tactics,” said Lt. Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman.
Hamas’s top leaders in Gaza have so far eluded Israel, including Yahya Sinwar, who had spent more than 20 years in Israeli prisons, and Mohammed Deif, a shadowy military commander whom Israel has repeatedly tried to assassinate. On Friday, Israel said it had raided the Gaza offices of Sinwar’s brother.
Israeli officers say they don’t plan to fight inside the tunnels as passages are likely to be booby-trapped. Instead, Israeli forces are demolishing tunnels as they find them. But in recent days military officials have talked about fighting above and below ground. At least some of Hamas’s Israeli hostages are likely being held underground.