The Israeli military has killed about half of Hamas’s midlevel commanders in Gaza, Israeli officials said, as its troops pressed forward Wednesday into the suspected hiding place of the group’s leader in a bid to eliminate its top brass.
Israel is deploying a deliberate strategy to find and kill the militant group’s midlevel operatives to disrupt Hamas’s ability to fight in Gaza, though military analysts caution doing so is unlikely immediately to deliver the victory it craves.
Israel has so far failed to assassinate the U.S.-designated terrorist group’s senior leadership, which includes Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in Gaza, and Mohammed Deif, the head of the group’s armed wing. But fighting is now coalescing around Khan Younis, one of Hamas’s strongholds in the southern strip, where the Israeli military says Sinwar and others could be hunkering.
Late on Tuesday, Israel’s military said it killed senior commanders hiding in a tunnel in northern Gaza, frustrating the group’s ability to direct operations in that part of the strip. Israeli forces released a photo of what they said was a group of operatives who led battalions and brigades, likely overseeing thousands of Hamas fighters. The military said it had found the photo during fighting and highlighted those in the picture whom it claims to have killed, including the commander of the northern brigade in Gaza.
“The leadership at the mid-level is in a very bad situation,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, he said, the Hamas system hadn’t collapsed yet. “They are still making decisions, they are still fighting.”
Illustrating the ability of Hamas’s leadership to operate: Rockets fired from Gaza have increased in recent days. Israeli airstrikes have also intensified since the end of a cease-fire. Israel says it has killed up to 5,000 fighters out of a total of 30,000 in Hamas’s armed wing, although those figures are only estimates.
Killing Hamas commanders will hurt the group’s ability to fight but it won’t necessarily defeat them altogether, as other fighters will take their place, according to Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
Targeting commanders is “very important for two reasons: You degrade a force’s ability to execute more complex operations…and you also remove experienced personnel,” he said.
Israeli forces are now engaging in street-to-street combat into the militants’ stronghold of Khan Younis, the biggest city in the southern part of the strip, where Sinwar grew up and which is now considered a main hub for Hamas as fighting has shifted south. The battle for the city of over 400,000 could prove decisive in isolating pockets of Hamas fighters outside their main command-and-control centers.
The next stage of the fight also threatens to push tens of thousands of civilians toward Rafah, near the Egyptian border, where families are already sleeping in tents and parks and food and water are scarce. Around 70% of Gaza’s population of 2.2 million is already in the southern part of the strip, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. That includes the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the northern part of the enclave in recent weeks at the direction of the Israeli military.