TEL AVIV—Israel is shifting the focus of its military campaign to southern Gaza, where it will likely face the hardest stage of the six-week-old war as it seeks to crush Hamas and recover hostages amid a deepening humanitarian crisis.
Israeli forces have largely succeeded in taking control of northern Gaza. But they have only partially destroyed Hamas’s military capabilities and haven’t captured or killed many of its top leaders, senior Israeli officers and analysts say.
Israeli commanders have signaled the shift to the south in recent days, suggesting that many Hamas fighters have escaped there as Israeli troops moved in and that some leaders are ensconced in densely populated towns, or in underground tunnels, that have seen fewer airstrikes and less fighting than Gaza City in the north.
Hamas will almost certainly prove to be a more determined adversary in the south, where the militants will have few remaining options other than to fight. The hostages are the best leverage Hamas leaders have for surviving the Israeli shift to the south, as the militants seek a halt to the fighting, at least temporarily, former Israeli officers say.
Israel’s plan for attacking Hamas in the south is likely to resemble its advance in the north, but it will be complicated by the large number of civilians now packed into the area, Israeli officials and commanders say.
“We are determined to keep moving forward,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said Friday. “This will happen wherever Hamas is, and it is also in the southern Gaza Strip.”
U.S. officials say they are urging Israel to delay its stepped-up operations in the south until it has thought through plans for protecting civilians who have fled there in large numbers to escape the fighting in the north.
“We think that their operations should not go forward until those people—those additional civilians—have been accounted for in their military planning,” Jonathan Finer, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, said Sunday on
CBS’s Face the Nation. “We will be conveying that directly to them and have been conveying that directly to them.”
Israel should narrow “the area of active combat, clarifying where civilians can seek refuge from the fighting” in the south, he added.