Analysis: Hamas is weakening, but the campaign against it will be lengthy

Former IDF officers lay out the reasons why despite the achievements made so far in Israel’s war against Hamas, the fighting is likely to last for months yet.

IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip, Jan. 19, 2024. Photo: IDF.

By Yaakov Lappin
January 24, 2024

While the Israel Defense Forces is gaining ground against Hamas by the day, destroying it as a military force will take time, according to former IDF officers. 

Professor Gabi Siboni, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and who holds the rank of colonel (res.), told JNS that the Israeli campaign will be “very long.”

In Gaza, Hamas has built up the most fortified terror base in the world, he said, both above and below ground. 

With so many homes in Gaza containing weapons and being linked to underground terror infrastructure, significant numbers of civilians are involved “in all sorts of ways and methods” in Hamas’s war machine, he said.

“Now the IDF is fighting this thing and it’s a tough war against a determined enemy. They [Hamas] are not ready to give up,” said Siboni. 

The Israeli War Cabinet’s declared goal of dismantling Hamas’s military and governance capabilities is realistic and correct, he added. “It is the only way to preserve our existence—we must destroy Hamas. It’s not about standing with a stopwatch and asking ‘what’s happening’ all of the time. This fight will be long,” he added.

Furthermore, he said, the IDF has changed its order of battle in Gaza not because its objectives have changed, but because it must also take into consideration other arenas, like Lebanon and Judea and Samaria.

In recent days, the IDF has shifted from a high-intensity phase of combat to a lower intensity phase, dubbed Stage 3, in northern Gaza and Gaza city, releasing significant numbers of reservist units and decreasing the number of personnel and operations in the sector. 

“The IDF operates methodically. Even as we speak, the IDF is methodically dismantling Hamas’ capabilities. This operation is ongoing and as time passes, Hamas becomes weaker and weaker. In fact, there are places where it has already lost control—but Gaza is still a combat zone,” said Siboni.

In the wake of the IDF’s achievements in northern Gaza, a number of governments have called on Israel to allow north Gaza residents who evacuated to south Gaza humanitarian to return. The IDF called on all civilians from Gaza City and northern Gaza to head south at the start of its ground offensive on Oct. 27, and estimates that approximately one million people complied, while around 250,000 people remained in place.

However, according to Siboni, the idea of allowing Gazan civilians to return to northern Gaza is a non-starter, since the area remains a combat zone, including underground infrastructure and homes filled with weapons. “Until the IDF cleans it out, it’s impossible for residents to return. If they do, they’ll be hurt, and terrorists will harm the IDF, since they will return under the guise of the residents,” he warned. “Hamas long ago stopped wearing uniforms.”

Meanwhile, in southern Gaza, the IDF is trying to reach the Hamas leadership, in the belief that this is where they will also most likely find the hostages, he assessed. 

“The IDF wants to push our enemy as far south as possible. We are in a long process, we will also need to deal with the south of the Strip more methodically. But it needs to be done step by step,” said Siboni. “The achievements are excellent. All of this is happening in the most densely populated and heavily fortified area in the world, with the lowest rate of uninvolved civilian casualties compared to other wars,” he noted.

“It will take us years to dismantle this, since Hamas is deeply embedded within the population, and we will also need to stay in the Strip from a security perspective for decades; there is no other mechanism that can provide the security we need in Gaza. Therefore, there will be no choice but to operate there for years,” he said.

The best example of the model Gaza will need is the current state of affairs in Judea and Samaria, he added.

“We launched ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ in 2002, conquered the Palestinian cities and hit the terror nests. And we’re still fighting—more than 20 years have passed. To this day we are fighting in Judea and Samaria, and will continue to fight in Gaza to dismantle these infrastructures. We must mow down these capabilities all of the time,” he said.

Israel was also beginning to put measures in place to prevent a future force buildup in Gaza, he said, including preventing the transfer of sophisticated weaponry via the Gaza-Egypt border.

“Cooperation with Egypt is very important, because the Egyptians in general have the same interest,” he added.

IDF Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of security coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority and a lecturer at the Western Galilee College in northern Israel, told JNS that the military has requested additional time for the operation because it was surprised by the scale of the tunnels, among other reasons. 

“They thought it was something reasonable, and then they find out it’s an entire city, and therefore it takes time,” said Elad. “The implication is that it will take a lot of time. I estimate this not in days, not in weeks, but in months,” he said, adding that it would take six months “at least” just to scan all the tunnels.

Moreover, as is the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas is not subject to and simply ignores international law, he said, which gives it an advantage.

“This asymmetry actually causes delay, because you want to be okay with international law, you don’t want to kill people just like that,” while your enemy has no such concerns, he said. “In this war, which is on two fronts as well, you also need to protect yourself more,” he added. 

With IDF legal officers accompanying operations, explaining the implications to commanders of various courses of action, Israel is under intense pressure as it fights Hamas, said Elad, adding that Israel is facing unparalleled international pressure, including from the United States.

Meanwhile, domestically, there are some calling for an end to the fighting in exchange for the release of the hostages—a scenario which according to Elad would produce severe security problems for Israel. 

If Israel ends the war before Hamas has been broken, Israel will appear weak in the region, and that would prove deadly, he cautioned. 

“We must rehabilitate regional deterrence. This must be done because there is simply no other choice. Therefore, everything else needs to wait. The situation of the captives is very difficult, I believe the army is working on this, but our enemies are announcing that there will be more Oct. 7 attacks,” said Elad. “They don’t care about pressure, public opinion or anything else. Even in the Palestinian Authority, there is the danger of what has already occurred in 1996, when they turned their barrels on us and their snipers opened fire. I experienced it personally—people fell dead next to me—three Border Police officers who were killed by P.A. snipers in Tulkarem.”   

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