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After more than 3 months of fighting, even small victories for Israel are elusive

Yahya Sinwar, centre, seen in a file photo from 2022, is co-founder of the military wing of Hamas and considered the architect of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. He remains alive and presumably hiding in Gaza, despite Israel's stated war aim of eliminating Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images) - image credit)
Yahya Sinwar, centre, seen in a file photo from 2022, is co-founder of the military wing of Hamas and considered the architect of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. He remains alive and presumably hiding in Gaza, despite Israel's stated war aim of eliminating Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty Images) - image credit)

The apocalyptic landscape of northern Gaza speaks to the deadly effectiveness of Israel's bombing campaign at destroying buildings and making the territory unlivable for Palestinians.

Far harder to discern is whether all of that immense destruction and loss of life — more than 24,000 Palestinians killed and counting — has actually helped Israel achieve its war goals or brought the country closer to its strategic aim of defeating Hamas.

As the combat continues without any sign of an ending, analysts who spoke to CBC News say even modest victories have been elusive.

War aims 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has identified three goals for Israel's military operation in Gaza.

"The elimination of Hamas, the return of all our hostages and the guarantee that Gaza will never again pose a threat to Israel," he said most recently in a news conference on Saturday.

The first goal — the "elimination of Hamas" — began with a declaration of war the day after the militant group's Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed approximately 1,200 people.

Israeli military vehicles gather, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, January 14, 2024.
Israeli military vehicles gather, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, January 14, 2024.

Israeli military vehicles gather, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, on Sunday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Twenty days later, following an intensive air bombardment, three Israeli divisions drawing on more than 300,000 reservists crossed into Gaza, attempting to take control of Gaza City in the north and cut the territory in half.  A fourth division later joined the fight.

Israel's Defence Forces claim since then they have killed more than 9,000 Hamas operatives and fighters, a figure which includes roughly 1,800 militants who crossed into Israel as part of the Oct. 7 attacks.

As of Friday, the IDF says 194 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground invasion.

The health ministry in Gaza estimates 24,762 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli attacks and invasion since Oct. 7, though deteriorating conditions have made it difficult to track as the war has progressed.

Mourners gather next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 18, 2024.
Mourners gather next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 18, 2024.

Mourners gather next to the bodies of Palestinians killed in an Israeli strike on Thursday. An estimated 24,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli attacks and invasion since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza health ministry. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

Eliminating Hamas and its tunnels

In a news conference Thursday, Netanyahu lauded his country's military successes, claiming Hamas's fighting strength had been reduced by up to two-thirds and reinforcing that the plan was to press on with the war until winning a "complete victory."

The precise strength of Hamas's forces prior to the Oct. 7 attacks is not known but some estimates suggest the group's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, had roughly 30,000 fighters at its disposal.

While the Israeli figures suggest Hamas's fighting ability has been significantly downgraded by the war, the group's command structure remains largely intact, as does its ability to resist Israeli forces.

"Hamas has suffered losses, but it remains an effective military power," said Nur Arafeh, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

A Palestinian who's originally from Jerusalem, much of Arafeh's work has focused on the security dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians.

"It's clear that Hamas has control over many of the tunnels and can still surprise the Israeli soldiers with attacks."

Hamas also continues to launch missiles from northern Gaza — an area Israel has repeatedly claimed to have control of — and Hamas forces have demonstrated they remain capable of ambushing Israeli soldiers in the same region.

Other analysts say Israel's successes have been far more "tactical" than "strategic".

"Everyday you hear announcements from the Israelis about the number of Hamas soldiers it has killed as if it's important — it is not," said Ahron Bregman, a war studies professor at King's College London, who's also a former artillery officer in Israel's army.

"It doesn't matter if the Israelis manage to denigrate 60 per cent or 90 per cent of Hamas. For Hamas a victory is just to stand on its feet at the end of the battle."

This picture taken during a media tour organised by the Israeli military on December 15, 2023, shows the entrance of a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on October 7. The Israeli army said on December 17, 2023 it had uncovered the biggest Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip so far, just a few hundred metres from the Erez border crossing.

This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli military on Dec. 15, 2023, shows the entrance of a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on Oct. 7. (Photo by JACK GUEZ via AFP Getty Images)

Israeli officials confirmed this week that Hamas's vast tunnel labyrinth under Gaza may be even larger than they first appreciated and much of that system remains intact.

Some of the tunnels are several stories high and large enough to drive vehicles through.

Crucially, some also appear to be buried deep enough to make them almost impervious to the enormous 900 kg U.S.-made bombs Israel has been dropping on Gaza's buildings in an attempt to destroy them.

"When this war is over, we will have two things still in place: No. 1, Hamas, and No. 2, the tunnel system, because the Israelis don't have the time nor the technology to deal with it," said Bregman.

While Israel's military has repeatedly taken journalists to tunnel entrances, their forces remain wary of booby-traps and other obstacles so footage from deep inside the system is much rarer.

Nur Arafeh is a Palestinian researcher and political scientist with the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Virginia, USA.
Nur Arafeh is a Palestinian researcher and political scientist with the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Virginia, USA.

Nur Arafeh is a Palestinian researcher and political scientist with the Carnegie Middle East Center, based in Virginia. (Nur Arafeh)

"If the Israelis want to destroy the tunnels, they can try from the air, which is complicated. Or they can put in explosives. But Israelis do not want to go into the tunnels to fight Hamas because if they do, they lose their advantages — they do not have air support, they don't have tank support. Therefore, the soldiers do not want to go," Bregman told CBC News.

Freeing hostages 

Returning the hostages is another often repeated but as yet only partially fulfilled Israeli war goal.

Senior Israeli leaders have continually rebuffed calls for a ceasefire, claiming that Hamas will not release the hostages unless forced to do so by unrelenting military pressure.

"[The release of hostages] will only happen as a result of military pressure," said Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday.

"If we stop the military pressure, we will seal their fate to stay in Gaza because Hamas will not be motivated to discuss or talk to us, " he said.

There is great disagreement on that point, including from within Israeli society.

Ahron Bregman is a war studies professor at King's College London and a former Israeli artillery officer in the IDF.
Ahron Bregman is a war studies professor at King's College London and a former Israeli artillery officer in the IDF.

Ahron Bregman is a war studies professor at King's College London and a former Israeli artillery officer in the IDF. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)

Families of the remaining hostages are among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's most vocal critics, arguing that their safe return must come before pursuing the war against Hamas.

"Israel has failed miserably in terms of releasing the hostages," said Arafeh, the Carnegie researcher.

"Not only has it failed to release all of the hostages, it also killed three hostages when they tried to give themselves up."

Bregman, the war studies analyst, says there's a fundamental contradiction in the Netanyahu government's approach.

"The only way to release the hostages is through negotiations," he told CBC News.

"The government tries to convince the people of Israel that the military operation helps. This is nonsense. It is only an excuse for the government to continue with the military operation."

So far, just one hostage, Pte. Ori Megidish, has been freed through the direct actions of Israel's military.

105 hostages were released during the November ceasefire with Hamas.

In this picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli military on Dec. 15, army spokesperson Daniel Hagari stands in a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on Oct. 7.
In this picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli military on Dec. 15, army spokesperson Daniel Hagari stands in a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on Oct. 7.

In this picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli military on Dec. 15, army spokesperson Daniel Hagari stands in a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on Oct. 7. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

At least three were killed by Israeli troops by mistake and Israel estimates another 27 died in captivity. Hamas claims some hostages were killed by Israeli airstrikes but it is impossible to verify the claims.

"You cannot do it by force," Bregman said of securing the hostages' release.

"Some Israelis think in terms of a fantastic Hollywood operation where you release all the hostages in a daring attack on Hamas. That's not going to happen."

Former Israeli cabinet minister and military chief Gadi Eizenkot told an Isreali TV channel much the same thing on Friday, suggesting it was time for diplomacy to take over.

Eizenkot's views carry special weight as his youngest son was killed fighting in Gaza last month.

Israel's military says 132 hostages remain unaccounted for and are being held by Hamas in Gaza, although that number includes 27 people who are believed to have been killed and their bodies have not been returned.

Leaders alive

Netanyahu's third war objective — to ensure that Gaza is demilitarized and will never pose a threat to Israel again — includes killing Hamas's key leaders who planned Oct. 7.

And yet, by and large, they continue to evade capture or death.

The highest ranking Hamas official killed so far is Saleh al-Arouri, a deputy commander, who was assassinated in a drone strike on a Beirut apartment on Jan. 2.

Smoke rises above Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, January 16, 2024.
Smoke rises above Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel, January 16, 2024.

Smoke rises above Gaza amid the ongoing Israeli-Hamas war, as seen from Israel on Tuesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

The IDF says two brigade-level commanders have been killed and 19 other senior Hamas operatives with the rank of battalion commander have been eliminated.

But the purported mastermind of the Oct. 7 attacks, Yahya Sinwar, remains alive and presumably hiding somewhere in Gaza.

"I think Israel is trying to find any symbolic victory and they think that killing the big leaders of Hamas would give them some semblance of a victory, given the failures on the ground and the huge strategic and intelligence failure on October 7th," said Arafeh.

Israel's military has said the tempo of the war in Gaza will be slowing down as one of the original divisions fighting in Gaza is being pulled.  That will allow thousands of troops to be rotated and reservists to return to their families.

Bregman says he believes this is a tacit acknowledgement by Israel that its military goals are now unachievable.

"This is an admission that they are not going to achieve their objectives — if they failed to achieve them with four divisions [fighting in Gaza] it is unlikely they will topple Hamas with less forces."

On average, 250 Palestinians are killed every day in Gaza, with half of them being children, according to Oxfam. 

The UN claims two million people have been driven from their homes, with starvation stalking many of the survivors.

South Africa has accused Israel of genocide in the International Court of Justice, accusing its leaders of deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians and their civil institutions.

"What Israel has accomplished mainly is to make Gaza unlivable," said Arafeh.