Jerusalem, Jan 1 (EFE) – Israel is adapting the deployment of its troops in the Gaza Strip in preparation for a war that will continue through 2024, hoping at some point to reduce the intensity of its offensive and enter a third phase of the conflict with a smaller presence of soldiers inside the enclave and more targeted attacks against the Islamist group Hamas, which continues to resist.
“The goals of the war require prolonged fighting, and we are preparing accordingly,” army spokesman Daniel Hagari said Sunday night.
So far, that has meant a ground offensive combining intense land, sea and air attacks with direct combat in an asymmetric guerrilla war with Palestinian militias that are still operational.
However, far from achieving its goal of wiping out Hamas and dismantling its armed infrastructure, Israel has recently announced that the conflict will drag on for at least months, requiring adjustments to the more than 360,000 reservists mobilized after the war broke out on Oct. 7.
The massive war effort – the largest mobilization of reservists in Israel’s history – has also affected the economy, which has been hampered since a significant portion of the active workforce was diverted to the conflict.
“Some reservists will return to their families and jobs this week. This will allow them to gather forces for next year’s actions, as the fighting will continue and will still be needed,” Hagari said.
According to press reports, the army will withdraw five brigades, meaning thousands of soldiers will be sent home, but it is unclear whether this is a routine rotation or could pave the way for a new phase of the war.
Military analyst Amir Bohbot commented Monday in Israel’s digital Walla that the withdrawal may indicate that there is less need for ground troops because Hamas has been weakened.
“Many Hamas battalions have already been decimated, more than 8,000 terrorists have been killed and large areas of Gaza have been cleared of their infrastructure, including tunnels, command posts, weapons caches, safe houses or rocket launching sites,” he noted.
According to him, the army “wants to move on to the next stage of the war with more concentrated attacks,” and the defense establishment is hoping for clearer guidelines on the government’s long-term strategy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet clarified how to deal with “the day after” in Gaza due to “political issues,” Bohbot notes, while the Israeli press points to internal friction between the ruling coalition partners that has prevented steps from being taken.
All in all, “the prevailing assessment is that Israeli forces will begin to launch more targeted air and ground operations against terrorist pockets in Gaza from Israeli territory, rather than from within Gaza.” This plan would seek to “reduce the number of troops” inside the enclave and prevent many soldiers “from being exposed to being targets of terrorist cells,” Bohbot said.
So far, at least 172 soldiers have been killed since Israel’s ground incursion began on Oct. 27, including about 18 by friendly fire and others in various accidents, in addition to attacks by Palestinian militias.
According to Michael Milshtein, director of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, “the third phase of the war will begin soon” and will change the current dynamic.
Attacks will be “of lower intensity, and ground maneuvers will be replaced by targeted operations to bring about the collapse of the Hamas regime over time,” Milshtein is quoted as saying in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. He warns, however, that a “war of attrition” could be dangerous for Israel, since Hamas “has demonstrated its ability to wage a fierce war” and “is still standing.”
“The fact that Hamas has survived and continues to fight” could be “a success” for the Islamist group, which “gives value to its principle of steadfast perseverance and its doctrine of resistance,” the analyst explains.
For Milstein, under these circumstances, Hamas will continue to resist and “undermine any Israeli steps” to “establish mechanisms of civilian control over the Strip,” while “its population will not want to cooperate and foreign donors will avoid investing money in projects in a region that suffers from chronic instability.”
In light of this, “Israel must rethink the third phase of the war” and “take control of the entire Strip”. This will take “a long time and come at a high price,” but only then “will it be possible to try to create a ‘different order’ in Gaza” and destroy “all of Hamas’s military and governmental capabilities,” he says.
The International Crisis Group analysis center said in a report issued on Monday that “”little thus far suggests Israel can erase Hamas.” Even if it succeeds in the difficult task of destroying its militias, the “wider political and social movement” it embodies “will survive,” and “armed resistance will continue in some form while the occupation persists.”
The think tank also said that there is a high probability of “major operations lasting weeks (perhaps months) more, followed by a rolling, less intense campaign during which Gaza will remain in limbo” and that an “extended military occupation seems likely.” EFE