Israel wins Gaza battles but risks losing the war

Israel’s response has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, most of them noncombatants, according to Palestinian health authorities. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Israel’s response has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, most of them noncombatants, according to Palestinian health authorities. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


Tactical gains haven’t achieved Israel’s strategic goals, and many in Israel’s military blame Netanyahu for avoiding hard political decisions.

TEL AVIV—For six months, Israel’s military has won battle after battle against Hamas. But as the fight loses momentum and postconflict plans fail to gel, Israel is facing the prospect of losing the war.

The invasion of the Gaza Strip is stalling. Most Israeli troops have gone home. And Hamas is returning to areas that previously had been cleared of militants.

International pressure and the challenges of taking on fighters burrowed into a civilian population have combined to impede efforts to root Hamas out of the enclave’s refugee-packed south.

That has frustrated Israel’s central publicly stated war aim: to kill Hamas’s leaders and destroy the radical Islamist militant group as a military and political force.

Some military and political leaders blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to promulgate a plan for postwar Gaza, saying that it left a political vacuum that the radical Islamist group is exploiting to rebuild its influence in the strip.

Israel’s military is growing increasingly frustrated about the government’s indecision. Without a political plan for Gaza, tactical wins won’t add up to any lasting strategic gain, say current and former senior officers and soldiers who spent months in hard urban combat.

“As someone who has seen these battles, we won the battle," said Noam Ohana, a reservist with Israel’s 98th Division who fought in Khan Younis, the biggest city in southern Gaza. “You can choose to not reap the fruits of your military victory and then you will have a political problem."

Israel’s invasion of Gaza followed Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,200 people, including over 300 soldiers, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s response has killed more than 33,000 people in Gaza, most of them noncombatants, according to Palestinian health authorities.

The lengthy war and its mounting humanitarian toll have strained Israel’s relationship with the U.S. Many people in Israel fear the U.S. relationship could be irreversibly damaged by the war, a loss for Israel’s security outweighing the benefits of the fighting.

Publicly, Israel’s military says the campaign is a major success, albeit a work in progress. Israeli forces have killed thousands of Hamas militants and destroyed many of their rockets, tunnels and other infrastructure, Israel says.

Privately, however, many officers and ordinary soldiers worry about the prospect of their tactical successes against Hamas being squandered by political indecision.

“To eliminate Hamas, you need to create an alternative as a governing body in Gaza. There’s a general understanding across Israel’s military and security services that this is not a problem that can be solved militarily," said Ofer Fridman, a former Israeli officer and war-studies scholar at King’s College London.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli forces are racking up achievements in the fight against Hamas. “We are one step away from victory," he said at the start of a cabinet meeting.

An adviser to Netanyahu on Thursday repeated the message, saying “there were many unprecedented achievements on the battlefield."

“The country is fully united behind the objectives of the war," he said.

Israeli Brig. Gen. Dan Goldfus, commander of the 98th Division, made a rare public criticism of Israel’s political leaders last month when he called on them to unite and “be worthy of the soldiers" fighting and dying in Gaza. “You must make sure we do not return to Oct. 6, that all the effort and sacrifice won’t be in vain," said Goldfus. He was given an official reprimand for straying into politics.

Many of his troops agreed with him, however. Reservists who returned from Gaza recently said frustration about the lack of a plan to consolidate their tactical gains into a lasting strategic victory was increasing weekly.

A captain who fought in Khan Younis said that early in the war, his troops knew why they were fighting. But as time went on, more began to wonder what the purpose of it all was. “I don’t have answers to give my soldiers," he said.

Other reservists said there was frustration about the failure to free the more than 120 remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza or kill top Hamas leaders such as Yahya Sinwar, two of the war’s stated aims.

Israel’s central war aim—regime change—is something that is never easy to accomplish, said Tamir Hayman, head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and an adviser to Israel’s defense minister. The U.S. didn’t fully achieve regime change in either Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.

Israel has made it even harder by destroying Hamas’s power without knowing what to replace it with, Hayman said. “You need to work simultaneously on destruction and rebuilding" a new regime, he said.

Israel has been most successful at suppressing and scattering Hamas’s military formations in most of Gaza. But even that task has stalled at the gates of Rafah, the city on Gaza’s southern border, where Hamas’s battalions remain intact—and where about 1.5 million Palestinian civilians are sheltering.

Netanyahu has for weeks vowed to take Rafah, saying his goal of “total victory" requires it. He recently said a date has been set, but not when it is. Yet a ground assault on Rafah can’t happen any time soon, senior military figures say.

Israel is struggling to find a way to move the swollen refugee population to somewhere else in the heavily destroyed enclave. The U.S., Israel’s indispensable ally, is opposed to a major ground assault on Rafah, saying it would cause unacceptable civilian deaths.

The standoff over Rafah has added to the tensions between Netanyahu and the Biden administration. Washington’s patience with Israel has been further stretched by the killing of seven workers from the U.S.-based nonprofit group World Central Kitchen—an incident Israel’s military said was a mistake.

A rift with the U.S. could have consequences reaching far beyond Gaza, potentially encouraging Iran in the bigger regional confrontation with Israel, said Jonathan Conricus, a former Israeli officer who was a military spokesman early in the war.

Meanwhile, Hamas is filtering back into more areas of Gaza that Israeli forces have vacated after they earlier cleared out the militants in heavy urban fighting. The Israelis have fought to suppress Hamas in some neighborhoods repeatedly, for example at the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City.

Israel has reduced its troop presence in the strip to one brigade, down from over 20 brigades and more than 60,000 troops late last year, to let soldiers recover and relieve the burden on Israel’s economy.

Despite achieving near-total tactical mastery over Hamas in firefights, Israel’s military has been unable to stamp out an elusive enemy, find Sinwar or rescue the hostages.

Israel says it has killed around 13,000 militants and dismantled 20 of Hamas’s 24 battalions. U.S. and Egyptian intelligence services believe the number of Hamas fighters killed is lower.

Hamas, which had around 30,000 fighters before the war, is also able to recruit new members among Gaza’s large population of young males, say experts on the radical Islamist group.

Hamas is adapting to Israel’s campaign, mostly avoiding large firefights, hiding and waiting for Israeli forces to move on. Then Hamas tries to re-establish its presence and power, intimidating the local population and exploiting the lack of any other authority.

The militants started reappearing in Gaza City in the enclave’s north in January, when Israeli forces pulled out after conquering the city last year. The pattern is repeating itself in Khan Younis where Israel’s 98th Division fought a lengthy battle before withdrawing.

Israel’s defense ministry is strongly opposed to a full military occupation of the strip, which would offer Hamas a target for a grinding insurgency. Israeli troops occupied Gaza from 1967 onward but pulled out in 2005.

The U.S., major Arab countries and much of Israel’s security establishment see only one realistic alternative: involving the Palestinian secular nationalist party Fatah, which runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

But Netanyahu has adamantly rejected any role for the group, which is anathema to the premier and to far-right members of his fragile governing coalition.

Many in Israel argue that the war isn’t going well for Hamas either. By any measure, the group’s fighters have been mauled, and have proved no match for Israel’s military, even in dense urban battlegrounds that favor guerrilla tactics.

Israel has rendered Hamas unable to mount another attack such as Oct. 7 and shown its enemies around the Middle East that they will pay a high price for attacking it, said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.

Had the government focused on those more manageable goals, it could claim success, he said.

“I cannot say that Israel failed strategically, but I can say definitely it hasn’t achieved its ambitious goals of dismantling and destroying Hamas or bringing back hostages," said Yadlin. Given the damage inflicted on Hamas, “it’s some kind of a tie," he said.

But sacrificing thousands of fighters is a price that Sinwar is willing to pay, say many close observers of the group.

“It’s true that Hamas has been battered and bloodied, but they anticipated that," said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, a think tank in Washington.

Ibish said Israel’s goal of showing the region that it will strike back hard when attacked isn’t much of an accomplishment. “Nobody doubted that," he said. “I don’t think it has restored the sense of security and inviolability in the Israeli public."

Sinwar has told interlocutors that his goal in triggering the war was to bring the Palestinian national cause back to the forefront—and that he succeeded.

Many analysts say his aim was also to put Hamas at the head of that cause. Hamas’s hide-and-wait tactics show that its immediate war aim is to outlast Israel’s best efforts to crush it, then declare victory, say many analysts.

“For an insurgency to win, the only thing they need is to survive until the other side is exhausted and leaves," said King’s College’s Fridman.

Anat Peled contributed to this article.

Write to Marcus Walker at and Shayndi Raice at

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