December 6, 2023
IntelBrief: Israel Presses Offensive in Southern Gaza as Hopes for Renewed Truce Fade
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have begun pushing their offensive into southern Gaza, while still actively fighting against Hamas militants in parts of northern Gaza, including in the Shajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City and the city of Jabalia. With 70 percent of Gaza’s 2.2 million people now in the south, especially after the IDF urged civilians to travel there, densely packed areas will remain at extremely high risk for civilian deaths and collateral damage. The IDF stressed that Gazans should evacuate the areas around Khan Younis, but civilians fleeing the fighting have nowhere to go. International humanitarian aid agencies have confirmed that shelters further south, close to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, are already overcrowded. With the IDF offensive now focusing on Hamas leaders and other high-value targets in southern Gaza, this phase of urban warfare will feature close-quarters combat, including house-to-house fighting and tunnel warfare in Gaza’s vast subterranean network. The IDF has reportedly set up large pumps to prepare for flooding Hamas’s tunnel network, though that could present a range of challenges related to the recovery of hostages still being held by Hamas and other Palestinian groups.
This fighting follows a roughly weeklong truce that brought the warring to a standstill and facilitated the exchange of hostages and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The truce was negotiated with the help of the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, and each of those countries is continuing to look for ways to bring both Hamas and Israel back to the negotiating table. The United States, in particular, has been seeking to pressure Israel to that end and to enhance the protection of civilians, with a range of high-ranking Biden administration officials delivering public statements recently. Echoing his own experience leading U.S. troops in combat during the two-decade-long Global War on Terrorism, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted, “In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, after meetings and discussions with leadership in Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, reiterated that “As Israel pursues its military objectives in Gaza, we believe Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians.” Lastly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel to undertake “more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians,” remarking that for the United States, “the massive loss of civilian life and displacement of the scale we saw in northern Gaza [should] not be repeated in the south.”
Israel’s stated objective to eradicate Hamas and the entirety of the group’s military infrastructure is at cross-purposes with the responsibility to protect civilians from harm. Weighing in on Israel’s unclear aims and the infeasibility of destroying Hamas, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to accomplish, French President Emmanuel Macron recently stated, “I think we have reached a moment when the Israeli authorities will have to define more clearly what their final objective is.” Macron went on to say, “The total destruction of Hamas? Does anybody think that’s possible? If it’s that, the war will last 10 years.” If Israel attempts to occupy Gaza, a decade-long insurgency is not entirely out of the realm of possible outcomes. Netanyahu is facing mounting criticism domestically, so Israeli politics will also be an important variable for when the war ends and how it ends. Haaretz reports that a meeting yesterday between Netanyahu and the relatives of hostages, as well as some recently released hostages themselves, remained heated and involved shouting and accusations that the Israeli government was endangering the remaining hostages. Netanyahu is under scrutiny to deliver tangible results, yet the Israeli military campaign has failed to capture Hamas’s top leadership, and the Qassam Brigades, the group’s military wing, is still able to fire rockets from northern Gaza into Israel. Over the past two days, Hamas rockets have been launched at Tel Aviv. And while the strikes may be more symbolic in nature, it still demonstrates that Hamas command-and-control apparatus remains in northern Gaza. Meanwhile, there are growing concerns in Israel that the IDF’s mounting military campaign in southern Gaza could lead to the death of some of the remaining hostages who could be killed inadvertently by Israeli strikes.
With Israel now beginning to receive more ardent pushback internationally, including from its staunch ally Washington, there have been preliminary discussions about a timetable for ending the conflict. Reporting suggests that the Biden administration is pushing Israel to conclude military operations by the beginning of the new year, in about three weeks' time. Israel has yet to produce a clear roadmap for a political settlement, even as world leaders press Netanyahu for an answer on what happens the day after the fighting winds down. Many analysts point to the role that the Palestinian Authority (PA) should play in a future Palestinian state, but at the same time, Hamas is gaining popularity in the West Bank at the expense of the PA, which is still widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. The Biden administration, likely in an effort to turn up the heat on Netanyahu’s government, particularly among the influential far-right figures, announced a travel ban yesterday against Israeli settlers accused of involvement in attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as Palestinians who have committed acts of violence. The phase of “fight and talk” will continue to unfold. Along with pressure from the Biden administration, the issue of hostages is still playing out behind the scenes. Cairo and Doha are eager to capitalize upon the diplomatic success that helped reach terms on and then extend the truce between Israel and Hamas. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, called on the UN Security Council yesterday to force Israel to return to the negotiating table, calling the international community’s inability to halt the conflict and the killing of civilians “shameful.” But getting both sides back to a place where serious ceasefire discussions can occur will take time and will inevitably be complicated by the intensity of the combat now occurring throughout Gaza.