The Unbridgeable Gulf between Israeli Politicians’ Rhetoric and the Reality in Gaza


Amos Harel | Haaretz – TRANSCEND Media Service

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IDF soldiers operating in Shejaiya, Gaza City, Thu 21 Dec 2023
Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

The Israeli army is planning stage three of the fighting, but – unusually – it is facing no pressure to meet a timetable ■ Hamas’s Sinwar is in no hurry to make another hostage deal.

24 Dec 2023 – A large, almost unbridgeable disparity exists between the understanding that the Israel Defense Forces are already in the midst of deployment for the third stage of the war in Gaza, and what the political decision makers are projecting outwardly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently declares that the war against Hamas will continue eternally, give or take. All that’s lacking is for him to quote his late rival-friend Yasser Arafat, and say that whoever doesn’t agree with him is invited to drink from the sea in Gaza. But concurrently, it appears that the various command posts of the General Staff’s Operations Directorate, as well as Southern Command, Northern Command and the relevant divisions, are already preparing for a significant change in January.

The need for a basic makeover is related to the ongoing deployment of hundreds of thousands of reservists and, as a consequence, the tremendous burden being imposed on the economy and on the reserve soldiers and their families. The IDF is not abandoning the war, but has a clear perception of the emerging picture. A number of adjustments will need to be made, and some of the reservists will need to be released home, in order to continue the war in the new format.

Even so, the army is planning to discharge soldiers from some of the units with a callup order in their hands – in other words, notification of an additional month of service during the coming year – with no certainty that this will be the end of the story. The reserves haven’t had a burden this large since the 1982 Lebanon War.

Within the framework of these adjustments, the intention is to deploy for the creation of a buffer zone inside the Gaza Strip, which will distance the immediate danger from the Israeli borderline communities, which are still abandoned (and for many of them, much time will be required to undo the extensive damage that Hamas wrought in the October 7 terrorist attack).

At the same time, as this column has already noted, the character of the army’s activity will gradually change. Instead of holding most of the area of the northern Gaza Strip and a relatively small portion of the south with four divisions, operations involving focused raids will be implemented, to be carried out by brigades of the regular army, against the remaining Hamas strongholds.

Every such operation – and according to the army, there will be many – will be accompanied by a dense envelope of abilities to be provided by the General Staff, the Air Force and the intelligence community. At the same time, the reservists in Northern Command will apparently be discharged and replaced by regular units. They will continue to reinforce the border with Lebanon as long as no solution exists for the confrontation with Hezbollah there.

The timetable by which the IDF is preparing remains “flexible.” That has to do with Netanyahu’s political considerations, to which we will return later, but also with the slow pace at which the fighting is proceeding. Brig. Gen. (res.) Moshe (Chico) Tamir coordinated the preparation of IDF units for a war in Gaza in recent years, and the moment hostilities erupted, two and a half months ago, he began formulating the new plans.

In 2005 he published a book summing up the years of fighting Hezbollah in Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon. He titled it, in Hebrew, “Unlettered War” (officially called “Undeclared War” by the Hebrew publisher). In the brigade command posts around Gaza, the fighting there was described this week as a “war without shin” (the Hebrew letter for the directive to execute a mission at a particular time, as in D-Day).

Time is a critical element in every military plan, but in Gaza things are proceeding differently. There is no real pressure from above on the divisions and the brigades to meet a rigid timetable. And in any event, as occurs often in ground warfare and especially in combat in a built-up area, every time estimate turns out to be an optimistic forecast, when in practice the task takes twice or three times as long as the original planning provided for.

The ground maneuver, as it’s termed in the IDF, in Gaza began eight weeks ago, but in the past few weeks most of the progress of the Israeli forces – marked on maps with blue arrows – has been confined to minor movements. This week an operation began to seize control of the Daraj-Tuffah area in the northeast section of Gaza City, and most of the activity in two other hot spots in the northern Strip – the Jabalya refugee camp and the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City – was completed. However, the IDF was cautious about declaring their conquest, making do with an announcement that the army had gained control of the areas.

With the same approach, the army has been talking almost since the start of the war about its goal of dismantling Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities, and is not purporting to promise the organization’s destruction. The achievements are impressive, and likewise the soldiers’ determination. But the problem, again, is the disparity between the rhetorical flourishes of speech and the situation on the ground, which is not advancing at the pace of the politicians’ promises.

There are several reasons for the slow pace: concern about a large number of casualties, which obligates cautious progress; the focus in Khan Yunis on the pursuit of Hamas’ senior figures (a point the IDF has been emphasizing publicly in recent days) and the desire not to do harm to the hostages. Hamas still holds 129 captives, of whom some 20 have been declared dead by the IDF.

That is a vast number, which precludes accurate Israeli tracking of the location of each of them. The tragedy in Shujaiyeh a week ago, when IDF troops shot to death three captives who had managed to get free, is also causing, lately, more cautious behavior by the Israeli forces.

The result is a pattern of slow pulverizing, lengthy waiting and additional searches, most of which are focused on the hundreds of tunnel shafts that have been located. Additional intelligence arrives constantly, requiring expanded searches. Some of the entrances to the areas of the tunnels are met with stiff resistance by Hamas and are exacting IDF casualties. For Israel, the basic problem remains the division into “upper Gaza” and “lower Gaza.” Hamas’ senior personnel, and most of the organization’s fighting force, are relatively protected in the network of subterranean tunnels.

There is no evidence in IDF statements that the army is sending troops deep into the tunnels. Soldiers are entering only a small number of tunnels, which are first scanned and isolated meticulously. Dogs and cameras are lowered into the tunnels, and weapons fire is apparently implemented from afar. Even so, it will be very difficult to distinguish confidently between attacking the targets – Hamas’ senior figures – and the layers of human shields they have undoubtedly placed around themselves.

This week the IDF announced that it found three Hamas tunnel compounds in Gaza City which the army termed strategic in character. Every day that passes brings home the gap between Israel’s prewar knowledge and understanding of the vast underground system that was built in the Gaza Strip, and the reality.

It is becoming clear that Israel did not have sufficient intelligence about what the enemy was doing. This plays up the ridiculousness, which in retrospect becomes even more infuriating, of the boasting by Netanyahu and ranking IDF officers that the attack on the “Metro,” the subterranean tunnels in Gaza, in Operation Guardian of the Walls, in 2021, brought about a fundamental shift in the balance of power with Hamas.

The IDF chief of staff at the time, Aviv Kochavi, even boasted at the beginning of this year, in a talk he gave at the Institute of National Security Studies, that “the crowning glory [was] the destruction of 100 kilometers of [tunnels] in Hamas’ flagship project. That is their combat dimension. It’s not by chance that they instruct their special Nukhba forces: Stay home, do not go out.

And to this day they don’t know what to do with this project. They understand that a few years have gone by since then and that we are continuing to collect intelligence, and likely in the next war we will also attack the ground project which they are trying to rehabilitate.” In the war, Hamas refuted all the assessments quoted here, one by one.

The state and the army have learned a few things since then, partly as a result of Hamas’ October 7 surprise. Still, the IDF spokesperson is making a considerable effort to instill the public with confidence in the war’s achievements, by means of an intensive sequence of announcements issued throughout most of the day, emanating from the arenas of the war. However, the effect on the public of this consciousness-shaping campaign seems to be waning.

The messages repeat themselves, the reports are not about an event that can be perceived as a “game changer” in the war, and at the same time there is a constant trickling of daily losses at the front. From the army’s viewpoint, over time the danger is that the public will lose confidence in the trustworthiness of the announcements and be skeptical about attaining the war’s goals.

A senior member of the General Staff, when asked about the measured progress of the war, told Haaretz that it stems from the complex nature of the fighting and the many complications that ensue in an operation that involves the uncovering and destruction of tunnels. He pointed out that Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza lasted 51 days, and in it the IDF executed only a limited ground maneuver about 1.5 kilometers deep, adjacent to the border fence, in the search for attack tunnels.

He added that even after the takeover of Shujaiyeh was completed this week, attempts by Hamas to strike at Israeli forces were continuing, albeit at a lower intensity. Like in other neighborhoods, the army is systematically uprooting whole streets, one line of houses after another. This is not only a question of removing immediate dangers to the Israeli forces, but also an effort to create a new physical reality on the ground, with a view to the postwar situation. As with other moves being executed by Israel, what is now being taken with a shrug of the Israeli public’s shoulders will not pass so quietly in the international community.

Caught in a Trap

The dispute over the right way to continue the war also entails a collision between strategic needs and political reality. Here a growing rift is emerging between Netanyahu and Likud on the one hand, and the leaders of the National Unity Party, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the war cabinet after Netanyahu implored them to do so in the first week of the war.

Initially, Netanyahu drew on the aid of the two former IDF chiefs of staff as balancing voices in his ultra-right government and relied on their advice in the small forum of the war cabinet. Like them, he believed in targeting Hamas and was against a preemptive strike against Hezbollah on October 11 – a move that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the IDF’s top figures had recommended. Gallant continues to level criticism of that decision whenever the situation on the northern border is mentioned.

But in the time that has passed since then, the political circumstances have changed. Even though Netanyahu understands well the military and diplomatic constraints, they are outweighed by his considerations of political survival. Not a day goes by in which Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and at times also some Likud ministers don’t demand the continuation and acceleration of the war. They are also threatening to resign if the military effort slows down or if the possible participation of the Palestinian Authority in the postwar arrangements in Gaza is mentioned.

The establishment of the war cabinet rendered the broader security cabinet superfluous and turned it into a forum for letting off steam, before which the heads of the security organizations are dragged against their will and waste important working hours.

While releasing confident assertions for public consumption, the ministers of the security cabinet are flummoxed by the plans being presented to them. That was the background to the stormy meeting this week, in which a few right-wing ministers lashed at out at IDF Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi, who on this occasion departed from custom and responded fiercely.

Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, who may be considering leaving the coalition more seriously than his far-right colleagues, thanks to relatively flattering opinion polls, claimed in the meeting that Eisenkot was consistent from the start of the war in his desire to reduce its scale. Eisenkot replied, “I say the opposite. It’s impossible tot talk only in slogans. The principle needs to be maximum implementation of force in minimum time – and then to understand that it will take about a year to achieve all the goals.

That’s what the army presented here two months ago. There are ministers here who are captive to militant rhetoric that has no connection with the implementation of force. A false picture was created that it would be possible to get to the last of the Hamasniks within a few weeks and dismantle them. To the chief of staff’s credit, let it be said that he explained that this was not going to happen. The war on terrorism is a lengthy process. It needs to be managed with professionalism.”

In practice, a situation has emerged in which the Israeli political and security establishment is caught in a trap in light of the ungrounded expectation for the quick dismantling and destruction of Hamas, which was never on the agenda, notwithstanding promises by Netanyahu and others. Segments of the Israeli public truly believed that within a few weeks the IDF would level the Gaza Strip’s buildings and create a park in the northern section, across from the Israeli communities that were devastated in the massacre.

In practice, the Israeli operations did in fact create destruction on an unprecedented scale in Gaza, but until now they have not broken Hamas and have not led to the imposition of a cease-fire on terms desirable to Israel. The ambition to bring back all the hostages is not being realized either. The indirect negotiations with Hamas broke down on December 1 after the return of 110 hostages, most of them women and children.

The leaders of Hamas, in Gaza and abroad, are now declaring that there will be no additional exchange without a total cessation of the war and the return of all the Israeli forces to their territory. U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday expressed guarded optimism about a possible new interim deal for the release of some of the captives in exchange for a relatively short cease-fire.

However, at the moment it appears that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar does not feel any immediate threat to his life or to the survival of his organization, and is in no special hurry to strike a new deal.

In the background, the intensive confrontation with Hezbollah along the Lebanese border is by now being perceived almost as routine. The Israeli media are reporting it with near indifference, even though tens of thousands of people from the border area were forced to leave their homes in October, and the state has no idea when they will be able to return.

In practice, Hezbollah has forced on Israel a security zone in Israeli territory, and has distanced all the Israeli civilians from the border area. The IDF is killing many of the organization’s personnel and its attacks have emptied out some of the Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon near the border, but the army is not succeeding in deterring Hezbollah from continuing the attacks. An acute Gordian knot has been created here, and it’s far from certain that the Biden administration’s efforts to untie it peacefully will work. Without the removal of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force to north of the Litani River, the Israeli residents will not return to their homes close to the border.

In light of the overload in the south, and the burgeoning challenge in the north, a transition to stage 3 of the war in Gaza appears to be a logical move in the difficult circumstances. But the planned timetable is not rigid – and Netanyahu, as well as some IDF officers for their own reasons, will have no special difficulty in fudging it.

The trouble is that over time, remaining in the present format is liable to turn out to be costly. It’s not only a case of the price being paid in blood every day, which is far from insignificant, but that the longer a military action lasts, the greater the risk of unanticipated entanglements. We are liable to face another mass event of casualties or captives, which will affect the course of the war and its perception by the public.

Sometimes, the truth is also an option. But it looks as though the prime minister has no intention of presenting the full strategic picture to the public. He is still trying to gain political time, even though the clock is against him. It’s impossible to ignore the negative sentiment among the public about the blunders that led to the war. This week Ben-Gvir, who is as impervious to criticism as Netanyahu, tried to sneak a visit in the ravaged Kibbutz Nir Oz for PR purposes and encountered an angry protest by residents.

Netanyahu himself meets only with carefully selected audiences. He pays condolence visits to very few families, whose political inclinations are usually known. In contrast, he continues to visit IDF units frequently, but almost always only soldiers of the regular army, in order to avoid criticism from reservists. His domestic standing is worse than that of Ehud Olmert after the 2006 Lebanon War. It’s hard to see him conversing freely in the future with people in a venue that hasn’t been politically sterilized for him.

Chief of Staff Halevi, who apparently has already grasped the change in the situation, will have to explain to the two cabinets whether in his view the time is ripe to transition to the war’s more limited stage 3. Besides him, the other key figures are Gantz and Eisenkot. The former is lately finding a certain common ground with Gallant and is not hurrying to move to a new stage.

The latter sounds more determined, with the tragedy of the loss of his son, Master Sgt. Gal Eisenkot, in the fighting in the northern Gaza Strip, in the background. This is no longer only a professional military issue; added to it is an emotional and moral layer, relating to the need to bring back the remaining captives and safeguard the soldiers’ lives. The present dispute could expedite the resignation of the National Unity Party from the coalition, if the shift in the character of the fighting is delayed.

Netanyahu, for his part, has a few more matters that are preoccupying him. This week he devoted considerable time to his initiative to change the name of the war. But the true frame of mind in the prime minister’s home was probably attested to by his son Yair, who chose to give a “Like” to a tweet that accused the chief of staff of organizing a military coup against Netanyahu on October 7. Anyone who thinks that the war has put paid to the fierce political controversy over Netanyahu has no idea what he’s talking about.


Amos Harel, 41, is one of Israel’s leading media experts on military and defense issues. He has been the military correspondent and defense analyst for Haaretz for the last 12 years and has written extensively about Israel’s ongoing fight against terrorist organizations, its battles during the Palestinian Intifadah (uprising) and the last war in Lebanon. From 1999-2005 he was the anchorman on a weekly Army Radio program about defense issues.

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