Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has inflicted significant damage on Hamas but it appears a long way from delivering the death blow to the Palestinian militants that Israeli leaders vowed when the assault began 11 weeks ago.
In slow-moving, street-to-street fighting backed up by relentless bombing raids, Israel says it has scored battlefield gains against Hamas and begun to dismantle its military infrastructure. But experts and former U.S. military officers say that the progress is temporary and that there is no sign the militants are on the verge of a strategic defeat.
“I wouldn’t call it impossible, but I think the likelihood is becoming increasingly small that they will achieve the strategic goal of eliminating Hamas as a threat,” said retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, who oversaw special operations forces in the Middle East.
The limited success against Hamas has come at a high price, in civilian lives and international political outrage directed at Israel’s government. On Wednesday, the rising death toll for Palestinian civilians reached a grim milestone of 20,000, according to Gaza health authorities.
Israel so far has failed to achieve several key goals that it set for the campaign.
Hamas’ senior leaders remain alive. The group’s military infrastructure has been hit hard but not wiped out. The group continues to hold dozens of hostages and Hamas remains the sole governing authority in the Gaza Strip, despite vows from Israel to permanently oust the militants from political power.
Meanwhile, Israel’s main adversary, Iran, stands to benefit from the conflict, which it helped provoke through its decadeslong support for Hamas.
The Israel Defense Forces says that it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, “significantly damaged” 10 out of 24 1,000-strong battalions, destroyed hundreds of tunnel shafts, uncovered weapons stashes and that its troops now have achieved “operational freedom” in Gaza City in the enclave’s north.
The IDF has poured troops and resources into the offensive, with four divisions now operating in the Gaza Strip, including paratroopers from the 98th division leading an assault in Khan Younis in the enclave’s south, where Hamas leaders are believed to be based.
Deeper into the offensive, Israeli casualties have ticked up in the close quarters combat. The IDF says 134 of its troops have been killed in the Gaza offensive, including nine who died in a Hamas ambush last week.
Since the Israel offensive began, Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israel have dramatically declined — a sign that the group’s operations have been disrupted, experts say.
But Israel now finds itself caught in a bind between contradictory objectives: The more military success it achieves in its war with Hamas, the higher the Palestinian civilian death toll and the more Israel risks losing support from its most important ally, the United States.
“Every bit of progress they make towards their strategic goal increasingly damages their reputation internationally and makes it harder for their allies and supporters to continue to support them,” said Nagata, who helped lead the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group's militants in Syria and Iraq.
Democrats in Congress and some former U.S. military officers argue Israel should pull back from heavy bombing and a full-blown ground invasion and instead carry out more calibrated raids with fewer troops on the ground targeting Hamas leaders, weapons caches and tunnels. They also argue Israel should combine its military effort with a major diplomatic push for political dialogue with Palestinian representatives in the West Bank and with Arab governments in the region.
But Israeli officials and supporters of Israel say the country had no alternative to a large-scale combat operation to shore up Israel’s security in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, and that Hamas’ vast tunnel network required a major offensive to dismantle. They also say that Israel has come under criticism for its tactics in the past even when previous operations were more limited.
IDF officers say they need to keep up the ground offensive for several months to fulfill their goals but time may be running out.
Biden administration officials, under criticism abroad and at home to persuade Israel to safeguard civilian lives in Gaza, have been pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to scale back the current operation to a more calibrated, limited effort.
“The real question is whether they are making military progress fast enough before the political clock runs out,” said Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank, who recently returned from a trip to the region. “The IDF will tell you that they think they need several more months of large-scale combat operations to fully destroy Hamas’ military capabilities.”
The civilian death toll and the diminishing prospects of a decisive outcome will force Israel’s hand soon and lead to a more scaled-back campaign, a former senior Israeli official said.
“I think we’re reaching a point where this will not be able to continue in this current form,” the former Israeli official told NBC News. “I would assume that sometime in the beginning of January we will see a shift.”
Israel launched its offensive in Gaza after Hamas militants swarmed into Israel on Oct. 7, killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seized 240 hostages, per Israeli officials.
In the aftermath of the Hamas attack that caught Israel by surprise and shocked the country, Israeli leaders vowed to retaliate to prevent a similar attack in the future. They outlined plans to eliminate Hamas’ leadership, dismantle its entire chain of command and ensure Hamas will no longer control the Gaza Strip.
The IDF says it has taken out dozens of Hamas military commanders in recent weeks. But the militant group’s chief in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and its top military commander, Muhammad Deif, remain alive and in charge.
“We have not been able to do that," remove Hamas’ leaders, the former senior Israeli official said. “That is a big, big issue that is putting pressure on the military.”
If Israeli forces do not manage to kill or capture the top Hamas leaders, the Israeli public almost certainly will view the outcome as a failure.
Past Israeli assaults in Gaza over the years, including an Israeli ground invasion in 2014, have killed Hamas leaders and seized weaponry. But the militants later regrouped and rearmed in each case.
A senior Biden administration official said the Israeli offensive has been successful in removing Hamas commanders and midlevel commanders.
“They’ve eliminated quite a bunch of Hamas leadership at various levels,” the official said. “They are making progress against the leaders. There’s no doubt about that. But it is a big, well-oiled, organized military machine that they’re up against, and so they believe that they still have more work to do.”
In U.S. operations against terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda or ISIS over the past two decades, American commanders eventually recognized that battlefield successes — including killing senior figures — produced only temporary benefits. The extremist groups, fueled by ideology and feeding off of power vacuums, could replace their commanders, adapt and survive.
According to U.S. intelligence reporting shared with lawmakers, even if Israel succeeds in taking out the senior leadership of Hamas, the group will remain a threat as it is based on an idea of resistance, congressional aides said.
A growing number of Democrats in Congress, including military veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, have cited that experience and questioned Israel’s tactics, arguing that heavy bombardment and steep civilian casualties are counterproductive methods that threaten to provide more fuel to extremists.
Six Democrats who served in the military and in the CIA wrote a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday, urging him to use all U.S. leverage at his disposal to persuade Israel to change course in its offensive.
“Most of us spent years of our lives fighting in the U.S. global war on terrorism. And one of the most important lessons we learned during that period is that military power has limitations,” Democratic Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who signed the letter, told NBC News’ Garrett Haake. “You can’t bomb away a terrorist ideology. And we want to take that lesson and we want to impart that lesson on our key partner Israel here who we are afraid is moving in the very wrong direction,” said Crow, who served as an Army paratrooper in Iraq.
No matter how effective its military offensive, Israel will be hard pressed to decimate Hamas as it enjoys a global network of patrons and backers beyond Gaza, Nagata said.
“They can go after fighters, they can go after leaders, they can go after weapons' caches, they can go after all these things that are inside of Gaza. But what Israel is unable to do is take apart the entire international network that also comprises much of what Hamas is,” he said.
While Israel has pressed its assault on Hamas with mixed results, experts and former U.S. and Israeli officials say the crisis has been a strategic boon for Iran, Russia and China. The U.S. adversaries see Washington struggling to defend Israel on the world stage and to organize an international response to attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“They clearly are the strategic beneficiaries of what has happened,” one former Israeli official said.