As Some Israeli Troops Leave Gaza, a Long-Term Strategy Remains Elusive

Heidi Levine for The Washington Post
Israeli troops in a tank move along a security fence on the Israeli-Gaza border on Jan. 20.

TEL AVIV – With Israel’s army beginning to gradually pull out of Gaza, its gains against Hamas are significant but incomplete, Israeli military and security officials say, and are threatened by the lack of a postwar strategy.

Though intense ground fighting continues in Khan Younis and other parts of the southern Gaza Strip, the Israeli military says is it moving away from large-scale bombardments and transitioning to a more focused campaign of targeted raids and assassinations, aiming to eradicate Hamas’s military leadership.

The war has leveled much of the northern part of the strip and killed more than 25,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says 70 percent of the dead are women and children.

The Washington Post spoke to seven current and former Israeli officials and reservists about the progress of the war in Gaza and its ultimate aims. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military strategy.

“The war has damaged Hamas as a terrorist entity, but this is not a three-month mission,” a military official said.

At least 9,000 militants have been killed so far, according to the Israel Defense Forces, less than a third of the 30,000 fighters that Hamas is estimated to command. The head of Hamas, Yehiya Sinwar, and his top lieutenants remain at large. The militant group does not release figures for its war dead, but a Hamas official dismissed the Israeli numbers. “I believe the Israelis are trying to embellish their accomplishments,” he told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with rules set by the group.

Launches from Gaza of Hamas’s relatively long-range rockets, numbering in the thousands at the beginning of the war, have all but ceased. Israel says it has destroyed thousands of weapons stockpiles, rocket production sites and tunnel shafts over three months of door-to-door battles. But without a “day after” strategy, officials say, these achievements could be fleeting.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to insist that the total elimination of Hamas remains the goal of the war. “This is not just a matter of hitting Hamas, this is not another round with Hamas – this is a complete victory,” he said Thursday. From the start of the conflict, military leaders have held a more pragmatic view, believing that, under current conditions, the group can be degraded but not destroyed. As Israel begins to scale down its operations in Gaza, that unspoken tension is spilling into public view.

Gadi Eisenkot, a former top army leader whose son was killed in Gaza last month, accused Netanyahu in a recent interview of telling “tall tales” about the war.

“A strategic achievement was not reached,” Eisenkot said. “We did not demolish Hamas.”

Twenty-one Israeli soldiers were killed Monday when Hamas militants fired a projectile at their tank as they were rigging a building for demolition, the IDF said, the deadliest single event for its forces in Gaza. Since the war began, 217 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari told journalists Tuesday that the number of troops and the intensity of fighting in Gaza will continue to fluctuate.

“More reservists will be required in all the combat arenas, and therefore the IDF is operating by both freeing up forces and focusing our activities,” he said.

Israeli officials would not disclose how many troops are still in Gaza and how many have withdrawn. At least three combat brigades remain on the ground, according to an IDF statement released earlier this month. The Golani Brigade, an elite infantry unit, pulled out from Shejaiya, in Gaza City, last month.

Some soldiers have been repositioned along the northern border with Lebanon, where the threat of a broader war looms; thousands more have returned home, to jobs and families, which the government hopes will help revive Israel’s war-battered economy.

The military official said the ground and air operation in Gaza has effectively dismantled the majority of Hamas’s five brigades – composed of 24 battalions, each with up to 1,400 fighters. More than 100 commanders have been killed, the official said.

Seventeen of 24 Hamas battalions have been disabled, Israeli officials said, mostly in the central and northern parts of the enclave, to the point where they more closely resemble small bands of guerrillas as opposed to proper military units. But officials acknowledge that thousands of militants remain.

“It changes from a structure to a heap, but a heap can still fight you back,” said Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion, a reserve officer who was on active duty after the Hamas attacks. “This doesn’t mean that Hamas is dead, but they certainly can’t do what they did on Oct. 7.”

Hamas’s tunnel network has been found to be far more extensive than previous IDF estimates, spanning over 300 miles in the south alone, according to the military official. More than 5,600 tunnel shafts have been discovered by the IDF, according to a former security official briefed on the intelligence, and many have been destroyed. But the scope of the subterranean network, built covertly over many years, means it is unlikely to be fully dismantled.

The majority of Israeli assassinations in Gaza have targeted low to mid-ranking members – part of a strategy to strip the group of a “critical mass” of fighters, the former security official said.

Israel’s military “has become static,” he said, tasked with maintaining control over pacified areas rather than trying to gain more ground.

In Gaza’s north and center, the pace of war has slowed enough for some Palestinians to venture back to their devastated neighborhoods, though rebuilding remains a distant hope. In the south, more than a million displaced people are huddled together near the Egyptian border. Disease is spreading, aid groups warn, and more than 90 percent of Gazans don’t have enough to eat.

Yet small cells of Hamas fighters, hiding in tunnels and the ruins of destroyed buildings, remain a lethal threat. After a barrage of rockets was fired from the enclave last week toward the southern city of Netivot, Israeli troops were able to swiftly surround the launch site in central Gaza and kill numerous fighters, according to a military official familiar with the operation – foreshadowing the kind of targeted raids and strikes that are likely to characterize the next phase of the war.

But how Israel can keep a weakened Hamas from rebuilding remains an open, and vexing, question for military leaders. The entity that ultimately governs Gaza – whether the Palestinian Authority, as the United States advocates, or an international force, an idea that some Israeli officials have floated – will determine whether IDF troops can operate from permanent positions inside the enclave or respond from bases just across the border.

Remaining inside would amount to reoccupying Gaza, a goal supported by far-right politicians but fiercely opposed by Washington and by most Israelis, polls show. A long-term security presence, which would keep Israel responsible for Palestinian civilians and expose troops to constant threats, was dismissed as a “nightmare scenario” by most of the security establishment, according to the military source.

“We would be sitting ducks,” he said.

Operating from outside the strip would be possible in practice, but would require a security partnership with the ruling authorities, similar to Israel’s agreement with the Palestinian Authority in parts of the occupied West Bank.

“Mowing the grass” – the term for Israel’s past strategy of establishing temporary deterrence by reducing, but not eliminating, the capabilities of Palestinian militant groups – tends to become more hazardous over time, Orion said. He cited IDF raids in the West Bank, which have grown increasingly deadly for both sides over the last year as weapons have flowed into Palestinian refugee camps and armed resistance has surged.

“You see mowing the grass in the West Bank has become more demanding and more kinetic,” he said. “Gaza is a much higher level of challenge.”

Without a concerted international effort to limit the power of Hamas in postwar Gaza, the former Israeli security official said, the risk of its fighters regrouping will remain ever-present.

“Hamas’s military, not its political elements, have been dealt with efficiently so far. But what will happen now in Gaza, and how Hamas will now react politically and military – how Hamas will revitalize its forces is yet to be seen,” he said.

Other critical security questions loom: Israeli military officials say keeping Hamas from rearming with outside weapons will require securing the Rafah crossing on the Gaza-Egypt border. Egyptian officials are already pushing back against an Israeli plan to maintain control over a buffer zone along the border, where smuggling tunnels have proliferated in the past.

There is also the pressing issue of the more than 100 hostages who remain in captivity in Gaza. Relatives of the hostages set up camp over the weekend outside Netanyahu’s private home, calling on the government to do anything necessary to secure their release. Last month, the IDF mistakenly killed three Israelis who escaped from their captors.

“If the state of Israel abandons its hostages,” then the 1,200 soldiers and citizens murdered on Oct. 7 “will have died in vain,” Hen Avigdori posted Sunday on X, formerly Twitter. His wife and 12-year-old daughter were held in Gaza for nearly two months before being released during a short-lived humanitarian pause in late November.

“There is no victory without the return of the hostages,” he wrote.