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Israelis are increasingly questioning what war in Gaza can achieve

Udi Goren is among the families and supporters of Israelis held in Gaza who are protesting outside Israel's military headquarters, demanding that Israel change its war strategy.
Daniel Estrin
/
NPR
Udi Goren is among the families and supporters of Israelis held in Gaza who are protesting outside Israel's military headquarters, demanding that Israel change its war strategy.

TEL AVIV, Israel — What will it take for Israel to declare mission accomplished in Gaza and end the war?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised Israeli citizens that the military offensive in Gaza will press on until reaching a "definitive victory over Hamas" following its deadly Oct. 7 attack that killed more than 1,200 people in southern Israel.

But skepticism is growing in Israel about the kind of military victory that can really be achieved.

Almost 100 days of Israel's air-and-ground offensive have destroyed much of the Gaza Strip and killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry. The Israeli military says its troops have killed and arrested thousands of militants, rounded up weapons and destroyed Hamas rocket launchers and tunnels. But the Palestinian militant group is still killing Israeli ground troops, firing rockets at Israel and holding more than 130 hostages captured on Oct. 7.

"There is no way this will end when Israel can say we are victorious," says Eyal Hulata, who was Israel's national security adviser from 2021-2023. "Israel lost this war [on] the 7th of October. The only question now is if we are able to remove from Hamas the ability to do this again. And we might succeed, and we might not."

A man touches a wall with images of people who were kidnapped on Oct. 7, some of whom have been released from captivity, at a rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 2.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
A man touches a wall with images of people who were kidnapped on Oct. 7, some of whom have been released from captivity, at a rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 2.

"A ladder to climb down"

The most prominent group of Israelis pushing to change Israel's war strategy is made up of citizens whose relatives were taken hostage by militants.

Israel's government says the military campaign will pressure Hamas to eventually free more than 130 remaining hostages in Gaza. Families of hostages are among the voices from Israel's center-left calling to put combat on hold and strike an immediate deal with Hamas to free the hostages. A similar deal in late November freed some Israeli hostages and Palestinian detainees.

In recent weeks, the Israeli families and their supporters have blocked the entrance to Israel's military headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv for several minutes once every hour, holding signs while one holds up a megaphone and reads out the names of hostages still held in Gaza.

One of the relatives protesting is Udi Goren, whose cousin, Tal Chaimi, was killed in the Oct. 7 attack; Chaimi's body is being held in Gaza.

"The slogan of destroying Hamas, it's an empty slogan," Goren told NPR. He cited Hamas' extensive network of tunnels and ranks of fighters still remaining.

"We're talking about a war that's now going on in an urban area that has about 2 million refugees and hostages," he said. "The [Israeli military] is fighting with his hand tied behind its back. It's very clear that we need to find a ladder to climb down."

Redefining victory

Prominent figures in Israel's security establishment are also searching for ways to redefine victory.

The former spymaster of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, told Israeli Army Radio that a victory over Hamas would be killing or capturing the group's leaders. A senior Hamas leader in Lebanon was killed in a blast this month attributed to Israel, but Israel's most wanted man, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas' top leader in Gaza, is still at large.

A former head of Palestinian affairs in Israeli military intelligence, Michael Milshtein, says Israel's campaign in Gaza can achieve "prominent results" if it deters regional enemies.

That would include Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia next door to Israel in Lebanon, as well as other militant groups around the Middle East, he says.

"If, for example, the final results of this war will be occupation of Gaza — huge, broad destruction of this place, killing thousands of Hamas members, and, of course, killing the head of the snake — it will have a very dramatic impact on enemies like Hezbollah, like the Iranians, like Syria, that, no, you cannot promote such brutal, violent moves against Israel without any payment."

How long Israel can maintain high-intensity combat

Week by week, Israel announces more Hamas tunnels destroyed and more Hamas fighters killed. But as a high number of Israeli soldiers killed and wounded continues to rise, according to a daily Israeli military tally, Hamas is still putting up a fight, and the country faces increasing international pressure to wind down its offensive.

As the United States has called for, Israel is slowly transitioning to lower-intensity fighting in northern Gaza, withdrawing thousands of reservists. But fighting is escalating with Lebanese militants on Israel's northern border.

"I'll be surprised if Israel can maintain this intensity for many more months ahead," said Hulata, the former Israeli national security adviser.

The casket bearing the body of Israeli Sgt. Amit Hod Ziv, 19, who was killed in a Hezbollah rocket attack near the border with Lebanon in northern Israel, is carried at his funeral in Rosh Haayin, Israel, on Dec. 24.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
The casket bearing the body of Israeli Sgt. Amit Hod Ziv, 19, who was killed in a Hezbollah rocket attack near the border with Lebanon in northern Israel, is carried at his funeral in Rosh Haayin, Israel, on Dec. 24.

In an op-ed Tuesday, leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea called on Israel to adjust its objective of dismantling Hamas in Gaza.

"In the last three weeks the war has not changed reality. It has cost the lives of soldiers, has increased the risk of a humanitarian disaster that Israel will be responsible for, has hurt Israel in the world and hasn't brought us any closer to a victory which does not exist," Barnea wrote in Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

On the other end of the political spectrum, voices on Israel's right say the country's leaders aren't willing to hammer Gaza hard enough.

"There will only be 50% victory in Gaza," says Tal Usach, 19, waiting for a bus outside Israeli military headquarters. He thinks complete victory would require Israel to permanently rule Gaza and ensure the territory's entire Palestinian population is relocated to neighboring countries.

Several right-wing and far-right ministers in Netanyahu's government have called for the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza, a position that has drawn strong international rebuke and that is opposed by the U.S., Israel's closest ally.

"Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They must not be pressed to leave Gaza," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday in a news conference after meeting Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv. "The prime minister reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel's government."

Still, Netanyahu faces criticism from politicians in his own governing coalition who accuse Israel's military of being too soft on the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's political calculations for continuing the war

Domestic politics may play a role in how Netanyahu wages the war in Gaza.

Israel's military has appointed a team to investigate the security failures that resulted in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, and Netanyahu is expected to face questions about his own responsibility. Netanyahu's corruption trial will convene at a quicker pace beginning this month, and polls show his government has lost between a third and a fourth of its public support during the war.

"If it was up to Netanyahu, this would continue for quite some time," says Reuven Hazan, who teaches politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "For Netanyahu to end the war in Gaza, even with a victory, means he has to start dealing with the political issues at home and the legal issues, which he does not want to."

Israel's Supreme Court this month struck down Netanyahu's government's signature legislation that tried to curtail the court's own powers, a judicial overhaul that had fueled massive protests in the months leading up to the war. The court has also pushed back on the government's attempts to make it harder to remove Netanyahu from office amid his ongoing corruption trial.

"If the war drags on, and Netanyahu's onslaught on the judicial branch returns, then you will see Israelis back in the streets, but this time, it won't be half the population," Hazan says. "It'll be significantly more than half the population, and the government cannot survive that for too long."

Eve Guterman contributed to this story from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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