Hamas leader Sinwar said to believe his forces are on road to victory against IDF

According to Wall Street Journal, terrorist organization’s Gaza leader sent a message to exiled officials claiming the world will compel Israel to end the war due to civilian toll

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's Gaza Strip chief, waves to supporters in Gaza City, on April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Hamas is winning the fight in Gaza, the organization’s leader in the war-torn Strip told its senior officials in Qatar early this month, according to a Thursday report.

In early February, Hamas’s exile leadership convened in Doha, worried that the IDF was getting the better of the terror group as Israeli troops and airstrikes killed fighters and took more ground, said The Wall Street Journal, citing “people informed about the meeting.”

A message from Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar arrived, arguing that despite the tactical losses, Hamas had the upper hand. International pressure would force Israel to end the war, he argued, and the four battalions in Rafah were prepared for the likely IDF ground assault on the border city.

It is unclear how fully Sinwar understands the reality on the battlefield, as he is thought to be hiding in tunnels, likely under Khan Younis. Egyptian officials cited in the article think “he has lost touch with reality.”

The IDF says that 242 soldiers have been killed in the four months of the ground offensive in Gaza, while it killed around 12,000 Hamas fighters and wounded many more. It also killed 1,000 terrorists inside of Israel during the Hamas assault on October 7.

Israel believes Hamas had around 30,000 fighters on October 7.

Soldiers from the Tzabar Battalion operate in the central Gaza Strip, February 25, 2024 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry reported Thursday that since the start of the war, more than 30,000 people had been killed in Gaza. The figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The WSJ also reported that Hamas has altered its tactics since the November ceasefire, moving away from larger assaults of up to 30 men toward hit-and-run ambushes using small arms and RPGs.

The attacks are meant to bleed Israel until it is forced to end the war, possibly as part of a hostage deal with Hamas. Talks on such an agreement are ongoing, with Israeli negotiators working with US, Qatari, and Egyptian partners in Doha.

Illustrative: This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on February 13, 2024, shows Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh preparing to welcome the Iranian foreign minister in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)

Significant gaps remain, including over the length of a lull in hostilities. Hamas wants the war to end and Israel to pull out its troops.

Israeli leaders pledge to continue fighting until “total victory” is achieved, which they define as the toppling of Hamas as both a military and governing organization, and the release of all hostages held in Gaza.

Hamas has also been using recordings of Israeli hostages pleading for rescue in Hebrew to draw soldiers into an ambush, reported the WSJ, and placing explosives in bags taken from Israeli kibbutzim that soldiers are likely to pick up.

IDF officers inside the Gaza Strip told The Times of Israel this week similar accounts about a change in Hamas tactics.

“There is resistance, but it’s not like it was at the beginning,” Lt. Col. Aviran Alfasi, commander of the Givati Brigade’s Tzabar Battalion, said in Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood. “They shoot and run away.”

Lt. Col. Aviran Alfasi, commander of the Tzabar Battalion, speaks to The Times of Israel in the central Gaza Strip, February 25, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“The battle is way less complex than it was,” he said. While his battalion has freedom of action in Zeitoun, “there is still more work,” said Alfasi.

“The more we and the Nahal Brigade operate, the more [Hamas’s] capabilities continue to decrease,” he said.

According to the WSJ, IDF commanders, including at the upper echelons, are increasingly doubting that their tactical successes will result in a clear victory at the strategic and political levels.

At some point, Israel — and its international partners — will have to replace Hamas with another entity to rule Gaza.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2-L) heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

“What stands between running in place in Gaza and toppling Hamas is a different civil government,” military theorist Eran Ortal insisted.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Netanyahu is averse to discussing his vision for who will replace Hamas, saying only that he will not hand over power to the Palestinian Authority, which he distrusts, and that Israel will maintain full security control.

“After the great sacrifice of our civilians and our soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism and finance terrorism,” he said. “Gaza will be neither Hamastan nor Fatahstan.”

Last week, a senior Israeli official said that Jerusalem is seeking Palestinians who are not affiliated with Hamas to manage civilian affairs in areas of the Gaza Strip designed as testing grounds for postwar administration of the enclave.

The Israeli official said the planned “humanitarian pockets” would be in districts of the Gaza Strip from which Hamas has been expelled, but that ultimate success would hinge on Israel achieving its goal of destroying the Islamist terror group across the tiny coastal territory that it has been governing for 16 years.

“We’re looking for the right people to step up to the plate,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “But it is clear that this will take time, as no one will come forward if they think Hamas will put a bullet in their head.”

Lt. Col. Oz Meshulam, commander of Battalion 931, and Maj. Tal Klichovsky, deputy commander of the battalion, speak to the Times of Israel from the central Gaza Strip, February 20, 2024 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Israeli officers, however, tell The Times of Israel that they are on the way to defeating Hamas.

“If we didn’t believe in it, we’d have nothing to look for here,” said Battalion 931 commander Lt. Col. Oz Meshulam. “Every day, we are defeating and destroying Hamas.”

“To truly deal with it, it takes time,” he said. “At least till the end of the year.”

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