Hamas tunnel network over 4 times as vast as assessments

IDF commanders said to believe quashing Hamas, returning hostages alive incompatible

Army denies such assessment, cited by NY Times; paper also says IDF behind schedule in war, Hamas already trying to reassert control in northern Gaza

Israeli forces are seen operating inside the Gaza Strip in this undated handout image published on January 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
Israeli forces are seen operating inside the Gaza Strip in this undated handout image published on January 19, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Senior Israel Defense Force commanders believe that Israel’s two stated goals of destroying Hamas and freeing the Israeli hostages it holds are “not compatible,” The New York Times reported Saturday.

The newspaper cited four senior commanders who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In an official statement, the IDF said it was “unaware” of such an assessment by commanders and asserted this did “not reflect the IDF’s position.”

“The release of the hostages is one of the goals of the war and a key effort,” it said.

The interviewed commanders said the unexpected challenges of tackling Hamas, and indecision by Israeli leaders, have made it unlikely that the over 130 Israelis still held by the terror group can be retrieved other than through diplomacy.

The report also noted that the war has not proceeded at the pace expected at its start. Reviewing army estimates and plans from October, the paper said the military had expected to have operational control of Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah by the end of December.

But while this goal has been achieved in Gaza City, battles in Khan Younis continue to rage and troops have not even begun serious operations in Rafah, the Strip’s southernmost city.

In addition, it cited Israeli surprise at the scale of Hamas’s tunnel network, which had been assessed as totaling some 100 miles before the war, but which Israel now believes extends some 450 miles, according to the Times.

IDF 646th Brigade commander Col. Elad Shushan (R) inspects a Hamas tunnel in the central Gaza Strip, January 14, 2024. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“Basically, it’s a stalemate,” Andreas Krieg, of the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told the paper. “It’s not an environment where you can free hostages.”

“If you go into the tunnels and you try to free them with special forces, or whatever, you will kill them,” he said. “You either will kill them directly — or indirectly, in booby traps or in a firefight.”

Krieg expressed his belief that “it is an unwinnable war.”

The military campaign is winding down even as many Hamas battalions remain intact and most of its top leadership is still at large.

Israel has consistently vowed that it will not reoccupy the enclave, but has also maintained that it will likely need to keep some security presence for pinpoint operations, to keep Hamas from rebuilding the capabilities that allowed it to carry out its October 7 massacre in southern Israel.

The commanders who spoke to the Times also expressed frustration at politicians’ refusal to formulate any plans for postwar Gaza, which the former believe is costing Israel precious support from its allies and further shortening the timetable for meaningful military action.

IDF troops operating in the Gaza Strip in pictures published on January 20, 2024. (IDF)

The Times noted that in northern Gaza, from which the military has removed many of its troops after saying it had destroyed Hamas’s operation infrastructure there, the terror group is already attempting to regain control. Citing an unidentified Israeli official, it said that in recent days, Hamas policemen and welfare figures had emerged in some areas in northern Gaza and sought to reassert authority there.

Troops have been carrying out operations at a lower intensity in northern Gaza for the past several weeks, after the military said it had defeated all of Hamas’s battalions in the area. The soldiers have been working to locate the remaining Hamas sites and kill or capture the terror group’s last operatives.

A report on Monday on Israel’s Channel 13 news said IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi had warned Israel’s leaders that gains made over the three-plus months of fighting could be eroded due to the lack of a plan for postwar management.

The alleged comments by Halevi in recent weeks were reflective of consternation among military analysts and others regarding the lack of preparation for a so-called “day after” in Gaza, as Israel winds down the intensive phase of its military campaign against the Hamas terror group, which has ruled the enclave since 2007 and which, though weakened, remains in power.

People inspect the damage following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 17, 2024. (AFP)

Halevi also warned that the IDF “may need to go back and operate in areas where we have already concluded the fighting,” according to the channel.

War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot has also appeared to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s management of the ongoing war, suggesting in an interview Thursday that talk of complete victory over the terror group was unrealistic.

Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff whose son and nephew were killed in the campaign, told Channel 12’s Uvda program that “whoever speaks of absolute defeat [of Hamas in Gaza] and of it no longer having the will or the capability, is not speaking the truth. That is why we should not tell tall tales.”

He elaborated: “Today, the situation in the Gaza Strip is that the goals of the war have not yet been achieved, but the war is already not happening. There is a reduced troop deployment, a different modus operandi.”

War cabinet minister Gadi Eisenkot speaks to Channel 12’s Uvda program in a segment that aired January 18, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that the “intensive phase” of Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza has ended, and would soon be over in the Khan Younis area of the Strip’s south as well.

But Gallant also warned that “political indecision” regarding the future of Gaza “may harm the progress of the military operation.”

The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, as Israel works to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. It has also vowed to continue fighting until all remaining hostages are released from captivity.

“I would like to reiterate, at the end of the war, there will be no military threat from Gaza. Hamas will not be able to control and function as a military force in the Gaza Strip, and the IDF will have full freedom of action to do whatever is required to defend the citizens of Israel,” Gallant said Monday. “It may take a long time, but it will end with a single scenario, total victory.”

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