IDF isn’t seeking ‘victory pictures’; it’s seeking victory, however long that takes

The foreign minister predicts a ‘diplomatic window’ of 2-3 weeks before pressure to halt the war against Hamas becomes significant; the military has a very different timetable

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Troops from the IDF's Golani Brigade pose for a photo inside Gaza's parliament building in Gaza City, after capturing the site, on November 13, 2023. (Social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Troops from the IDF's Golani Brigade pose for a photo inside Gaza's parliament building in Gaza City, after capturing the site, on November 13, 2023. (Social media; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen briefed diplomatic reporters on Monday that Israel has a “diplomatic window” of two to three weeks before pressure to halt the war against Hamas becomes significant.

With all due respect to Cohen, Israel’s military is looking at a very different timetable.

In the IDF’s conception, this is the furthest of far cries from just another round of conflict with Hamas. It is not a campaign that would end even if all of the 240 or so hostages held captive in Gaza were to be returned.

It is, rather, a war to fundamentally reestablish Israel’s security primacy not just as regards Gaza, where Hamas must be vanquished and a whole new, dependably secure reality established, but as regards the entire region, notably but not exclusively Lebanon. It may put Israel at increasing odds with most of its firmest supporters. It is going to test Israelis’ emotional and practical resilience, amid mounting losses and social and economic strain. And it is going to last a long, long time.

October 7 was an unprecedented catastrophe for Israel and for Israel’s military leadership. Worse, of course, than the losses in the struggle to survive in Israel’s foundational 1948 War of Independence, when the nascent leadership knew precisely how uphill was the struggle and insistently prevailed. Worse, much worse, too, even than the Yom Kippur War, when the top brass was similarly unconscionably blind to what the enemy was planning in plain sight, and paid a terrible military price.

Because on October 7, it was Israel’s citizens who lost their lives to an invading force, unprotected by a security hierarchy that simply refused to believe what it could see was a terrorist army organizing year after year, drilling for an attack week after week.

If there were not a war that simply has to be won, the entire Israeli security leadership would have announced its resignation en masse last month, and plenty of other officers and officials further down the line would have gone too, many of them broken by their failure to protect people in their own communities and in communities they’ve spent their whole lives defending.

But there is a war to be won. And the same people who didn’t stop Hamas have put their October 7 failure to the side, for now, and, accurately or not, radiate the conviction that they can and will win this war, and that the government will resist whatever international pressure is applied to have them stop before it is done.

Troops of the 162nd Division operate in the Gaza Strip, in an image published by the IDF on November 14, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The way the top brass sees it, the failure was profound beyond description. But the fightback began the same day. October 7 would have been far worse — the invasion deeper, the targets more extensive, the death toll higher, the impact on other fronts more significant — had the inadequate forces in the field not battled back with such courage, and been eventually joined by many more troops, killing at least 1,200 of the 3,000 invading gunmen, capturing 200, and quickly moving onto the offensive against Hamas.

The ground invasion, now in its third week, was not delayed or hesitant. Rather, it had to be prepared virtually from scratch, and the troops trained for what lay ahead.

Core, fateful decisions were taken quickly. Among them, to focus the ground attack first on the heart of Hamas’s military operations and infrastructure in Gaza City. Against a Hamas that had prepared for 16 years for the day. With all the complications of fighting in one of the world’s most crowded places, against an amoral enemy that uses every cynical gambit to place noncombatants in harm’s way, fire from the most sensitive locations, and misrepresent what is actually happening to a widely gullible watching world.

The IDF has also been fighting in the Shati refugee camp, to the north, with 14-story buildings and an underworld below.

And it feels that it is making good and fast progress. Cooperation between the various branches and services — the air force, the Navy, logistics, intel — is deemed to be excellent, even unparalleled.

Nothing is perfect. Nothing is ever perfect in war. The IDF toll is mounting steadily. Commanders have moved too fast at times, with fatal consequences. They did not know everything they needed to know about the tunnels, probably still do not.

But the IDF, sending in ground forces from the north and lower down the strip in a pincer movement, believes it has gained control in much of northern Gaza and in the heart of Gaza City.

When war was first declared, the single stated goal was to eliminate Hamas. The second imperative, returning the hostages, was only added later. Families of the hostages who met this week with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant came away saying they believe he regards that goal as essential, but also that he is adamant that the more effective the war, the greater the chances of the hostages’ return — either via one or more deals, or through IDF rescues.

Although only one hostage, Ori Megidish, has been extricated thus far, in an extremely high-risk operation, the IDF emphatically shares Gallant’s assessment. Not all the families are convinced, fearing that the harsher the war, the greater the likelihood of Hamas harming the hostages, or of the IDF inadvertently doing so.

Palestinian at an UNRWA camp in Rafiah after heavy rainfall, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 14, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The military commanders are outraged, though not surprised, by Hamas tactics, including the abuse of hospitals and mosques and schools as terror bases. After October 7’s atrocities, which featured among so many other monstrous acts the deliberate killings of Israeli Arabs, including at least one devout, head-covered Muslim woman, manifestly nothing is off-limits.

The military says Hamas has been shooting Gaza civilians in the knees to prevent them from evacuating south, and also that it has tried to smuggle its own gunmen out with the noncombatants.

Israeli security and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists hit the southern city of Ashkelon, November 14, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90)

As of this writing, the IDF does not believe that Hamas is broken. Its rockets are still hitting Israel, albeit from further south in the Strip. But it is hurting. Figure after senior Hamas figure is being eliminated, and this even though many of the most senior Hamas commanders do not fight from the front.

There is more to be done in northern Gaza. Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood and Jebalya refugee camp are key strongholds. And once Hamas is defanged in northern Gaza, the IDF intends to move south, with Khan Younis another major target, quite possibly the hideout of the most senior Hamas figures.

Morale is very high, but it will have to stay high — with all the strains on the hundreds of thousands of reservists, with vast numbers of Israelis internally displaced, with endless potential for escalation on other fronts, with Hamas pulling every psychological string as regards the hostages.

The IDF appears to have no answer for Hamas’s false representation of the unfolding conflict. IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari eschews instant denials of even the most implausible Hamas claims, preferring to actually check. He has apparently concluded that he’ll never catch up with the lies or persuade those who want to believe them.

Winter is coming, which won’t make the campaign any easier — particularly for the air force. But as the saying goes, or should, when the rain comes, the enemy also gets wet.

Over the last two days, pictures have circulated of IDF troops in the Hamas parliament building, police headquarters and other symbolically resonant Gaza City sites. But of course, if Hamas gave a whit about the legislature, and by extension the governance of Gaza, it would not have subverted any and all Gaza resources for 16 years to build its terror army. It would not have slaughtered Israelis on October 7. And it would not now be fighting from amidst the Gaza citizenry.

As for the IDF, while the photos are good for morale, it is not looking for victory pictures. It is looking for victory. However long it takes.

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