Israel’s major ground war in Gaza is over; the state of war inflicted by Hamas is not

Sunday’s withdrawal of IDF ground forces from Khan Younis marks the end of so-called high-intensity conflict, though Hamas is still standing, and still holding 129 Oct. 7 hostages

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).

IDF troops in Gaza, in a photograph issued by the IDF on April 5, 2024 (IDF Spokesman's Office)
IDF troops in Gaza, in a photograph issued by the IDF on April 5, 2024 (IDF Spokesman's Office)

Is this how the war ends? Not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with the IDF pulling its ground forces out of Khan Younis, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant asserting, in defiance of reality, that Hamas has “stopped functioning as a military organization throughout the Gaza Strip,” contradicting himself in the next breath, and clarifying a few hours later?

As Israel on Sunday marked six months since the October 7 massacre, the two prime declared goals of the war — destroying Hamas’s military capabilities and bringing home the remaining 129 hostages abducted that day — are patently unfulfilled.

As Gallant went on to acknowledge immediately after making his “Hamas has stopped functioning” claim on Sunday afternoon, Hamas has yet to be tackled in Rafah, where its leaders are believed to be hiding, surrounded by hostages and protected by four battalions. For that matter, two other battalions in central Gaza are still thought to be functional.

And while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, as he has several times of late, that Israel is “a step away” from complete victory, his third declared goal of the war — ensuring that neither Hamas nor any other terror threat to Israel will rise again in Gaza — is also far from achieved.

As retired general Israel Ziv — a former IDF operations chief who plunged back into battle on October 7, driving down south to see what he could do to help turn back the Hamas terror onslaught — told a Channel 12 interviewer soon after Gallant spoke, “in these very hours” Khan Younis is going “back into Hamas hands.” And in the absence of any kind of alternate leadership, “Hamas’s control in the Strip continues.”

The way Ziv described it, “the war in Gaza is over,” but “the state of war is not.” Sunday’s IDF-announced withdrawal of ground forces from southern Gaza, signaling the end of major ground operations, risks “frittering away the IDF’s hard-fought achievements,” he added. “So we’re nowhere right now.” (The withdrawal means there are now only a few thousand IDF soldiers stationed in the entire Strip, compared to 30-40,000 at the height of the offensive.)

Demonstrators call for the release of hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, during a rally in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 7, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Channel 12 TV’s military correspondent Nir Dvori, reading from his notes during the primetime evening news, presumably after a military briefing, echoed the assessment: “We have moved from war to fighting. The high-intensity [ground] maneuver is finished everywhere in Gaza. The operation in Khan Younis is done. [The IDF] is moving to the system of [more narrowly focused] raids.” Such raids were already being implemented in the north of Gaza, and now they would become the modus operandi in the south as well, he assessed.

Making no effort to conceal his dismay at the material he was conveying, Dvori declared that “the hunt for [Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya] Sinwar now moves essentially to the realm of intel. And Israel, as we see, has given up on [its] two major points of leverage: both military pressure and humanitarian [aid].”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) during an assessment at IDF Southern Command, April 7, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“After half a year,” Dvori unhappily summed up, “Israel remains with three big problems: how to return the hostages; how to bring the residents back home in the south and north [who were evacuated due to the fighting]; and how to set up an alternative to Hamas” to administer the Strip. “If Israel cannot achieve a framework for this, and I don’t know of one, then we are entering a very big problem for Israel,” he concluded.

The IDF’s Chief of Staff, Herzi Halevi, also speaking Sunday, was adamant that the withdrawal of ground forces from southern Gaza did not signal the end of the war. “We are far from stopping,” he insisted. But “we are fighting this war differently… Senior Hamas officials are still in hiding. We will get to them sooner or later. We are making progress, continuing to kill more terrorists and commanders and destroy more terror infrastructures.

“We will not leave Hamas brigades active in any part of the Strip,” Halevi promised. “We have plans and we will act when we decide.”

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi speaks to the press from an army base in central Israel, April 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

It could be that, after months of negotiations on a hostage deal, thwarted by Hamas’s demand for an Israeli commitment to ending the war and withdrawing its forces, the incoherence on Sunday night’s six-month anniversary obscures a bigger picture, in which a truce-hostage deal is finally taking shape.

For all of Netanyahu’s talk about imminent and “complete victory,” it may also be that he has recognized that Israel cannot wage war against Hamas without the diplomatic and practical support of its main ally and weapons supplier. And US President Joe Biden and his key officials have made crystal clear in recent weeks that they don’t believe the IDF has a viable plan to target Hamas while protecting the million-plus Gazans sheltering in the Rafah area, and thus will not support a major offensive there.

Armed and masked Palestinians seen on trucks loaded with International Humanitarian Aid entering Gaza through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, April 3, 2024. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The American administration is deeply mistrustful of Netanyahu, alienated by his coalition, furious at his protracted reluctance to ensure adequate humanitarian aid to Gaza, and beyond frustrated by his refusal to work on the non-Hamas governance of the Strip that Israel needs.

And the dwindling reservoir of US support is close to running dry after the military’s deadly mistaken strike on the World Central Kitchen convoy last Monday night.

Men walk past an intact water pumping station in the midst of devastation in Khan Younis on April 7, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Hours after he had spoken, Gallant’s office asserted that he had actually only meant Hamas has stopped functioning as a military organization “in the Khan Younis area and other parts of the Strip where the military had operated, and not all of Gaza.”

For official Israel then, six months after October 7, the war is not at an end. Which makes sense, since its goals have not been achieved. Israel certainly still faces those “three big problems” cited by Dvori — how to return the hostages; how to bring the residents back home in the south and north; and how to set up an alternative to Hamas. And it needs to deal with all of this amid global hostility, diminishing US support, and rising internal division.

Israel’s major ground war in Gaza is over. The state of war into which Israel was plunged by Hamas on October 7 is anything but.

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