Op-ed: Day 82 of the war

The war against Hamas may be almost half-done. The second half will be harder

There are ‘no magic solutions and no shortcuts’ to dismantling Hamas, the IDF chief of staff stressed. And as the army shifts focus to southern Gaza, the challenges are mounting

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 Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)

This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

“This war has goals that are essential and not simple to achieve, and is taking place in a complex area. Therefore, the war will continue for many more months and we will utilize different methods — so that the achievement will be longstanding. There are no magic solutions, no shortcuts in the thorough dismantling of a terrorist organization, but tenacious and determined fighting. And we are very, very determined.”

So said the IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi in an extensive statement Tuesday, more than 11 weeks after Hamas slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Israel and  seized 240 hostages, and the IDF was ordered into Gaza to destroy the Strip’s terrorist rulers and bring the hostages home.

Over the 80-plus days of fighting so far, Halevi acknowledged, “a lot of things are happening that we didn’t know ahead of time. There’s a reason that war has been defined as the ‘realm of uncertainty.’” But broadly speaking, he indicated, the war has proceeded as the IDF had planned and anticipated.

The Hamas terror army comprised 24 battalions, with a total fighting force of some 30,000, military officials say.

Almost all of the 12 Hamas battalions in northern Gaza and Gaza City have been defeated, and the IDF is close to declaring full operational control of the north of the Strip — a situation that is supposed to enable the beginning of a return and rebuilding of communities in sovereign Israel adjacent to that part of Gaza.

In recent days, the IDF has focused considerable force and attention on central Gaza, where four more battalions operate. Defeating them is expected to take several more weeks.

A temporary tent camp set up for Palestinians who were evacuated from their homes in Khan Younis on December 11, 2023 (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

The IDF is also targeting Hamas in Khan Younis — where much of the leadership is believed to be hiding out, where many of the 129 hostages are thought to be held, and where five more Hamas battalions are deployed. Here, the war is even more complex than amid the tunnels and endless booby-trapped buildings of the north, because those challenges are exacerbated by the influx of displaced northern Gazans.

With the IDF seeking to minimize fatalities among the noncombatants in whose midst Hamas cynically fights, and under increasing US pressure to move away from “high-intensity” fighting, Halevi’s vague talk of “different methods” may presage a greater reliance on smaller raids directed at key targets based on highly specific intelligence.

How the IDF might tackle Rafah, where the three final Hamas battalions are deployed at the very south of the Strip, remains unclear. The IDF may have intended to try to move civilians between Khan Younis and Rafah, and/or to try to establish additional humanitarian areas, but defeating Hamas in the densely packed south, where almost all of Gaza’s 2-million-plus populace is now concentrated, is indeed immensely “complex.” And there would seem to be no remotely viable process for returning Gazans to the north, where the Hamas gunmen would inevitably join them and in any case there is precious little for civilians to go back to.

Territorially, then, the war may be moving toward half-done. Militarily, the IDF is indeed taking apart Hamas in Gaza’s north and center — killing its gunmen, targeting its tunnels, destroying its weapons stores, reducing its capacity to fire rockets and missiles into Israel. But the second half of the task will be far more complicated.

An Israeli soldier operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released by the military on December 27, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)


All of this is clear to the Hamas leadership, none of whose key figures has yet been killed, and whose leader Yahya Sinwar presumably assesses that his and his barbaric terrorist army’s chances of surviving the Israeli onslaught are still high.

The way he doubtless delightedly sees it, much of the world has proved quite indifferent to his terrorists’ exultant massacre of 1,000 civilians in their homes and communities inside sovereign Israel. And almost all nations of the world are demanding a ceasefire that would retain Hamas primacy in Gaza and enable it to rebuild its forces, maintain its oppressive control of the Strip and prepare to target Israel again.

Only the US prevented the UN Security Council last week requiring an immediate ceasefire. And the Biden administration has for weeks been publicly indicating its displeasure with the IDF’s military tactics, somehow expecting Israel to defeat a state-ruling terrorist army completely enmeshed in a captive civilian populace, fighting from within and beneath Gaza’s homes, schools, hospitals and mosques, without major fatal consequence for those civilians.

Smoke rises from a house in the Israeli community of Avivim that was hit by an anti-tank rocket fired across the border from Lebanon, December 24, 2023. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant detailed to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday, Israel is being “attacked from seven fronts — Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), Iraq, Yemen and Iran.”

And every single one of the latter six has the potential for escalation.

Friends and family of IDF Master Sgt (res) Maor Lavi attend his funeral at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on December 26, 2023. Lavi was killed during the IDF’s ground operation in the Gaza Strip. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, too, the toll of Israeli fallen in Gaza mounts daily; hundreds of thousands of families have loved ones — often the key breadwinner — who have been fighting in Gaza for many weeks; the economy is partially paralyzed; somewhere between 150,000 and 180,000 Israelis are displaced from south and north; and the nation’s debilitating political divides, which have never really gone away, are now reviving.

And, again from Sinwar’s point of view, he retains the phenomenal leverage afforded by 129 hostages.

Pictures of Israelis held hostage in the Gaza Strip by Hamas terrorists, at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on December 26, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)


Unlike some politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who have asserted that the IDF is reaching strongholds Hamas thought were immune, or experts who claim that Sinwar underestimated Israel’s resilience and its army’s capacity to fight inside Gaza, Halevi has not been publicly venturing into the psyche of Hamas and its leaders.

He has also sought to walk the tightrope of updating the IDF’s political masters, affirming that it is indeed the government that gives orders to the military and not the other way around, while also firmly rejecting some ministers’ unacceptable efforts to intervene in his management of his forces.

Notably, from the start of the war, Halevi has preferred to speak of “dismantling” rather than eliminating or eradicating Hamas, a term that implicitly acknowledges that even a very protracted war will not be able to destroy every military and terror threat from the Strip, and also that no fighting force can defeat an ideology.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left) and IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari (right) arrive for Halevi to deliver a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)

In his remarks on Tuesday, Halevi was particularly non-bombastic, again in contrast to the IDF’s political masters.

“It was correct to set high goals” for the war against Hamas, “and we will reach high [achievements],” he said in an answer to a question. “We assessed from the start that it would take many months, and we believe that our assessments are accurate. Therefore, the timescale will be lengthy. At the end, will we be able to say ‘There are no more enemies around Israel?’ I think that’s too ambitious. But we will bring about a different security situation, and as much stability as we can.”

For now, there is little doubting the veracity of Halevi’s claim that the IDF, and the nation behind it — though heartbroken daily by every soldier’s death in this war imposed on Israel, this war of no choice — are nonetheless “very determined.”

The question is whether the IDF will be given the time it needs — whether Netanyahu, who has championed his own international diplomatic role in obtaining “the necessary room for maneuver to continue the operation,” will prove able to keep doing so, even amid US concerns over the IDF’s tactics and over the hardline Netanyahu government’s absent “day after” strategy.

And also whether, with southern Gaza constituting an even more fraught and complex arena than the north, and where there are certainly “no magic solutions,” the IDF and its commanders can find the “different methods” needed for victory.

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