An inside look at what’s ahead in Israel’s shattering war in Gaza

Smoke rises during an Israeli military bombardment in northern Gaza on Nov. 15. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises during an Israeli military bombardment in northern Gaza on Nov. 15. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

After six weeks of hard combat and a horrific civilian death toll, Israeli commanders see the Gaza war moving into a new phase that will require fewer troops and much less bombing, should result in fewer Palestinian casualties — and that eventually, they hope, will entrap Hamas in its underground maze of tunnels.

Look at a map and you can see a natural ally for Israel — the Mediterranean Sea. Sending Israeli soldiers into the tunnels would be a long and costly fight; bombing the tunnels would be haphazard and might result in even more civilian deaths. But the geographical fact that Gaza borders the Mediterranean might give Israel an advantage in the endgame of this conflict.

The Gaza war has been a tragedy, from the vicious Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 that triggered it, to the humanitarian catastrophe for Palestinians that continues to this day. Militarily, the Israeli campaign against Hamas has been relentless and successful. But many Israelis recognize that they have been losing the information war as the world watches images of terrible Palestinian suffering.

Last weekend in Gaza City, I saw the slow march of Palestinian refugees fleeing the carnage. Those images of traumatized, dispossessed Gazans left an indelible impression. But they also made me want to better understand how Israel is shaping its plan for the war. Does the country’s leadership know where the Gaza campaign is going?

To get some answers, I met with nearly a dozen top commanders of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Most of the interviews took place at the military compound known as “the Kirya”, in central Tel Aviv, where young soldiers and reservists stream through the gate day and night. The people I met were thoughtful, professional soldiers. I came away impressed by their skill and dedication.

But here’s the truth: Israel doesn’t yet have a clear conception of “the day after”. Political and military leaders agree on the need to destroy Hamas and to cut any Israeli connections to Gaza. There is no consensus about next steps. Commanders and political leaders have ideas, hopes and ambitions. They realize, increasingly, that if Israel doesn’t do a dramatically better job on the humanitarian issues in this war, it will damage its relationships with the United States, Europe and Arab neighbors such as Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps Saudi Arabia.

Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said in a briefing that he is open to any solution that allows Israel to cut the cord to Gaza — so long as it adheres to a simple formula: “At the end of the war, Hamas will be destroyed, there will no longer be a military threat to Israel from Gaza, and Israel will not be in Gaza”.

The goal in Gaza is “not Hamas, not chaos”, said Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, head of the IDF spokesman’s office. Okay, but that doesn’t get you very far down the road ahead.

My biggest takeaway from my conversations here is that Israel and the Palestinians both need help in figuring out the future — especially from the United States. The combatants are too immersed in this conflict and traumatized by it to think about what comes next. That’s where friends can help.

A caution to readers: This story is an attempt to explore how Israel is conducting what might be the most difficult and controversial urban war in modern history. It sees this terrible conflict largely through Israeli eyes. But I owe readers my own judgment: This war has convinced me more than ever that the Palestinians need a well-managed state of their own, without Hamas, where they can live in dignity and peace with Israel, as most of their Arab neighbors do now. If the United States could help Israelis and Palestinians achieve that outcome, this war, with all its horrors, might produce some good.

An Israeli soldier stands inside a burned-out house in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel on Oct. 7, the day of Hamas's deadly attack. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli soldier stands inside a burned-out house in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel on Oct. 7, the day of Hamas's deadly attack. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly every Israeli officer I met began his or her story the same way: What they were doing at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 7 when they heard the first reports of Hamas’s vicious attack. It was a holiday weekend; most soldiers were with their families. When the news broke, many moved immediately to join their units; several described quickly teaching wives and older children to fire automatic weapons. In those first days, the IDF was shaky, unprepared. Commanders had never imagined an attack like this.

IDF leaders at the Kirya had to make plans on the fly in those first days, rather than follow the detailed scripts that had guided every war since 1982. Israeli leaders were so worried that Iran and its proxies would exploit their disorientation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came close to launching a preemptive strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

In the first days, a rough battle plan took shape. The first phase of the war would be a relentless three weeks of bombing as the Israeli air force attacked Hamas’s infrastructure — giving troops time to assemble and train for a ground invasion and allowing planners to consider and prepare options.

The second phase was the ground assault that began on Oct. 27. Commanders reckoned it would probably last three months. Any longer, and the Israeli economy, which depends on the more than 300,000 reservists who were called up, would begin to unravel.

An agonizing challenge for the IDF has been to crush Hamas without killing the roughly 240 Israeli and foreign hostages held captive underground. Already, it appears that several hostages died as the campaign progressed, though we don’t know any details.

The concept of the ground campaign was simple: Cut Gaza in two and push civilians south while Israel assaulted Hamas strongholds in the north. The aim was to separate Hamas from the civilian population, a classic precept of counterinsurgency warfare. The Israelis say they dropped leaflets, issued warnings, made phone calls. But, frankly, the strategy was unrealistic: Hamas was everywhere, and civilians for weeks couldn’t or wouldn’t move to safety. They were caught in a savage crossfire.

Northern Gaza is now largely under Israeli control. In the process, it has been reduced to a skeleton. Standing on Salah al-Din Street in Gaza City a week ago, I saw shattered buildings in every direction.

“Hamas has lost control in the north of the Gaza Strip. They have no safe place to hide”, Netanyahu said last weekend. A senior IDF officer explained what had happened in the north this way: “To beat a system, you have to break its gravity points, and then it collapses”.

This battlefield success was costly in the information war. Israel argued that Hamas was hiding behind civilians and even in hospitals, and the Biden administration supported this claim. But as the Palestinian death toll mounted, much of the world seemed unconvinced.

Palestinians flee northern Gaza on Nov. 11. (Fatima Shbair/AP)
Palestinians flee northern Gaza on Nov. 11. (Fatima Shbair/AP)

The next phase will focus on southern Gaza, where more than 1 million desperate civilians have fled, probably along with one of Hamas’s top political leaders, Yahya Sinwar, whom IDF officials believe is hiding in tunnels under his hometown of Khan Younis. As in the north, the IDF will attempt to separate the battlespace — dividing it into military targets around Khan Younis and civilian safe zones to the west. But this separation might be as difficult as it was in the north — with civilians again caught in the crossfire.

To care for Palestinians who have fled the battle zones, Israel plans to create a vast tent city for refugees at Al-Mawasi, on the coast just north of the Gazan border with Egypt. The location should allow humanitarian supplies to be delivered easily by land and sea. After the intense international criticism for the hospital battles in northern Gaza, Israeli commanders want to quickly create temporary medical facilities for thousands of wounded civilians threatened now with starvation and infectious disease.

Israelis need to understand that this humanitarian relief isn’t a peripheral matter. It is absolutely essential to achieving their war aims. Some senior generals recognize this reality. “The humanitarian effort should be a snowball, bringing friends from the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt”, said one veteran commander. But I’m not sure that Israeli politicians or the enraged, traumatized public are convinced.

In an effort to fight the information war better, the IDF is embracing a tactic the CIA has used effectively during the war in Ukraine — declassifying intelligence and pushing it into the public domain. IDF spokesmen have shared what they say are communications intercepts of Palestinian civilians angry at Hamas, photos of what they say are schools across the street from rocket launchers, and displays of weapons caches allegedly hidden inside hospitals and other sensitive information.

Assuming that the IDF’s evidence is accurate, does Hamas’s presence near schools and hospitals justify bombings that killed so many civilians nearby? The Israeli military has targeting rules that are meant to limit civilian deaths. But commanders also weigh factors such as the presence of a high-value target, a strategic weapon or a large Hamas compound — and the protection of Israeli troops. As the United States discovered in fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, rules of engagement get adjusted.

The bottom line, as Israeli commanders see it, is that there is collateral damage in war. But when you watch the destruction of a city over weeks live on television, it feels different.

A clock in Tel Aviv counts the days and hours since Israeli hostages were taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
A clock in Tel Aviv counts the days and hours since Israeli hostages were taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli commanders view this war as a series of clocks, all running at different speeds. The Israeli military has its clock to destroy Hamas, which has several months to run but might need to be adjusted; Hamas has a survival clock, which it would like to extend as long as possible; and the United States and Western allies have a clock of patience that appeared this week to have nearly run out.

The Israeli military knows the only way it can put more time on its clock is by adopting tactics that reduce the harm to civilians and by providing more humanitarian aid. That’s a moral imperative but also an operational one. “Every day, we try to wind the spring of each clock”, said a senior IDF officer.

Because of the competing timelines, the IDF has adopted what its commanders describe as a “decision tree” of “flexible, adaptive plans”. One general quotes the recent memoir of retired Gen. Jim Mattis, former Central Command leader and U.S. defense secretary, who wrote that certitude about the shape of a campaign can be a fatal mistake — and that a wise commander needs “a rucksack full of plans”. That’s what the IDF has developed.

There’s an intense debate at the Kirya now about how soon Israel can send some of its reservists home and restart an economy that is nearly at a standstill. Most senior leaders agree that, in a month or two, Israel can begin these force reductions and pull troops back from city centers — forming smaller assault brigades at the perimeter of Gaza City, say, to attack Hamas fighters when they surface from the tunnels.

A view in January 2018 of what Israel claims is a cross-border tunnel used by Hamas fighters. (Reuters)
A view in January 2018 of what Israel claims is a cross-border tunnel used by Hamas fighters. (Reuters)

Finally, there is the vexing problem of those tunnels — so many of them that Hamas speaks of a “metro” system below ground.

When Hamas fighters descended into these tunnels, IDF commanders decided against sending troops down after them. Even for the special Israeli team created for tunnel warfare, it was too dangerous. The system has booby traps, heavy steel doors to prevent easy entry by robots or drones and an elaborate array of other defenses.

Israel bombed tunnels in northern Gaza from the air, in one case collapsing a whole city block and ravaging the civilians who lived there. But in addition to harming civilians, that’s not a solution for hundreds of miles of barricaded and fortified passageways.

The challenge is to reach out and touch the tunnels. Surprise assaults from unexpected directions would likely have a psychological effect on Hamas, in addition to the physical damage. Rather than seeking a silver bullet on the tunnel problem, Israel might opt for a series of small victories.

Common sense tells you how Israel might get at the tunnel system. Digging underground is a well-developed engineering field, after all. Oil drillers have developed techniques for horizontal drilling as part of the fracking boom. Construction engineers have a technique known as horizontal directional drilling, or HDD, to help reach difficult targets. When cities construct subway lines, they use powerful drilling machines; similar techniques are used to lay pipelines.

Israeli military officials won’t discuss their tunnel strategy. But when pressed, Gallant, the defense minister, offers this cryptic comment: “You need an industrial solution”.

And then there’s that interesting geographic factor of the Mediterranean Sea. Water is a powerful force of nature — even more so when it is amplified by pumps. One thing about tunnels is that they’re vulnerable to flooding, even if they have elaborate drainage. The IDF surely thinks about the fact that Gaza lies on the shores of the Mediterranean.

A bullet-riddled window is seen at Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel on Oct. 21, two weeks after Hamas's deadly attack. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
A bullet-riddled window is seen at Kibbutz Kissufim in southern Israel on Oct. 21, two weeks after Hamas's deadly attack. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

A final weapon for Israel is the visual record of what happened on Oct. 7, as captured by the body cameras carried by Hamas terrorists, closed-circuit video cameras in the kibbutzim that were attacked, dashboard cameras and other sources. The IDF spokesman’s office has produced a 45-minute compilation of the worst horrors. They want it seen by Arab leaders, members of Congress and journalists.

Many people have described the unspeakable scenes in this video, and I’ll let you read their accounts. What stayed in my mind wasn’t gruesome scenes of charred bodies, but one of a young girl cowering on the floor, repeating like a death chant: “Why, why, why, why?”

“The images are so deep. People do not sleep”, one of Israel’s most senior officials told me. Israeli leaders would like others to lose some sleep, too.

On my last day in Israel, I visited a high-tech entrepreneur named Eyal Waldman. He lives more than 30 stories up in a new high-rise in Tel Aviv. From his balcony, you can see almost all the way south to Gaza and almost to Lebanon in the north.

Waldman lost his daughter Danielle on Oct. 7. She was attending the music festival that was held near the Gaza border with her boyfriend, whom she hoped to marry. He’s dead, too.

The computer company Waldman founded is known in Israel for hiring Palestinians — more than 100 in the West Bank and over 20 in Gaza — and you might think he would balk at that now, with so much grief to carry. But it’s the opposite. Waldman said the Palestinians are still working for the company’s new American parent. And he’s conducting weekly talks with Arab friends about common concerns.

“We need to stop killing each other”, Waldman tells me. “It’s going to take time”. I ask him what countries his Arab contacts are from, but he won’t answer. This isn’t the time to talk openly about peace with the Palestinians, he says. But he still believes it’s coming.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin”. Twitter

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