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Israel moves into southern Gaza after a week-long truce — and its goals are murkier than ever

Seven weeks into the war, 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, and there’s no end in sight.

The black outline of an armored vehicle or tank and several human figures is silhouetted against a hazy, yellowish sky.
Israeli soldiers stand on tanks and armored vehicles near the Gaza Strip border on December 2, 2023. Following the end of a week-long truce between Hamas and Israel, the IDF have stepped up military operations in southern Gaza.
Amir Levy/Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Israel and Hamas have resumed hostilities after a week-long pause — and now the fighting is moving into southern Gaza, where most of the region’s more than 2 million residents are living in overcrowded conditions without adequate access to food, medicine, clean water, and other basic necessities.

What this means for the people of Gaza and the militant group Hamas is more open-ended death and destruction as Israel chases an ambiguous goal that may not have any realizable markers to define success. While Israel wants the complete destruction of Hamas, the US has signaled that removing senior leadership would be acceptable. Meanwhile, the devastation and death on the ground, especially without a political future for Palestinians — or a Palestinian state — virtually guarantees further radicalization.

Israel Defense Forces have killed at least 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza over the past two months of fighting, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of buildings in the north during the military campaign there. But despite the destruction, it’s not clear to what extent the IDF’s campaign is effectively rooting out Hamas — or how much more devastation the campaign will cause.

The pause in hostilities ended just before 7 am local time on Friday in Israel, when it was due to expire after two extensions, with both sides trading blame for breaking it. According to the BBC, the IDF reported it intercepted a rocket fired from Gaza around that time. Later, both sides accused each other of not abiding by the conditions of the pause, during which Hamas would exchange hostages it took October 7 for Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

During the pause, 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails, many of them minors and women, except for 64 18-year-old boys and one 19-year-old. Hamas released 105 hostages, primarily Israelis but also Thai, Filipino, and Russian nationals, and an American child. The pause also briefly allowed for desperately needed humanitarian aid to come into southern Gaza, though the number of trucks allowed in is still a fraction of what came in before the war — 160 to 200 trucks per day over the course of the pause versus 500 per day before the conflict.

Now that the fighting has resumed, the Israeli military has divided Gaza into small districts where civilians are to evacuate if and when the IDF attacks the area they are located in. This comes after increasing pressure from the international community, and particularly from Israel’s ally the United States, that Israel must change its tactics and do everything in its power to minimize civilian deaths.

There is little indication thus far that Israel is taking those warnings to heart, though; since early Friday morning when the hostilities were resumed, Israel has bombed around 200 sites, according to the IDF, while Gaza health officials said that around 700 people were killed during the renewed bombings. And given that there’s little information available about Israel’s success in its objective to degrade Hamas’s military capabilities and its governing power in Gaza, it’s difficult to see how the war ends.

What we know about tactics in the north — and what it could tell us about the south

Most residents of northern Gaza have evacuated to the south — as have, presumably, many Hamas fighters. As a result, southern Gaza is overcrowded, and people are struggling to access basic necessities like water, food, and shelter.

The continued, widespread bombing of civilian buildings to get at the tunnels underneath, where Hamas protects fighters and its supplies, has already caused thousands of deaths, but Raphael Cohen, director of the strategy and doctrine program with RAND Project AIR FORCE, told Vox there’s no real alternative.

“Israel’s been seized with the tunnel issue since Operation Protective Edge, so at least since 2014, at least the past decade, and has invested a lot of time and energy into … how you detect these things, but hasn’t figured out a foolproof way of finding them, particularly without being there on the ground,” he said. “There’s no silver bullet to detect them, and once you find them, then you have to destroy the tunnel, and there’s no clean way to do it.”

But an investigation by the Israeli outlets +972 and Local Call this week indicates that in northern Gaza, the IDF was far less precise in its operations than necessary to keep from harming civilians — backing up what Israeli officials have already said about their approach being destructive rather than surgical. According to the investigation, based on interviews with current and former Israeli intelligence operatives, the military “has files on the vast majority of potential targets in Gaza — including homes — which stipulate the number of civilians who are likely to be killed in an attack on a particular target.”

Some of those targets, which the military calls “power targets” are “not distinctly military in nature,” according to the investigation, and “include private residences as well as public buildings, infrastructure, and high-rise blocks.” The investigation found that the military has stepped up its attacks on power targets in the latest conflict, dubbed “Operation Swords of Iron.” That, in turn, has exponentially increased the number of civilian casualties, as has the use of artificial intelligence to generate Hamas targets, according to the report.

“When a 3-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target,” one source told the outlet. “We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.”

The IDF has destroyed much of northern Gaza’s infrastructure — around 98,000 buildings have been demolished or damaged in the north, according to a BBC review of satellite imagery. Throughout the region, about 60 percent of the housing stock has been damaged or destroyed, Al Jazeera reported.

But despite US officials’ urging to use smaller bombs and mitigate civilian risk, the US has sent Israel around 15,000 bombs and 57,000 artillery shells, according to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, including the so-called “bunker buster” bomb, which holds 2,000 pounds of explosives and is meant to penetrate underground concrete structures like the tunnels Hamas uses to operate.

However, the transfer of the bunker-busters and other large-scale munitions “seems inconsistent with reported exhortations from Secretary Blinken and others to use smaller-diameter bombs,” Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group and a former attorney-adviser at the US State Department, told the Journal.

Using explosives in populated areas is extremely dangerous for civilians — the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has found that 90 percent of casualties from explosives in populated areas are civilians. And because Palestinians in Gaza cannot feasibly go elsewhere, more civilian deaths and injuries are all but certain.

What is Israel trying to accomplish — and is it working?

As the IDF pushes into the south toward the cities of Khan Younis and Rafah, “it gets a lot more complicated,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox. “And it’s partly complicated by the fact that they haven’t scored a lot of victories in the north, either in terms of capturing people or revealing infrastructure. A lot of buildings have been destroyed and a lot of people have been displaced, but in terms of genuinely hurting Hamas, the Israelis are not able to point to a lot of successes, and that will lead people to focus on the humanitarian consequences rather than the embedded capabilities of Hamas.”

From the beginning of the war, Israel has said it intends to wipe out Hamas’s ability to operate militarily and to govern the Gaza Strip. But for all the destruction it’s wrought, it’s not clear how much progress the IDF is making, partly because Gaza is such a dangerous environment for journalists — making independent verification of the situation on the ground extremely difficult.

Robert Blecher, director of the Future of Conflict program at International Crisis Group, told Vox that Israel could significantly degrade Hamas’s military capabilities “but not at a cost that would be humanly or politically acceptable.”

The IDF has not been forthcoming about how many Hamas leaders are part of the death toll in Gaza. The IDF claims to have killed approximately 4,000 Hamas fighters total as of November 19, including 68 “high-profile” Hamas operatives. Some estimates are as high as 5,000, but the true number is unknown. Three hundred suspected Hamas militants have been taken into Israel for interrogation, according to IDF international spokesperson Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. The IDF claims to have destroyed about 400 tunnel shafts in northern Gaza as well.

Amid such destruction, the three Hamas officials the IDF reportedly most desperately wants to kill are still at large. Killing those men, Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Reuters, could provide “a very clear, symbolic and substantive achievement” for Israel — but even achieving that goal would inflict devastating tolls. “What if they can’t get the guys? Do they keep fighting until they get them? ... What if they just prove elusive?”

Hamas, for its part, is not known for advanced military maneuvers, Blecher said. Primarily, their tactics are “hiding in tunnels and popping up behind forces after they advance,” picking off soldiers that way rather than inflicting mass casualties. However, according to the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, Hamas still has as many as 15,000 rockets, as well as the thousands of militants still alive.

“There’s not only the question of 30,000 militants in the Qassam Brigades, there is also the membership of the movement, which is at least an order of magnitude bigger, hundreds of thousands of people,” Blecher said. “That includes doctors, and lawyers, and professionals, and a whole bunch of civil society.”

It will be impossible to eliminate Hamas’s ideological impact on Gaza, and the massive civilian death toll could lead to further radicalization, especially absent any conversation about a political future for Palestinians or a Palestinian state. That, according to Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, is a massive failure of the entire project. “Now that it is obvious that the whole political concept and the policies that [were] led by Netanyahu of managing the conflict — not to try to solve it — but managing, or the nonsense of shrinking the conflict collapsed,” he told the Foreign Affairs podcast. “So I think it is irresponsible for us to send our military, our people, to the battlefield without defining a political goal” that enables Israel and the Palestinian people to live in peace.

But, as Alterman told Vox, Israel’s strategy for achieving military victory, whatever that looks like, is murky.

“What does victory look like? To me that’s an important question, where Israelis have put forward some pretty maximalist ideas, but it’s unclear what the pathway looks like.”

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