JERUSALEM — Israel’s military is starting the next phase of its war against Hamas, targeting the Islamist group’s labyrinth of tunnels and command structures in northern Gaza in an operation that may take months to complete, security sources said.
Israeli forces have pounded Gaza from the air and used ground troops to divide the coastal enclave into two, in an offensive launched after Hamas gunmen killed 1,400 people and took some 240 hostages in a cross-border attack on Oct. 7. In recent days, Israeli troops have surrounded Gaza City and battled Hamas fighters as they pushed deeper into its streets.
With casualties in Gaza topping 10,000, according to Palestinian health officials, Israel has come under mounting diplomatic pressure for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant approved on Monday further operational plans for military action in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have declined to comment on the details.
Five Israeli security sources told Reuters that locating and disabling the vast tunnel network running beneath swathes of northern Gaza would be a fundamental part of the next phase of the offensive, which would take time.
With Israeli tanks advancing towards the heart of Gaza City, they have faced heavy resistance from Hamas fighters using the tunnel network to launch ambushes, two sources with Hamas and separate militant group Islamic Jihad said.
A fighter appears from one tunnel shaft, fires a rocket propelled grenade and then disappears, only to appear at another tunnel entrance and attack again, the Palestinian sources said.
Chief military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday that Israel’s combat engineering corps were using explosive devices to destroy the tunnels and operations had destroyed more than 100 shafts.
Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and a negotiator during the first and second intifadas that took place in the late 1980s and early 2000s, said IDF troops were working through a structured plan to locate tunnels, destroy rocket launching sites, and kill Hamas commanders and fighters. “It’s about eliminating the military spine,” he said. “It would be very reasonable to say that we’re looking at something that could take months.”
Hamas, which has controlled the coastal enclave since 2007, has built a tunnel city stretching beneath Gaza for hundreds of kilometers, up to 80 meters deep in parts. One hostage held in the network before being freed by Hamas last month described it as ‘a spiders web.’
The Israeli military has said that many of Hamas’ tunnels, command centers and rocket launchers lie adjacent to schools, hospitals and humanitarian institutions in northern Gaza, including the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, the region’s largest.
Despite appeals from Washington for a humanitarian pause, the Israeli security sources said the presence of troops on the ground inside Gaza City made a temporary cessation of hostilities risky and unlikely at this stage.
Both Israel and Hamas have rebuffed international pressure for a ceasefire. Israel says hostages taken by Hamas should be released first; Hamas insists it will not free them or stop fighting while Gaza is under assault.
How long Washington maintains its backing for the operation may determine how much freedom of action Israel has. Israel’s leaders insist they are not working to a “diplomatic ticking clock,” Benny Gantz, a former defense minister who is now in Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet, said on Oct 28.
Hamas is estimated to have a force of between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters, according to Israeli security sources. Hagari said that Israel was seeking to target Hamas field commanders to undermine Hamas capabilities to carry out counter attacks.
Hamas has not reported how many fighters have been killed but funerals have taken place for some political and military leaders. Amongst the most important was Ayman Nofal, a member of the higher military council of Hamas’ armed wing.
Major General Yaron Finkelman, the head of the IDF’s Southern Command, said on Tuesday that dozens of Hamas commanders had been killed, without providing specific details.
Some 348 Israeli soldiers have also been killed since Oct. 7, according to IDF data. “This is a complex and difficult war, and unfortunately, it has costs,” Finkelman said.
ROBOTS, SNIFFER DOGS
Lior Akerman, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Israel’s Reichman University and a former senior Shin Bet official, said the ferocious aerial bombardment was meant to immobilize as much of Hamas’ military infrastructure as possible before troops turned to battles underground in the tunnels.
Security sources said troops on the ground were also trying to gather more intelligence on the tunnel network without necessarily having to enter them.
Robots and sniffer dogs were being deployed to locate tunnel entrances and also probe areas inside them before possible action by specialist ground troops that include commandos from the elite Yahalom unit of the combat engineers. Soldiers are using bulldozers to destroy parts of tunnel entrances.
Shalom Ben Hanan, another former top official in the Shin Bet security service, said operations in the tunnel network would need to proceed more slowly because of the presence of Israeli hostages believed to be held there.
Security sources said some intelligence was being gathered from Gaza residents fleeing south about the concentration of the tunnels.
Israel has for weeks focused attention on the al-Shifa hospital, accusing Hamas of using it as a shield for underground operational centres.
Ben Hanan said incursions around the hospital posed significant risks for Israeli forces given they may need to evacuate civilians still inside the complex, even after they were given warnings to leave.
“They (Hamas) will shoot at us and will fight with us from the hospital,” he said. “We will pay a high price for it.” — Reuters