Israel shifts focus in Gaza to balance military and political pressures

Washington has been urging for a less intense war against Hamas

Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip on Friday. Reuters
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Israel is shifting the focus of its war in Gaza, almost three months after it began bombing the enclave with devastating consequences.

The "third phase" of Israel's offensive appears to be aimed at carefully navigating between achieving its unaccomplished military objectives and external political pressure, which is mounting after 90 days of war in which more than 22,300 Palestinians have been killed.

Although Israel will maintain the freedom to strike anywhere and at any time, it is shifting towards more specialised operations and assassinations.

The move is aimed at boosting an operation that has so far failed in its main military goal of destroying Hamas, while also failing to rescue any of the Israeli hostages taken by the group on October 7, despite 12 weeks of bombing and a ground assault involving thousands of troops, including reservists.

“There are no more nails to chew. After all this killing, Israel feels it’s time to show, especially to the US, that its operation can carry on but through a slightly less intense approach,” a veteran Palestinian politician in Gaza told The National.

Israel said last week that it would withdraw five brigades from the coastal strip, a move that led US officials to say the level of the conflict is reducing despite continual but less consistent bombing.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Thursday that the “third phase” will involve a more targeted approach by the Israeli army in the northern part of the enclave, while it continues to pursue Hamas leaders in the south.

Mr Gallant also discussed Israel's plans for Gaza after the war. He said that Hamas would no longer control Gaza, and Israel would reserve its operational freedom of action. But he added that there would be no Israeli civilian presence in Gaza and Palestinians would be in charge of the enclave.

Commando units and specialised operations

The third phase of the war appears to mark a change in strategy for Israel's military offensive.

The first phase was the bombing campaign that followed Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel. Experts say the bombing was aimed at eliminating clear targets and paving the way for a ground invasion.

The second phase, which began at the end of October, was the attempt to divide the Palestinian territory into three parts and control the northern part, where Israel believed Hamas senior commanders were positioned.

During those two phases, the overall death toll in Gaza has passed 22,300 and more than 57,000 injuries have been recorded. The Gaza government's media office said 1.9 million people had been displaced and the 65,000 tonnes of explosives used by Israel had damaged 290,000 homes.

More than 9,600 children and 6,700 women have been killed, with 45,000 rockets and bombs used.

In the third phase, which is expected to take at least six months, commando units are expected to carry out more specialised operations against specific targets while having the freedom to keep striking from the air and the sea.

“It’s a shot in the arm for their military objectives, economy, and political relations with international stakeholders,” the Palestinian official said.

Two of the five brigades that are withdrawing are made up of reservists, many of whom will be discharged in a bid to ease the economic impact of their mobilisation, according to Israeli media and experts.

Of the other troops, some could train for a possible redeployment to the border with Lebanon, where Iran-backed Hezbollah has been launching daily attacks in support of Hamas.

The Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said last week that the partial troop withdrawal will “ease the burden on the economy” and will allow Israeli forces “to gather strength” for the upcoming months.

An approach that the US can absorb

There is also an apparent political aspect to the announcement of the third phase, which came hours before the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken began his fourth trip to the Middle East since the war started.

Washington has been urging Israel to switch to a less intense phase of war with Hamas, as the White House faces mounting domestic pressure over the rising death toll in Gaza.

Voters broadly disapproved of the way President Joe Biden is handling the war, a New York Times/Siena College poll found last month, with younger Americans far more critical than older voters of Israel’s conduct and the administration’s response ahead of the upcoming presidential elections.

“Part of the American rhetoric in which they pressured Israel in the past weeks is that its army has to continue the war against Hamas without major military operations,” said a source close to Iran-backed factions in the Middle East.

“This means assassinations at home and abroad, limited commando operations against targets, missile sites, tunnels, or senior commanders.”

Earlier this week, an Israeli strike in Beirut killed Saleh Al Arouri, the Iran-backed Hamas deputy leader. It was followed by a US strike on Thursday in eastern Baghdad that killed three militants allied with Tehran.

The attacks happened days after the killing of Brig Gen Razi Mousavi, a senior military adviser in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. Iran has accused Israel of being behind the attack and vowed to retaliate.

Experts said the strikes are Israeli and US responses to the attacks by the Tehran-backed regional paramilitary troops in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Iran has also been hit by explosions claimed by ISIS that killed dozens of mourners commemorating the fourth anniversary of the death of IRGC general Qassem Suleimani, the architect of the country's Axis of Resistance, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad in 2020.

“This is an approach with which the Biden administration can co-exist, instead of the intense war that drains its popularity in election year and embarrasses it politically,” the source said.

Updated: January 05, 2024, 6:00 PM