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The Israel-Hamas War
Operation Iron Sword

(October 10, 2023 - Present)
By Mitchell Bard


Ground Operations Begin
The Truth About Shifa Hospital
First Ceasefire
More Human Shields
The Second Hundred Days
The Last Bastion in Rafah
Investigating Troop Misbehavior
Sign of Victory
Return to Shifa
Tactical Withdrawal
Rafah
War Crimes Allegations
Rafah Evacuated
Gantz Leaves the Government
The Last Stage?

Reserves Called

In preparation for the ground operation in Gaza following the October 7, 2023, Hamas massacre, the IDF called up 295,000 reservists, 45,000 of whom chose to serve despite receiving exemptions. Half of the reservists are between the ages of 20-29, 31% between 30-39, 13% between 40-49, 5% between 50-59, and 1% between 60-69. Men make up 81% of the reservists; 19% are women. Some 115,000 are fathers, and 3,000 are mothers. 

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced on October 9, 48 hours after the surprise attack. A country under assault cannot continue to support its attackers. “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.”

The military said its strikes against the coastal territory would be “bigger than before and more severe.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are going to change the Middle East.”

Israeli Air Force Chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar said on October 12: “We have a list of everyone who participated in these heinous crimes against our family and against the residents of the area surrounding Gaza, and we will get to them.”

The first priority for Israel was to eliminate all of the terrorists who remained in the area of the border communities. That process began at about 10:00 on October 10. By the end, more than 1,500 Hamas infiltrators were dead.

The air campaign faced the complex challenges of avoiding possible locations of hostages and minimizing civilian casualties. As in the past, Hamas used civilian structures and individual Palestinians as shields.

Besides infrastructure, Israel targeted Hamas leadership. In the early days of the war, the IDF said it eliminated Zachariah Abu Ma’amar, the head of the Hamas Office for Internal Relations, and Joad Abu Shmalah, Hamas Minister of Economy.

On October 11, 2023, Netanyahu agreed to form a unity government with his rival Benny Gantz. In a press conference with the two of them and Defense Minister Gallant, the prime minister said, “Every Hamas member is a dead man.”

In another sign of unity in the nation, the general public mobilized to fill gaps in the government’s response to the crisis. Hebrew University did a study that found Israelis set aside their social and political divisions and rallied under the banner of “Defending Our Home.” Nearly half the population volunteered during the war compared to one-third during the Covid-19 crisis. Volunteerism, researchers found, “cut across all age groups, genders, and religious affiliations.” They also noted the rate of volunteerism among the Arab Israeli population reached 29% and that 28% of all volunteers were new to such activities. In addition to donating money, the most common activities included “collecting, packing, and distributing food and equipment, transportation of people, food, and equipment, assisting security forces, participating in outreach activities through social networks, and offering essential aid to evacuees.”

While Israel hunts terrorists in Gaza, some leaders of Hamas are living in safety in Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey. For example, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s leader and Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, resides in Qatar, as does Izzat Al-Risheq, head of its media department. Saleh al-Arouri, the founding commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, is believed to be in Lebanon.

Israel launched hundreds of airstrikes each day but was unable to stop the rocket bombardment. October 24 saw the most rockets fired at Israeli cities since the war began. Terrorists also attempted to infiltrate Israel by sea near Zikim Beach but were eliminated before they could reach the shore.

On October 25, the pattern continued of Hamas and Lebanese rocket launches and Israeli airstrikes. For the first time, Hamas used its longest-range missiles to target Haifa and Eilat.

Israel was also focused on ensuring that no threats emerged from the West Bank. It conducted an airstrike on Jenin and arrested dozens of Hamas operatives. According to Chief of Staff Halevi, the PA was preventing demonstrations in support of Hamas “for its own reasons.” Throughout the fighting in Gaza, the IDF attacked and arrested Hamas operatives in the West Bank.

By October 26, the IDF had struck more than 7,000 targets in Gaza, and the number of rockets fired from Gaza declined significantly as more launch sites were destroyed.

Israeli ground troops remained primed to move into Gaza but were delayed by several factors. One was the continued negotiations to free hostages. The fear was that Hamas would be far less likely to negotiate once the ground campaign began. The hope remained that at least women, children, and the elderly might be released, though, as of October 26, only four hostages, all women, were set free.

A second cause of delay was the desire to continue training for the expected urban warfare. Many reservists who completed their mandatory service years earlier needed extra preparation time. The IDF also wanted to do more damage to the terrorist infrastructure with intensified airstrikes. 

The United States also requested that Israel give U.S. forces time to deploy air defenses in the region to protect troops from the possibility of attack from Iran-backed militias. U.S. bases had already been attacked at least 13 times in Iraq and Syria.

Israel was also under pressure to give civilians in northern Gaza more time to move south and to allow more humanitarian aid to flow through the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah.

In a sign that the time for a ground operation was nearing, the IDF conducted “a targeted raid using tanks in the northern Gaza Strip, as part of preparations for the next stages of combat.”

“We are in decisive moments. This is a war for our home and we will win it. It’s either us or them,” Gallant said.

Ground Operations Begin

Ground operations began with tanks entering and leaving Gaza. In the following days, the tanks stayed in Gaza accompanied by infantry under cover of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. Despite three weeks of airstrikes on hundreds of targets, Hamas was still managing to launch rockets.

The Commander of the Home Front Command said on October 29, “The war will be long, lasting weeks and months.”  Gantz declared, “The goal at the end of the war - to change the reality in the South, and also against our enemies in the North.” He added that “additional stages in the war will also come, we are creating the conditions for them and we will carry them out. I am determined… to ensure the State of Israel is victorious over this tough and evil enemy — over this epitome of evil.”

Perhaps the best example of how Hamas uses civilians as shields is that their headquarters is located beneath the Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza. Israel released a video of the interrogation of two captured terrorists who confirmed that the hospital was used as an operations center. As it does with virtually everything Israel says, the media has questioned the evidence, but it is hardly new. In 2006, PBS aired a documentary that showed Hamas terrorists roaming the hallways and offices of the hospital. Hamas officials held interviews in the hospital. In the past, the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry (not the Hamas-controlled ministry in Gaza) accused Hamas of taking control of areas in Shifa Hospital and using rooms for interrogation, torture, and imprisonment. During Operation Protective Edge in mid-2014, Hamas used the Shifa hospital as an operations base. The hospital continued to see patients as the Hamas operatives congregated in the bunker underneath. On August 1, 2014, a Finnish female reporter was reporting from Shifa Hospital when she witnessed a rocket launched from the parking lot destined for Israeli territory. By locating its headquarters at the hospital, Hamas has made it a legitimate military target under international law.

Hamas is continuing its operations. On October 29, for example, terrorists emerged from tunnels near the Erez crossing in an attempt to ambush Israeli soldiers. The terrorists were all killed or wounded and captured.

The same day, Israel sent out a more urgent warning that civilians should evacuate the north, where fighting was expected to intensify as more IDF troops moved into the area.

Despite widespread speculation that Israel would launch a large-scale ground invasion with tens of thousands of soldiers, the IDF started the campaign slowly and methodically. The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre suggested three reasons:

Recognizing that the war will be long, the IDF does not believe it is necessary to rush into an operation that could get bogged down.
The desire to ensure that Hezbollah does not use a ground incursion as an excuse to open a second front.
The need to accustom the public to functioning amid military activity in Gaza.

Israel continued to urge Gazans to move south out of the area where IDF operations are concentrated. Still, many civilians were unable to leave or prevented from doing so by Hamas. Given the use of civilians as shields, Israeli forces are in a nearly impossible position. Terrorists cannot be allowed to escape, but targeting them must balance the cost of civilian lives and damage to Israel’s image. The IDF aborted certain strikes when civilians were in the area, but others were carried out that caused substantial collateral damage and attracted international opprobrium. One such strike was carried out to kill Ibrahim Biyari, who was one of the leaders of the Nukkba unit that perpetrated the October 7 massacre, and some 50 other terrorists hiding in a tunnel beneath the Jabalya refugee camp, the most populated in Gaza. The IDF reported it successfully took out the terrorists, but the ground around the tunnel that was struck collapsed, and many civilians were killed and injured. International media reported extensively on the strike’s impact and grilled spokespeople on the necessity of the operation.

Artillery and tanks are using smoke-style diversions to make it difficult for Hamas forces to get clear shots at IDF forces, and D9 bulldozers are clearing boobytraps and mines. IDF ground forces were methodically moving into northern Gaza and engaging in close-quarters urban combat. Airstrikes were continuing, with more than 11,000 targets hit.

On October 31, seven soldiers from the Givati Brigade were killed when an anti-tank missile hit their armored vehicle. An RPG killed two soldiers, and two more died when their tank drove over an explosive device. 

During a battle for control over the base of Hamas’s elite Force 17 near Jabaliya, Givati soldiers said roughly 100 women and children were pushed forward by Hamas to act as human shields.

The IDF announced it had completed the encirclement of Gaza City on November 2. Army engineers began to use robots and explosive devices to destroy tunnels and detonate boobytraps. Some 100 tunnels were already destroyed, including ones hit in airstrikes. 

While uninformed commentators talked a lot about soldiers having to enter tunnels, the difficulty of finding and killing the terrorists, and the danger from boobytraps. Former deputy IDF chief of staff Yair Golan said, “You don’t need to go into the tunnels.” Instead, Golan explained, “The wisdom is to find the entrances and seal them, or send in smoke that will cause the enemy to come out or will harm him.”

“We are going to collapse the entrances and the tunnels on them. It will become a death zone. They made a mistake; they chose to be in a place they cannot escape from. They will die in the tunnels,” an officer told the Walla news site.

Israel came in for renewed criticism when it struck an ambulance near the Shifa hospital that it said was carrying Hamas terrorists. Israeli spokesmen explained that Hamas has often used ambulances in hopes they would serve as protection for their movements and transfer of weapons. The same day, a U.S. official acknowledged that Hamas tried to sneak some of its fighters out of Gaza in ambulances along with injured civilians being evacuated to Egypt. After vetting the list of people attempting to leave, the terrorists were turned away.

By November 5, Israeli forces had surrounded Gaza City and effectively cut the Strip in two, isolating the north. Troops moved deeper into the area, and combat engineers destroyed tunnels. The IDF reported killing many Hamas commanders and those who replaced them. In one raid, soldiers found rocket launchers and rockets in a mosque and a building used by the Palestinian Scout Association. The IDF Paratroopers Brigade exposed the opening of an underground terror tunnel near an amusement park, and another found near a university. An additional cache of rockets belonging to PIJ was found in an underground storage site. Heavy fighting was also reported near the Shifa Hospital, where Hamas was believed to have tunnels for its headquarters.

During the fighting on November 7, IDF troops spotted a Hamas squad hiding in a mosque. They were killed with air support as soon as they left the mosque and headed for tunnel shafts. Troops came under fire from anti-tank missiles fired from a hospital.

The IDF continued its hunt for tunnels and said that it had destroyed 130 tunnel shafts by November 8. By the following day, the IDF said it had surrounded the remaining fighters of a 1,000-strong battalion hiding in the Indonesian Hospital and a nearby school in Beit Hanoun. Lt.-Col. Ido, commanding officer of the 551 Reserve Paratroop Battalion, said, “They are firing on us from this hospital.” He also said IEDs were “buried in the ground, some in the woods, some in the kindergarten rooms, some in the schools.”

Troops were closing in on the Shifa Hospital in Gaza City to seek out Hamas leaders and destroy their tunnels and headquarters underneath. The hospital, however, is full of patients and refugees, and the U.S. expressed concern about targeting it. Palestinian sources said that strikes had already been carried out nearby and claimed many casualties. The hospital reportedly had as many as 800 patients, while Israel believed hostages might be held in the tunnels below. 

Israel was being accused of besieging and shooting at the hospital. The IDF denied this, saying there were gunbattles with terrorists in the area, but it was not targeting the hospital. A spokesperson said on November 11 that he was in constant contact with the hospital director and that the East side remained open to evacuate staff and patients.

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry claimed operations were suspended at the hospital after it ran out of fuel. The same day, the IDF said, “The staff of the Shifa hospital has requested that tomorrow we help the babies in the pediatric department to get to a safer hospital. We will provide the assistance needed.”

Netanyahu said that Hamas rejected an Israeli offer to send fuel to the hospital. The IDF later said it supplied 300 liters of fuel, but Hamas did not allow the hospital’s staff to accept it. Soldiers were guarding jerry cans of fuel left outside the hospital to prevent Hamas from stealing them.

Earlier, the IDF said it had enabled the evacuation of the Rantisi and Nasser hospitals.

Israeli troops killed 21 terrorists who fired rocket-propelled grenades and an anti-tank missile at them from the entrance to Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City on November 13. Soldiers also discovered explosive devices inside a mosque and a weapons cache inside the children’s room of the home of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist. A tunnel entrance was found in another house under a child’s bed. 

When troops entered the Rantisi Hospital after the staff and patients left, they found a basement bunker that was used as a command and control center filled with suicide vests, grenades, AK-47 assault rifles, explosive devices, RPGs, and other weapons. Evidence that hostages had been held there was also discovered.

The Truth About Shifa Hospital

The IDF said the number of people in the Shifa Hospital compound was down to 1,000 from 60,000. The hospital remained the primary focus of attention of the media and U.S. officials. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan acknowledged that it was a base for Hamas. “Without getting into intelligence information,” he said, “we can just look at the open source reporting that Hamas is using hospitals, as it uses many other civilian facilities, for command and control, for weapons storage, to house its fighters. And this is a violation of the laws of war.” He emphasized, however, “the United States does not want to see firefights in hospitals, where innocent people, patients receiving medical care, are caught in the crossfire, and we’ve had active consultations with the Israeli Defense Forces on this.”

Israel was being blamed in the media for a rocket that hit the hospital on November 10, but the IDF maintained that a failed missile launch by terrorists caused it.

The media continued to question the veracity of Israeli and American reports on Shifa. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby subsequently said, “I can confirm for you that we have information that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad used some hospitals in the Gaza strip, including al-Shifa, and tunnels underneath them to conceal and support their military operations and to hold hostages.” He added, “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad members operate a command and control node from al-Shifa in Gaza City. They have stored weapons there, and they are prepared to respond to an Israeli military operation against that facility.” 

That information may have come from a terrorist who confessed the groups used the hospital. He divulged that some terrorists disguised themselves as medical staff with the knowledge of the hospital’s staff.

On November 14, Israeli forces began operating inside the Shifa compound and later took control of the hospital. Troops found  guns, ammunition, protective vests, and Hamas military uniforms, some of which he said were hidden behind M.R.I. machines, others in nearby storage units, and some behind a “blast-proof door.” 

IDF forces raided the outskirts of the Shati refugee camp and found weapons, combat gear, and operational plans belonging to Hamas.

On November 15, troops destroyed the Hamas parliament building.

Operations of the Israeli Navy were attracting less attention, but its fighters and divers were also active. The Unit for Underwater Missions (Yaltam) operating off the coast of Gaza found both above and below the water’s surface a weapons cache that included explosive devices, explosive belts, ammunition, and inflatable boats.

During the continuing operation in the Shifa compound, which involved shootouts with terrorists, soldiers found the bodies of two of the hostages taken on October 7. Cpl. Noa Marciano was found in a building adjacent to Shifa. Yehudit Weiss was found in a building where Hamas stored weapons. The IDF showed journalists laptops found at the hospital that had photos and videos of captives, weapons discovered inside the hospital, and the entrance of a tunnel.

A stockpile of weapons was found at a booby-trapped hotel, and a recording of PIJ terrorists was released in which they discuss concealing weapons in baby carriages. The IDF also said two airstrikes targeted several of Hamas’s top political and military leaders but could not confirm whether they were killed.

Israel was in complete control of the northern Gaza Strip by November 17 and planned to begin operations in the south where Hamas has tunnels, and its leaders were thought to be hiding with hostages. Israeli forces dropped leaflets warning Palestinians to leave parts of southern Gaza and that anyone in the vicinity of terrorists or their positions “is putting their life in danger.”

Troops continued to investigate the Shifa Hospital. The IDF reported that one of the soldiers taken hostage on October 7 was killed at the hospital. At the basement levels of the complex, they found ammunition, grenades, combat equipment disguised in medical suitcases, and anti-tank mines alongside operational command posts of Hamas leaders with evidence of the presence of top Hamas officials and Israeli hostages. A book was discovered with Hamas’s intelligence report on the IDF, and documentation was left behind from Shin Bet interrogations of terrorists who infiltrated Israel. The tunnel network led to the homes of senior Hamas officials. A video was released showing a 55-meter-long, 10-meter-deep tunnel under the hospital and CCTV footage taken inside the hospital of terrorists bringing two hostages inside.

“Real medical teams were not allowed to enter Hamas’s military command rooms by the organization’s operatives, who also covered some of the security cameras. Eventually, the upper part of the hospital was used militarily while underground were offices for senior officials’ extended stays.”

Haaretz, a paper known for its criticism of the government, sent correspondent Yaniv Kubovich to see the evidence that Shifa was a Hamas command center. He photographed a backpack with a symbol marking the 60th anniversary of Kibbutz Be’eri, Israeli-made ‘Shoresh’ sandals, and a collection of weapons. He entered the hospital’s emergency room, where a shaft led to a tunnel network that allowed terrorists to use the hospital without being seen by patients or staff.

Kubovich said, “There is no way the hospital administrators didn’t know what was happening” after he went into a 560-foot long tunnel (nearly the length of two American football fields) beneath the hospital “made entirely of reinforced concrete to defend against IDF attacks, replete with power sockets, power lines, and ventilation equipment.” Kubovich was also shown where Hamas siphoned power from the hospital. Hence, it was unsurprising that Israel took the director into custody for questioning. 

Dozens of other tunnels and large quantities of weapons were found in a neighborhood where senior Hamas officials lived in Gaza City.  A weapons manufacturing lab, an arsenal, and a tunnel were found in the basement of a mosque.

The IDF also captured more than 300 terrorists and brought them to Israel for interrogation. 

While international NGOs and the media continued to perpetrate the lie that Hamas did not use hospitals as covers or bases, the IDF repeatedly found evidence for its contention. In one instance, more than 70 terrorists surrendered from Kamal Adwan Hospital in Jabalya, where another Hamas command and control center was located. The operation resulted in the apprehension of 90 terrorists.  Interrogation of hospital staff led to the discovery of a substantial arsenal, including AK-47s, RPGs, explosive devices, and intelligence documents. Weapons were even found concealed in the NICU incubators. 

On January 2, 2024, amid continuing media skepticism, a senior intelligence official reiterated the earlier conclusion that Hamas used the hospital to store weapons and as a command and control center. More disturbing was the admission that it had been used to hold “at least a few hostages” and that Hamas was able to evacuate the complex before the IDF assault, which had been slowed by Biden administration objections to conducting operations in medical facilities.

The IDF destroyed a tunnel nearly three football fields long (250 meters) under the hospital compound. The hospital was undamaged and continued to function.

More information about the hospital emerged weeks later. A woman, for example, said she and her husband had been sheltering there until they noticed Hamas ammunition stored there and left out of fear the hospital would bombed.

The New York Times, which had repeatedly expressed skepticism about Israeli claims and evidence of the hospital being used by Hamas, wrote in February 2024 that indeed intelligence documents suggest “Hamas used the hospital for cover, stored weapons inside it and maintained a hardened tunnel beneath the complex that was supplied with water, power and air-conditioning.” The Times said it was shown documents that indicated the tunnel was at least 700 feet long, twice what had been publicly revealed, and “conntainced underground bunkers, living quarters, and a room that appeared to be wired for computers and communications equipment along a part of the tunnel beyond the hospital.” The story acknowledged that U.S. officials supported Israel’s assertions and said terrorists evacuated the complex before Israeli forces arrived and destroyed documents and electronics.

First Ceasefire

Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire that commenced at 7:00 a.m. GMT on November 24 as part of the deal to exchange women and children held hostage by Hamas for women and youths jailed in Israel.

“This will be a short pause, at the conclusion of which the war (and) fighting will continue with great might and will generate pressure for the return of more hostages,” Defence Minister Gallant said. 

Approximately 50 booby-trapped explosive devices and dozens of weapons stockpiles were located by Oketz (K-9) Unit fighters and dogs before the ceasefire. Sadly, Four dogs were killed in combat.

Fighters reported that nearly every building they entered was booby-trapped and that weapons were hidden in children’s rooms, under beds and cribs.

Meanwhile, Hamas told Gazans who had moved south to return to their homes in the north. Israel dropped leaflets warning them not to do so because it remained a “dangerous war zone” and fired over the heads of people trying to get back into Gaza City.

On November 30, Hamas took credit for an attack by two terrorists who killed three Israelis, one a pregnant woman, at a bus station in Jerusalem. 

After Hamas broke the ceasefire on December 1 by launching rockets into Israel, the IDF resumed its campaign. The next major objective was expected to be the capture of Khan Yunis where the IDF believes Hamas leaders and some hostages may be hiding. The battle will be especially challenging because of the presence of civilians and the pressure being applied by the U.S. to fight in a way that reduces casualties.

The IDF also surrounded the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of Gaza.

The media began to focus on a report from the Wall Street Journal that Israel has a plan for flooding the tunnels with seawater to flush out the terrorists. Several concerns were raised, including whether the ground was too porous for the tunnels to fill, the potential harm to hostages, the possibility of contaminating the aquifer that provides drinking water to the Strip, and the fear the soil would be saturated and buildings might collapse.

On December 6, the IDF reported it was engaged in the most intense day of fighting since the war began, with firefights in three Hamas strongholds, Jabalya and Shajaiya in the north and Khan Yunis in the south. Soldiers were going house to house in close-quarters combat.

More Human Shields

“There isn’t a single house here without weapons, there isn’t a house without [tunnel] infrastructure. It’s unbelievable. In dozens of yards of homes we found dozens of rocket launchers,” an officer told reporters on December 8. “We found Kalashnikovs under mattresses, inside clothes closets. It wasn’t thrown there suddenly, they were hidden in the homes.”

An increasing number of Hamas fighters have surrendered since the IDF entered Khan Yunis. More than 500 terrorists from PIJ and Hamas have been arrested. Israel was criticized when it released a photograph of prisoners blindfolded in their underwear. The reason for stripping them was to ensure they were not wearing suicide vests. In response to the criticism, the security forces said the prisoners should not be allowed to put their clothes back on and not be photographed. Of those apprehended, about 40% were found to be terrorists, and the rest were released into safe zones. The Shin Bet has gathered valuable intelligence from prisoners it has interrogated.

Fighting intensified in Khan Yunis, and the IDF was running low on supplies before receiving an airdrop of seven tons of logistical equipment.

Israel released a video of a former Hamas communications minister criticizing Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar during a Shin Bet interrogation, in which he said Gazans say, “Sinwar and his gang destroyed us; we must get rid of them.”

The IDF was under international pressure to be more mindful of its targeting but was challenged to protect civilians by Hamas’s continued use of them as shields. In one case, for example, the IDF reported that rockets were being fired from near a UN facility and from inside the humanitarian zone.

On December 12, the Wall Street Journal reported Israel began pumping seawater into the tunnels. The process, it said, would take several weeks. The same day, the IDF said paratroopers fighting in Gaza City’s Zeitoun and Shejaiya neighborhoods uncovered a lathe for manufacturing rockets, as well as memory cards with footage from the attack on October 7.

On December 17, IDF forces found roughly one million dollars worth of shekels in a senior Hamas official’s home. A tunnel entrance was located about 1,300 feet from the Erez crossing Gazans used to enter Israel for work. It is more than 160 feet deep (50 meters), stretches more than 2.5 miles (4 km.), and is large enough for vehicles to drive through.

On December 24, Sinwar made his first public statement since the war began, insisting Hamas would not agree to “the occupation’s conditions” and making a number of exaggerated claims about the number of Israeli soldiers the group had killed and wounded. Two days earlier, Gallant reiterated that Sinwar would soon “meet the barrels of our guns.”

In between the two statements, Netanyahu wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal declaring three prerequisites for peace: destroying Hamas, demilitarizing Gaza, and deradicalizing Palestinian society.

By the end of 2023, Israel felt confident enough in its progress in the war to announce that it would withdraw thousands of soldiers from Gaza. Some were to be sent home to resume their civilian lives with the possibility of being recalled for service later. Other soldiers were recalled for training. The IDF appeared prepared to move toward the lower intensity fighting with special forces U.S. officials had been advocating. The IDF continued to maintain the war would continue for many months until its goals of destroying Hamas and rescuing the hostages was accomplished.

Israel began the new year by taking a step toward achieving the goal of eliminating the Hamas leadership when it was assumed to have assassinated the deputy head of its political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, in a drone strike in the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh.  Al-Arouri was one of the founding members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank, a planner of the October 7 massacre, a liaison between Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, and the person who ordered the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, including dual U.S.–Israeli citizen Naftali Fraenkel. He was also wanted by the U.S. State Department and was labeled as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. Azzam Al-Aqra and Samir Fendi, two commanders of the al-Qassam Brigades, were also killed. The strike demonstrated Israel’s will and capability to carry out its pledge to track down and kill everyone responsible for the massacre.

The Second Hundred Days

After more than three months of fighting, the IDF had struck 30,000 targets in Gaza and 750 in Lebanon. The IDF said it had dismantled Hamas’s ‘militar framework’ in northern Gaza. It continued to pound areas in the south with airstrikes as troops advanced deeper into Khan Younis and found more schools, mosques, and UNRWA facilities used by Hamas. In some cases, terrorists were also inside the buildings and were neutralized.

In response to repeated missile launches by Hamas from Syria, the IDF announced it had killed the man responsible, Hassan Hakashah, in Beit Jinn in Syria. 

The IDF also found a factory to convert “low-tech” rockets into precise missiles in a tunnel in Gaza City, along with Iranian training manuals with instructions for developing cruise missiles. An operation in another area uncovered a stockpile of rocket launchers.

The media also reported in early January 2024 that the IDF knew where Sinwar was hiding but could not take action against him because he surrounded himself with hostages as human shields.

On January 8, the IDF found the largest weapons production site since the operation began in tunnels 90 feet below ground in the densely populated Bureij area along the road used by civilians to evacuate from northern Gaza. The facility produced long-range rockets and contained UAVs and light weapons. A chemical lab for the production of rocket fuel was also discovered. One tunnel had an elevator leading to an underground network used to move weapons around Gaza. A storage facility for rockets was also found above ground. An IDF commander said “a chain of terror factories” were found under the homes of civilians.

Gallant said on January 15, 2024, the intensive phase of the ground operation in the north was over and focused on the Khan Younis area. In northern Gaza, he said, “All the [Hamas] battalion frameworks have been dismantled. We are now working to eliminate pockets of resistance. We will achieve this via raids, airstrikes, special operations, and additional activities.”

In central Gaza, he said, “We are destroying Hamas’s military industry, its production centers. These are the places that produce rockets, IEDs, explosives and other weapons to be used against us. The achievements [of our troops] are very impressive.”

In southern Gaza, Gallant said, “IDF troops are focused on the head of the snake, the Hamas leadership. As part of this action… the Khan Younis Brigade is gradually disintegrating as a fighting force.”

Some 2,300 Palestinian suspects in Gaza were interrogated in Gaza; some were transferred to Israel for further questioning.

Though the IDF knew the Hamas tunnel network was extensive, they underestimated its size. After months of seeking tunnel shafts, the IDF estimated the “metro” was 350 to 450 miles long rather than 250, with 5,700 shafts, most of which were booby-trapped. An official told the New York Times whenever the Israeli military finds a school, a hospital, or a mosque, soldiers know they can expect to locate an underground tunnel system beneath them. Commanders have deeper and more comfortable tunnels than the shallow, spartan tunnels used by underlings. The IDF learned more about the network from computers used by Hamas to construct the tunnels and obtained lists of families with tunnel entrances in their homes.

On January 22, the IDF destroyed a Hamas base in Gaza City it described as “one of the largest centers for the training of terrorists.”


Hamas training base in Gaza City

The New York Times reported that the death toll in Gaza had fallen in half as Israel shifted its strategy more in line with what the Biden administration had been pressuring it to adopt. Israel reduced the number of troops in Gaza and had transitioned to more surgical strikes by elite troops. This was especially true in the north, where Israel had established total control. It was also partly necessitated by the care needed in searching and destroying Hamas targets and fighters in the south where the hostages were believed to be kept. Still, it was possible Palestinian casualties could increase as Israel moved further south, in and around Rafah, where a large number of displaced Palestinians was concentrated. 

On January 22, Israel suffered its heaviest loss since the beginning of the ground offensive when 21 soldiers were killed in the process of destroying buildings using mines. Two rocket-propelled grenades were fired, the first toward a tank, which killed two soldiers. The second RPG was fired at one of the buildings that already had explosives inside. These then detonated, leading to the buildings collapsing on the troops inside. Seven soldiers were injured and transferred to the hospital: two in serious condition, two in moderate, and three suffered light injuries.

The incident occurred less than 2,000 feet (600 meters) from the border fence on the Gaza side. The buildings designated for demolition were part of the plan to create a buffer zone.

Ironically, while Hamas was trying to kill Israelis, One of Haniyeh’s sisters was giving birth at Soroka Medical Center in Israel. Three of his eight sisters have Israeli citizenship and are married to Israeli Bedouins living in Tel Sheva.

After hinting at a plan to flood some tunnels, the IDF revealed it had begun implementing the Atlantis Project at the end of 2023. One pump used water from the Mediterranean Sea, and a second used water from Israel. The effectiveness was unclear.

Israel continued to be criticized by the media and human rights activists for the scale of the destruction in Gaza. Specious comparisons were made to other conflicts in which fighting did not require the destruction of so many structures, ignoring the major difference in the enemy’s use of so many buildings, including residences, mosques, schools, and hospitals, as covers for tunnels. CNN, for example, reported the IDF was desecrating cemeteries. A few days later, Israel revealed a one-kilometer (.6 miles) long tunnel built underneath the Bani Suheila Cemetery. The IDF said it found terrorists and explosives in the tunnel along with the office of a battalion commander who managed the October 7 massacre.

As Israeli troops secured Khan Yunis, they began to prepare to move onto the last Hamas stronghold in Rafah. Fighting there was expected to be particularly challenging because so many Gazans had found refuge there.

The army also moved to take over the “Philadelphi Corridor,” a strip of land less than 9 miles (14 km) wide separating Gaza from Egypt. Israel had controlled the area for some time but handed responsibility over to Egypt. Hamas then began to tunnel under it to bring weapons and supplies into Gaza. At one point, Egypt flooded the tunnels to prevent smuggling, but Israel believes at least 12 tunnels still exist that could be used to bring weapons in and terrorists out of Gaza.

Taking the area will also give Israel control over the Rafah crossing, which is the only connection between Gaza and the Arab world and the principal route for travelers. Egypt has rejected Israel’s request to give up the area, which its soldiers are responsible for patrolling according to a security protocol signed with Israel. Alternatively, Israel has requested that sensors be installed along the corridor to alert Israel in case Hamas attempts to rebuild its tunnel and smuggling network after the war. Egypt said it would consider the option but rejected another Israeli proposal to send surveillance drones in response to alerts.

The Last Bastion in Rafah

The United States and others were putting pressure on Israel not to go ahead with the attack on Rafah because more than one million refugees were sheltering there, and critics feared an operation would lead to many civilian casualties. President Biden told Netanyahu that he should not mount any operation without a plan to protect the civilians. Israel said it would move the refugees before entering with ground forces. In the meantime, the IAF had launched airstrikes in the area, and a special forces team rescued two hostages held in a building in Rafah.

Reportedly, Israel planned to provide refugees safe passage to 15 sites in Gaza, where thousands of tents would be set up for them. The UN said it would not cooperate, even as it was criticizing Israel for not doing anything to ensure their safety.

The plan came after President Biden made scathing remarks criticizing Israel’s assault as “over the top.” Reports were also leaked suggesting the administration was considering delaying or slowing weapons sales to Israel if it did not comply with his requests. Israel was also alarmed by reports that the State Department was drafting options for recognizing an independent Palestinian state. The president was also said to be increasingly frustrated and angry with Netanyahu because of his response to proposals to free the hostages and agree to a Palestinian state as part of a deal for diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

Egypt also threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if it moved into Rafah. Fearing that refugees might try to flee, Egypt created a 3-mile buffer zone, erected concrete barriers above and below ground, and sent tanks to back up its border troops.

After the media continued to report about Biden’s dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and the pressure the administration was putting on Israel not to launch an offensive in Rafah, White House spokesperson, John Kirby clarified the administration’s position: “We never said that they can’t go into Rafah to remove Hamas. Hamas remains a viable threat to the Israeli people. And the Israelis and the IDF, absolutely, are going to continue operations against their leadership and their infrastructure, as they should. We don’t want to see another October 7th.”

Israeli forces continued to operate in Khan Yunis. On February 16, 2024, they raided the Nasser Hospital after receiving “credible intelligence,” including from released hostages, that hostages and the bodies of hostages had been held there. While criticized again for entering a hospital, the IDF said it facilitated the transfer of medical supplies. “We have doctors and Arabic-speaking IDF officers on the ground to communicate to the staff and patients inside the Nasser hospital. Our message to them is clear: We seek no harm to innocent civilians. We seek to find our hostages and bring them home. We seek to hunt down Hamas terrorists wherever they may be hiding.”

The IDF instructed civilians sheltering in the hospital to leave. Many were afraid of the chaotic conditions outside the hospital. Sources in Gaza said that one patient was killed and others wounded during the raid.

The United States and other countries were pressuring Israel not to mount an offensive in Rafah. Responding to the pressure, Gantz said, “The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know — if by Ramadan [March 10] our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, including the Rafah area.” Netanyahu also said that even if a ceasefire were agreed to as part of a hostage deal, the Rafah operation would be conducted afterward.

As the IDF swept Khan Yunis, it discovered terrorists attempting to hide among civilians evacuating combat zones. It also completed its operation in Nasser Hospital, arresting 200 suspects. The IDF said it delivered food, water, medical supplies, infant formula, and a replacement generator to the hospital.

Investigating Troop Misbehavior

Military Advocate General, Major General Yifat Tomer-Yerushalmi, sent a letter to commanders on February 21, 2024, saying she was investigating IDF soldiers whose actions “do not meet IDF values, deviate from orders and disciplinary boundaries – and have crossed the criminal threshold.” Specifically, she mentioned “inappropriate statements that encourage unacceptable actions; operationally unjustifiable use of force, including against detainees; looting, non-operational use or removal of private property; and destruction of civilian property in violation of orders.”

Tomer-Yerushalmi said individuals were responsible for these acts and that they did not represent those of the IDF. “Unlike our enemies, who fight by exploiting and violating the law,” she wrote, “we fight in accordance with the law: the IDF employs force only for military purposes. It distinguishes between the enemy and non-combatants and is committed to minimizing harm to the civilian population and civilian property, to the extent possible.”

She said the allegations would be investigated, and the military prosecution would decide on the appropriate punishment.

Sign of Victory

The ss was the announcement on February 22, 2024, that citizens could return to 18 communities close to the Gaza border and those between 2.5 and 4.3 miles away. The best indication of the war’s success IDF said there is “no complete absence of risks” and that rocket fire was still possible. The government offered financial incentives for returning residents and agreed to continue to pay some of the expenses of those who choose to remain in hotels until July 7.

In late February, the IDF discovered another tunnel, this one more than six miles long, connecting the Turkish hospital in the north to the Israa University south of Gaza City. It was believed to be used for communication between Hamas brigades and equipment storage. 

The plan to mount an offensive in Rafah was held up. At the same time, negotiations to free the hostages continued, and Israel was under unrelenting pressure from the United States not to move until civilians could be evacuated. The administration also hoped to forestall an attack overlapping Ramadan (March 10-April 9). 

Middle East Studies professor Ido Zelkovitz explained the importance of Israel going forward with its attack plan. “The crossing under Rafah is very important for the existence and maintenance of Hamas’s economy,” he said. “Not only weapons pass through the tunnels beneath Rafah, but also a lot of money, goods, even vehicles and animals. The geographical location of Rafah, and being the gateway to the Gaza Strip to the world, makes it one of the most important and strategic foci for Hamas. Without control of Rafah, Hamas, which relies on smuggling, would have its oxygen pipeline to the world cut off,” he told Globus.

Meeting with top U.S. officials in Washington, Gantz pushed back against the administration’s opposition to Israel going into Rafah. “Not destroying Hamas in Rafah means sending a fire truck to put out 80% of the fire,” he said. He reiterated the IDF would not begin the ground campaign until the civilians were evacuated.

Knowing that Israel had to go into Rafah to destroy Hamas, the administration was reportedly pressuring Israel to avoid a large-scale attack and focus instead on high-value Hamas targets. National Security Advisor Sullivan said Biden is focused on “the protection of civilians and about Israel being able to sustain a campaign in a way that ultimately leads to an outcome in which the people of Israel are secure, Hamas is crushed, and there is a long-term solution to stability and peace in the region.”

Israel moved closer to achieving one of its principal goals, killing the leaders of Hamas, when it located and killed the number three person in the high command, Marwan Issa, the number three in the Hamas high command and deputy to military chief Mohammed Deif.

Return to Shifa

On March 18, 2024, Israel mounted a raid on Shifa Hospital when it discovered Hamas was attempting to use it again as a base of operations. The IDF planned an ambush and had allowed the terrorists to return. Fighting continued for several days, with terrorists using civilians and medical staff as human shields while barricading themselves in the hospital. They engaged Israeli forces by firing from the emergency room, maternity ward, and burn unit. They also fired mortars, causing damage to hospital buildings and shutting down a generator. More than 500 members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were captured. The IDF said it killed 170 terrorists in and around the hospital, including Faiq Mabhouh, a senior commander in Hamas’s internal security.

Deputy Head of the Information Department in Hamas’s Military Intelligence, Ashraf Ibrahim Samur, admitted during his interrogation that Hamas Military Intelligence, Interior, and Security and Administration worked inside the hospital. Tariq Silmi Ousa Abu Shlouf, the spokesperson for the Palestine Islamic Jihad’s political office in the Gaza Strip, confessed his organization had put out the false information about Israel bombing the Al-Ahli Hospital, which had been hit by a PIJ rocket. He said the terrorists “use all hospitals because they have internet and electricity there 24/7.” More specifically, he said, “They choose certain places. For example, they take two rooms from the X-ray department, two from the triage department, and two from the internal medicine department. They don't completely shut down the departments.”

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said, “I don’t know why I don’t hear more people calling on Hamas to stop going into hospitals. You shouldn’t have to clear Hamas from a hospital once, let alone twice....Israel has said what they tried to do is protect patients and not operate in places when there are patients, to evacuate people from the hospital, and only operate in a way that would impact the Hamas fighters that were there.” 

Under intense pressure from the United States and the international community to agree to a ceasefire and avoid a ground operation in Rafah, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s war aims during a meeting with a delegation from AIPAC on March 18:

How do we define victory? We define it as the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, as the return of the hostages, which we’re working right now, and also as preventing the return, Gaza from becoming a threat to Israel at any time in the future.

Tactical Withdrawal

On April 7, Israel said it had pulled most of its forces out of Gaza, leaving one infantry brigade. At the height of the military operation, there were 20 IDF brigades (around 35,000 troops). Some analysts speculated the move was a response to U.S. pressure or to come closer to satisfying Hamas’s demands to reach a deal on the release of the hostages. Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai disputed this and said the withdrawal had been planned for several weeks.

Similarly, Defense Minister Gallant said, “The withdrawal of troops from Khan Younis was carried out once Hamas ceased to exist as a military framework in the city… The achievements made by the IDF’s Division 98 and its units, are extremely impressive. They have eliminated terrorists and destroyed terror targets including warehouses, weapons, headquarters, communication centres and more. Their activities enabled the dismantling of Hamas as a functioning military unit in this area.” He added, “Our forces are going to prepare for their follow-up missions. We saw examples of such missions in Shifa, and [will see] such missions in the Rafah area. We will reach a point when Hamas no longer controls the Gaza strip and does not function as a military framework that poses a threat to the citizens of the State of Israel.”

IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said: “This is another stage in the war effort....The war is not over. War can only be over when they [hostages] come home and when Hamas is gone.”

Before completing the redeployment of its troops, Israel destroyed three tunnels in the area of Khan Yunis. One, which extended several hundred meters into Israeli territory, was discovered in 2019 and left intact as a trap. The IDF placed sensors and explosives in the tunnel and constantly monitored it, intending to blow it up with terrorists inside. According to the IDF, the tunnel was not used on October 7.

Marking six months of the war, Netanyahu said on April 7, “We are one step away from victory…But the price we paid is painful and heartbreaking.” He added, “There will be no ceasefire without the return of hostages. It just won’t happen.”

The success of the war to date was reflected in the ability of 70% of the Israelis, including 23,000 from Sderot, to return to their homes near Gaza. Some communities, however, remained too badly damaged to repopulate. 

In response to the Biden administration’s insistence on being informed of Israel’s plans for Rafah, senior officials from both countries held a video call instead of the previously planned Washington visit. Afterward, the White House said it was up to the Israelis to decide what to do regarding Rafah and that the United States would provide general guidance to Israel but no detailed alternative. At the same time, however, the administration continued to publicly discourage any Israeli action and insist on the evacuation of the more than one million civilians in the area initiating any operations. Netanyahu insisted he had a plan to move the civilians, which included buying 40,000 tents for evacuees, but U.S. officials said the plan was not viable.

Meanwhile, Israel remained under attack from multiple fronts. On April 8, in a first,  Israel’s C-Dome, the naval version of Iron Dome, downed an unmanned aerial vehicle over the Red Sea heading for Eilat. The interceptor was launched from a Sa’ar 6 class corvette patrolling the Red Sea.

Rafah

The United States continued to pressure Israel to cancel plans for operating in Rafah. The hope was that a hostage deal would be negotiated and accompanied by a ceasefire. The administration hoped this would become permanent to preclude attacking Rafah. Netanyahu, however, was under pressure from right-wing ministers in his government who threatened to bring down the government if the operation was not completed. 

With the support of other ministers, Netanyahu prioritized reaching a hostage deal. Nevertheless, he reiterated, “The idea that we stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and eliminate the Hamas battalions there – with or without a deal, in order to achieve absolute victory.”

Hamas rejected the hostage deal that Secretary Blinken called an “extraordinarily generous” proposal and launched a rocket barrage from Rafah that killed four Israeli soldiers at an IDF post near the Kerem Shalom crossing where Israel had opened to allow more aid into Gaza. Unexplained was why they were not intercepted. Israel subsequently dropped flyers in the Rafah area, sent SMS messages, and made phone calls and broadcasts calling on residents to temporarily evacuate to a safe area in Mawasi where field hospitals, tents, food, water, and medicine were available. 

Defense Minister Gallant told U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on May 5: “Hamas’s refusal of the deal and the killing of the soldiers left no choice and the meaning is the beginning of the Israeli operation in Rafah.”

In a speech at Yad Vashem the same night, Netanyahu said, “I pledge here today from Jerusalem on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, if Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone. But we know we’re not alone. Because countless decent people around the world support our just cause.” He added: “Never again is now.”

According to Axios, the Biden administration put a hold on a shipment of U.S.-made ammunition to Israel the week before. It was not immediately clear if the reason was opposition to a Rafah operation, a response to Democratic critics of administration policy, or a requirement based on a State Department report saying Israel had misused U.S.-made weapons. While that report was delayed, the president gave an interview with CNN that made clear his displeasure with Israel ignoring his opposition to fighting in Rafah. “We’re going to continue to make sure Israel is secure in terms of Iron Dome and their ability to respond to attacks that came out of the Middle East recently,” he said before adding, “I made it clear that if they go into Rafah – they haven’t gone into Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been historically used to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities, that deal with that problem.”

Israeli officials reacted defiantly. “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone,” Netanyahu said. “If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails. But we have much more than fingernails.” 

According to Haaretz, Israel told Egypt and the U.S. that its operation in Gaza would focus on exerting pressure on Hamas in hostage negotiations. It also would deny Hamas the ability to smuggle weapons or to collect taxes on goods that enter through Rafah. Israel was also looking to enlist a U.S.-based security company to control the border crossing.

As Israeli forces advanced in Rafah, they once again exposed UNRWA facilities being used by Hamas. Terrorists were located in the agency’s aid distribution warehouse alongside UN vehicles. Elsewhere, in Nuseirat, what the IDF described as a war room used by Hamas commanders was found inside an UNRWA school and destroyed in an airstrike. Despite the additional evidence of UNRWA collaboration with Hamas, all the EU countries that had suspended their support for the agency had restored it by the end of May.

Despite having declared areas in the north cleared of terrorists, the IDF had to return to certain locations where Hamas was reconstituting. One was Jabaliya, where on May 16, IDF tanks shelled a building thought to be filled with terrorists but were instead being used by soldiers. Five were killed and seven wounded.

War Crimes Allegations

On May 20, Karim Khan, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, announced he was seeking arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Gallant, alleging they had committed war crimes by intentionally targeting civilians, using starvation as a means of war, and crimes against humanity, including extermination. The ICC’s panel must approve the warrants of judges. If they were, both men would risk arrest if they traveled to ICC member countries, which include most of Europe, South America, and Africa. The United States is not a member and would not honor the warrants. 

Hamas officials Yahya Sinwar, Muhammad Deif, and Ismail Haniyeh were also declared targets for the crimes of extermination, murder, sexual violence, and taking hostages.

Israelis across the political spectrum denounced the ICC. 

“As the prime minister of Israel, I reject with all my heart The Hague prosecutor’s comparison between the democratic government of Israel and the Hamas mass-murderers,” Netanyahu said.

“Placing the leaders of a state that is battling to defend its people alongside bloodthirsty terrorists is moral blindness and a blow to [Israel]’s duty and ability to defend its citizens,” said Benny Gantz. “Accepting the position of the prosecutor would be a historic crime that will not be erased.”

President Biden called the decision “outrageous.” He said, “We reject the ICC’s application for arrest warrants against Israeli leaders” and “contrary to allegations made against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), what’s happening is not genocide.” He added, “Let me be clear: whatever this prosecutor might imply, there is no equivalence — none — between Israel and Hamas.”

Rafah Evacuated

Even after suspending the delivery of some weapons, President Biden continued to express support for Israel’s overall objectives. “We stand with Israel to take out [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar and the rest of the butchers of Hamas,” he said on May 20, 2024. “We want Hamas defeated, and work with Israel to make that happen.”

Israel continued to press its attack in Rafah. By the second week of fighting, nearly one million civilians had moved out of the area. The evacuation occurred much faster than the U.S. expected. American and international officials had forecast a bloodbath if Israel went into the city while so many noncombatants were there, but this did not happen. Besides the large-scale movement of civilians, Israel also engaged in a more limited and precise operation than it had originally planned.

The IDF was in control of most of the Philadelphi Corridor with Egypt and destroyed many of the cross-border tunnels. Israeli forces also captured a large number of weapons, including long-range rockets. They continued to search for Hamas leaders and hostages but had no luck during the initial thrust and feared the hostages might have been moved out of the city.

In other action, the IDF surprised Hamas fighters by returning to Jabalia, where they found additional tunnels and foiled an attempt by Hamas to establish a new command center. The bodies of four hostages were also discovered in a tunnel during the operation.

While Israel said it had killed some 14,000 terrorists, U.S. intelligence said only 30-35% of Hamas’s fighters were eliminated. Hamas has “been able to withstand the Israeli offensive by recruiting thousands of new fighters over the last several months,” according to the United States, leading the Biden administration to question Israel’s strategy.

The IDF also continued to find terrorists and weapons in UN facilities. On May 22, a strike was launched to neutralize terrorists and weapons at a UNRWA compound where they were hidden in Nuseirat.

In addition to finding weapons at the UNRWA school, the IDF also discovered rockets in a Rafah graveyard.

On May 24, the ICJ ordered Israel to halt its military operation against Hamas in Rafah, contending that it could pose a serious threat to the Palestinian population even though approximately 1 million of the 1.2 million sheltering there had left at Israel’s urging. Israel rejected the demand and continued its operation.

On May 26, the IDF executed a targeted operation against two senior Hamas terrorists at a compound in Rafah. These individuals were involved in planning and carrying out attacks against Israelis, making them legitimate targets under international law.

The operation did not occur within the area's humanitarian zone designated by the IDF, and surveillance was used to determine whether any civilians were in the area. The precise strike utilized two small explosive munitions (37 lbs each), far smaller than other Western militaries use in comparable situations. Nevertheless, the strikes ignited a fire in a nearby compound. The Hamas-run health ministry said 45 people were killed and dozens more wounded. Netanyahu said it was a “tragic mistake,” and the government launched an investigation.

The IDF explored the possibility that nearby weapons and ammunition contributed to the fire. A rocket launcher used to fire rockets into Israel was located less than 150 feet from the targeted structure, suggesting that additional weapons were likely stored nearby. An intercepted call between two Gazans further suggests that secondary explosions from a Hamas ammunition warehouse, situated more than 300 feet away from the strike site, could have triggered the fire. 

Despite additional civilian casualties in the Rafah operation, President Biden seemed to endorse Netanyahu’s conduct in a June 6 interview. “I think he’s listening to me. They were going to go into Rafah full bore — invade all of Rafah, go into the city, take it out, move with full force. They haven’t done that,” Biden said.

U.S. and Israeli officials told the Wall Street Journal that they discussed ways to avoid crossing the Biden administration’s red line and provoking a crisis in relations. “Israel shelved its original plan for a two-division sweep through Rafah, an operation that the White House worried would lead to an escalation of casualties in a conflict that has already led to a soaring civilian toll,” according to the paper. Instead, Israel has opted for a military campaign that focuses on sealing the border between Gaza and Egypt as well as raids into Rafah.”

The same day as Biden’s interview, Israel launched an airstrike on a UNRWA school where it said some 30 terrorists from Hamas’s elite Nukhba force were hiding in three rooms where they were planning attacks. As with most Israeli strikes, Hamas authorities immediately claimed large numbers of civilians were killed and omitted mention of any terrorists. The media dutifully parroted the claims as they have done throughout the war. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital initially reported that nine women and 14 children were among those killed but later revised the numbers to three women, nine children, and 21 men. Israel said it launched the strike only after determining no civilians were in the classrooms. 

This was the fifth time in June alone that terrorists were found inside UNRWA facilities. The head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini, has repeatedly denied the agency’s facilities are used by Hamas and condemned Israel’s strikes on them.

Gantz Leaves the Government

A day after the dramatic rescue of four Israeli hostages, Gantz announced he was leaving the government, accusing Netanyahu of  preventing Israel from achieving “true victory.” The National Unity Party chairman had said weeks earlier that he would take this step if Netanyahu did not agree to a shared vision of a postwar plan. Gantz explained he had joined the government “because we knew it was a bad government” but believed “the people of Israel, the fighters, the commanders, the families of the murdered, the casualties and the hostages needed unity and support like they needed air to breathe.” Gantz was disillusioned after seeing he had little influence in the war cabinet Netanyahu formed and that the prime minister was more concerned with “political considerations” and appeasing his far-right coalition partners. Party members Gadi Eisenkot and Chili Tropper also submitted their resignations. 

Afterward, it was unclear if Netanyahu would maintain a war cabinet after losing the two former IDF chiefs of staff. Ben Gvir immediately demanded that he be added to the war cabinet, a move Netanyahu had resisted.

Brig. Gen. Avi Rosenfeld, the head of the Israel Defense Force’s Gaza Division, also announced his resignation, saying, “on October 7, I failed in my life’s mission to protect the [Gaza border communities].”

The resignations did not alter the military game plan in Gaza. Forces continued to advance in Rafah while also operating in central Gaza. The IDF also destroyed a half-mile tunnel located less than a mile from the Israeli border. Elsewhere, the IDF killed PIJ and Hamas fighters hiding in buildings that had served as UNRWA headquarters.

By mid-June, the IDF believed it had destroyed two of the last four Hamas battalions during the Rafah operation. Many terrorists were thought to have escaped by mixing with civilians evacuating the area. Tracking the remaining terrorists was made more difficult because access to many tunnels in the city was in booby-trapped buildings. “There is almost no home without a tunnel,” Nahal Brigade Commander Colonel Yair Zuckerman told reporters.

Still, indications were that the offensive was winding down as preparations for a possible invasion of Lebanon ramped up. Netanyahu confirmed this when he declared that “the intense phase of the war with Hamas in Rafah is about to end.” He cautioned, however, that this  “does not mean that the war is about to end. After the intense phase is finished, we will have the possibility to move part of the forces north. And we will do this.”

Even as the war was supposedly winding down, Hamas still demonstrated it was not finished. On July 1, 2024, Hamas launched a barrage of 20 rockets from Khan Yunis. No damage or injuries were reported as some projectiles were intercepted, and others fell harmlessly. This was the first time in several months that so many rockets were launched from Gaza.

IDF troops arrested Shifa director Mohammad Abu Salmiya in November on suspicion of having allowed Hamas to use the Gaza City hospital as a center of operations. He was released along with 55 other Palestinian detainees because of a lack of prison space. Israel also returns detainees to Gaza after determining that they are not suspected of terror activity. Abu Salmiya’s release set off a political furor, with right-wing members of the coalition attacking the Shin Bet for making the decision.

Throughout the fighting in Gaza, the IDF was also engaged in counterterror operations in the West Bank. Palestinians there engaged in continuous terror attacks before and after October 7 but did not respond to Hamas’s calls for an uprising. Still, since the Hamas massacre, the Shin Bet recorded over 3,580 terror attacks that resulted in the deaths of 23 Israelis. Over 4,000 terror suspects were arrested, and at least 550 were killed.

The Last Stage?

As the IDF moved closer to completing its operation in Rafah, it began to take steps to prevent Hamas from rearming through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. Underground sensors were being placed along the border to detect any underground digging. The IDF said it had eliminated over 900 terrorists in the area by July 8.

The operation in Rafah, which the administration had sought to prevent, was nearly completed without violating the president’s red lines. The administration subsequently released about half of the shipment of 500-pound bombs it had withheld over concerns the IDF would use them in densely populated areas of Gaza. Shipments of 2,000-pound bombs remained frozen.

The IDF ordered a mass evacuation of Palestinians from the eastern half of Khan Yunis to resume fighting against Hamas terrorists who had returned after escaping from Rafah. Troops also returned to UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, where terrorists had returned and where they had earlier found an underground data center. Still, reports indicated the Hamas tunnel network remained mostly intact and that some tunnels the IDF had damaged were repaired.

After evacuating parts of Gaza City, the IDF dropped leaflets calling for the evacuation of the entire city. “Gaza City will be a dangerous combat zone,” the leaflets warned.

Defense Minister Gallant meanwhile told the Knesset that 60% of Hamas terrorists had been killed or wounded in the war. More than 14,000 were killed, and the majority of Hamas’s 24 battalions had been neutralized.

In a significant strike, Israel believed it killed Muhammad Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing, and his deputy Rafa’a Salame on July 13. Hamas claimed 90 others were killed and many more injured. As is the Health Ministry’s practice, no distinction was made between civilians and combatants.

The New York Times described the guerilla tactics Hamas began to employ after the decimation of its organized forces:

  • They hide under residential neighborhoods, storing their weapons in miles of tunnels and in houses, mosques, sofas — even a child’s bedroom — blurring the boundary between civilians and combatants.
  • They emerge from hiding in plainclothes, sometimes wearing sandals or tracksuits, before firing on Israeli troops, attaching mines to their vehicles, or firing rockets from launchers in civilian areas.
  • They rig abandoned homes with explosives and tripwires, sometimes luring Israeli soldiers to enter the booby-trapped buildings by scattering signs of a Hamas presence.

The tunnel system became more clear as the IDF found that different sections served different purposes. As the Jerusalem Post reported, “There are sections of defensive tunnels, command tunnel complexes, intelligence tunnel complexes, weapon manufacturing tunnels, storage facilities, and attack tunnels that approach the border with Israel or cross into Egypt.”

In the first 263 days of the war, the IDF struck some 37,000 targets from the air and more than 25,000 launch sites in Gaza, killing some 14,000 terrorists. Still, roughly half of Hamas’s 30,000 fighters and three battalions remained. The IDF estimated that their supply of anti-tank missiles and rocket-propelled grenades had fallen to 134 from 652, the number of improvised explosives from 662 to 133, and the number of rockets from 15,000 to 1,000-1,500.


Table of Contents for Israel-Hamas War
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