Israel-Gaza Situation Report: Ground Campaign Has “Many More Months To Go”

A top White House leader on Friday tried to downplay U.S. differences with Israel over the future course of its war against Hamas.

While both parties see an eventual transition from wide-scale bombardment and intense ground fighting to a more targeted campaign against Hamas leadership, the U.S. and Israel remain at loggerheads over when that might happen. As civilian casualties mount, the Biden administration wants that to happen within weeks, while Israeli officials say its large-scale ground operation has many more months to go.

Speaking to reporters Friday at the end of his two-day trip to Israel, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tried to tamp down growing tensions.

“There’s no contradiction between saying the fight is going to take months and also saying that different phases will take place at different times over those months, including the transition from the high-intensity operations to more targeted operations,” he said.

Sullivan added that the timing and the conditions under which the transition happens were the subject of conversations he had on Thursday and Friday with Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war cabinet.

Sullivan declined to answer when asked whether the United States could hold back military aid if Israel does not reduce civilian casualties, saying the best way to reach an agreement was in private discussions. Nearly 19,000 Palestinians have been killed so far according to Gaza health officials. Those figures do not include Hamas fighters.

Sullivan’s comments came a day after the head of the Israeli Intelligence Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, said “this is a multi-arena campaign and there are many months ahead.” The same day, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant thanked Sullivan for on-going U.S. support, but that the offensive would last “several more months.”

Sullivan also pressed Palestinian leaders to help provide security for the postwar Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials said, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

The U.S. wants a Palestinian-led force to take over in Gaza with contributions from Arab neighbors after Israel withdraws, according to the publication. The U.S. and Arab allies fear that chaos will reign and Hamas could reassert itself without a strong security force in place for a population of two million people who have been desperate for food, water and shelter for two months. 

Sullivan asked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to provide security personnel who could form the nucleus of a force to patrol Gaza, U.S. and Palestinian officials said, according to the Journal. U.S. and Palestinian officials have discussed a plan to retrain 1,000 former Palestinian Authority security forces officers in Gaza and another 3,000 to 5,000 in the West Bank who would work in Gaza after the war, Palestinian officials said.

The IDF acknowledged Friday that it accidentally killed three hostages during combat in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City.

The IDF said it “mistakenly identified three Israeli hostages as a threat. As a result, the troops fired toward them and they were killed.”

During searches and checks in the area in which the incident occurred, “a suspicion arose over the identities of the deceased. Their bodies were transferred to Israeli territory for examination, after which it was confirmed that they were three Israeli hostages,” according to the IDF.

The bodies of the three, who were taken hostage Oct. 7 during the surprise Hamas invasion, were transported to the “Hatzvi” Center at the Shura Camp for further examination, where they were identified: Yotam Haim and Alon Shamriz were kidnapped from Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Samer Talalka was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Am.

The IDF said it began “reviewing the incident immediately,” emphasizing “that this is an active combat zone in which ongoing fighting over the last few days has occurred. Immediate lessons from the event have been learned, which have been passed on to all IDF troops in the field. The IDF expresses deep remorse over the tragic incident and sends the families its heartfelt condolences. Our national mission is to locate the missing and return all the hostages home.”

The IDF also announced Friday it recovered the bodies of two soldiers held hostage by Hamas, Cpl. Nik Beizer and Sgt. Ron Sherman. 

The families were informed after an identification process carried out by medical officials and military rabbis. 

Israel is continuing its ground offensive in Khan Yunis. The IDF released video of fighting taking place in the ruins of one of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s houses.

Israeli forces launched flares over Khan Yunis to simulate a menorah to commemorate the final night of Hanukkah.

Hamas released another compilation video of attacks on five Israeli tanks and an armored vehicle that were operating in Khan Yunis. Though the vehicles were struck, it is unclear how much damage was caused. In several cases, it appears some of the resulting explosions might have been activation of the Merkava tank‘s Trophy Active Protection System, which you can read more about in our story here.

Al Jazeera said photo journalist Samer Abudaqa was killed and his colleague Wael Dahdouh wounded in an Israeli attack in Khan Younis. They were reporting at Farhana school in Khan Younis when the attack hit them on Friday, the publication said. Rescue teams were unable to immediately reach Abudaqa and others at the site due to Israeli bombardment.

“Rescuers just managed to retrieve the cameraman Samer Abudaqa’s body,” a spokesperson for the media network said.

Dahdouh was hit by shrapnel on his upper arm, and managed to reach Nasser hospital where he was treated for minor injuries.

Witnesses said earlier there was heavy shelling in the area around the school.

As the Israel-Gaza war continues, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said its research showed that as of December 15 at least 64 journalists and media workers were among the thousands of people killed since the conflict began on October 7.

“This deadly toll on journalists’ lives is coupled with harassment, detentions, and other reporting obstructions as they go about their work across the region,” CPJ said.

Fighting continued as well in northern Gaza.

The IDF took over and destroyed the headquarters of the Hamas’ Shejaia Battalion in Gaza City, while also advancing further into the heart of Khan Yunis, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said on Friday morning.

The forces of the 188th Brigade, in coordination with armored, engineering, and infantry forces and the Air Force, carried out the operation to takeover the Shejaia Battalion’s headquarters. On Tuesday, 10 IDF soldiers, including several senior officers, were killed and six wounded in an ambush in Shejaia.

During the operation, the IDF eliminated Hamas fighters and destroyed a tunnel shaft where a terrorist was hiding and trying to throw explosives at Israeli forces. The headquarters itself was destroyed by airstrikes, tank fire, and the IDF’s engineering forces.

The IDF and Shin Bet released a video showing several Hamas operatives killed by Israeli troops inside one of the group’s tunnels in northern Gaza.

According to a joint statement, the “significant” tunnel was discovered in recent days by the Gaza Division’s Northern Brigade alongside the Shin Bet. The Hamas operatives were identified and killed by the Combat Engineering Corps’ elite Yahalom unit, using “diverse means,” the IDF says, without elaborating further.

Israel’s reported attempt to pump seawater into the vast network of tunnels beneath Gaza beginning earlier this week was “a success,” The Times of Israel reported Thursday. The publication added that the army warned of “new combat methods” to deal with terrorists hiding underground.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the IDF had started pumping seawater into Hamas’s underground tunnel system, a move aimed at destroying the Palestinian terror group’s subterranean network of passages and hideaways and at driving its operatives above ground.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said last week that flooding the tunnels was “a good idea” but wouldn’t comment further.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan on Thursday claimed that the tunnels were engineered to withstand flooding as well as other “potential dangers.”

Though some hostages are being held in the tunnels, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Thursday that the army operates based on intelligence it has regarding where it believes the hostages are located and that it will not take steps that harm them.

After a major raid of the West Bank city of Jenin, the IDF said it arrested dozens of people.

According to the IDF, troops scanned hundreds of buildings, arrested 60 wanted Palestinians, and seized 50 weapons and hundreds of explosive devices during the 60-hour incursion that began late Monday, according to the Times of Israel.

The IDF said the troops also found more than 10 tunnel shafts, seven labs used to manufacture explosive devices, and five war rooms used by local terror operatives to monitor IDF operations. Some of the sites were blown up by the troops.

During that raid, IDF troops entered a mosque and sang Jewish prayers over its public address system.

Hamas unleashed a rocket attack on Jerusalem for the first time since October.

At least six rockets were launched towards Jerusalem according to the Israeli military, with three intercepted, Israel’s N12 news reported. The military said the other rockets landed away from populated zones.  

The barrage could be seen from the Al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam and a frequent flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian strife.

One of the rockets fired from Gaza fell near the ​​Al-Astashari hospital in Ramallah, Israel’s N12 news reported.

Hamas also fired rockets near Beit Shemesh, about 12 miles west of Jerusalem, but they fell harmlessly, N12 news reported.

The IDF claimed Hamas attempted to ambush its troops by connecting speakers to explosive-laden dolls and backpacks.

Those items “were intentionally placed near a tunnel shaft connecting to a large tunnel network that extends under nearby civilian areas including a school and a medical clinic,” according to the IDF. “It also connects to a mosque containing a Hamas command center equipped with cameras that were monitoring IDF troops. The command center is connected to the medical clinic’s power supply. Our forces conducted thorough searches of the area and exposed the ambush as well as Hamas intelligence and anti-tank positions in the area.”

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said after returning from Gaza “we are almost 70 days into this war, and every time I go back, I think it cannot get worse. But every time I witness more misery, more grief and sadness and I have the feeling that Gaza is not really a habitable place anymore.”

“On this visit I stayed in Rafah in the extreme south of the Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt,” he said. “Now, Rafah is the epicenter of the displacement of Gazans. This is where over 1 million people have fled to the Governate, and most of them have been moved more than once since the beginning of the war. Rafah has quadrupled its number of people overnight.”

CNN reporter Clarissa Ward, who was trying since the start of the war to get into Gaza, finally made it in. She took a look at the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. She offers a tour of the incredible damage after more than 22,000 strikes, “by far surpassing anything we’ve seen in modern warfare in terms of intensity and ferocity.”

Fighting continued along the Lebanese border Friday.

Israeli Air Force aircraft struck a series of Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in response to what the IDF said were cross border attacks. Among the targets struck were terrorist infrastructure, a command and control center, and military sites in which Hezbollah terrorists were operating. In addition, the IDF said it struck a launch post from which launches toward Israel were identified earlier today using the 120mm laser and GPS-guided ‘Iron Sting‘ mortar munition made by Israel’s Elbit Systems.

Amid concerns throughout this war that it might expand into a fight against Hezbollah, IDF troops are undergoing training for “potential scenarios along the northern border,” the IDF said.

Dubbed “Valuable Time,” the exercise are designed to train IDF reservists while they also carry out operational activities. It includes daytime and nighttime combat, urban and rural warfare, operational artillery training and operations of various other types of weapons. The exercises are being conducted on a number of levels, from the platoon level to the battalion combat teams, in order to best simulate integrated joint combat.

The IDF Northern Command said it established a training arena that includes shooting instructors, a mobile fire operation unit, and training across a range of weapons, as well as technological tools for planning combat to enhance force readiness.

Israel has opened the Kerem Shalom border for direct delivery of humanitarian aid, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced Friday. The crossing is located in southern Gaza near the Egyptian border. Earlier this week, the IDF said it would only allow inspections of humanitarian aid at Kerem Shalom, which would then have to go to the Rafah border checkpoint between Egypt and Gaza for entry into the Strip.

“We welcome this significant step,” he said in a statement. “President Biden raised this issue in recent phone calls with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and it was an important topic of discussion during my visit to Israel over the past two days. The United States remains committed to expanding and sustaining the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza. We will continue to work closely with Egypt and other partners on the delivery and distribution of humanitarian assistance through Rafah crossing, and we hope that this new opening will ease congestion and help facilitate the delivery of life-saving assistance to those who need it urgently in Gaza.”

Israel has opened the Kerem Shalom border crossing for direct humanitarian aid deliveries. (Google Earth image)

The news about Kerem Shalom comes as a convoy of 106 trucks carrying humanitarian aid crossed into Gaza through the Rafah crossing on Friday, an Egyptian official told CNN. This included five trucks carrying fuel. A total of 445 individuals left the Gaza Strip, comprising 441 foreigners and four injured Palestinians, the Egyptian official added. 

While the current number of trucks aligns with the daily average that has been allowed over the past week, the United Nations had reported that an average of 455 trucks were delivering aid supplies each day. 

This is a developing story. We will update it when there is more news to report about the Israel-Hamas war.

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Howard Altman

Senior Staff Writer

Howard is a Senior Staff Writer for The War Zone, and a former Senior Managing Editor for Military Times. Prior to this, he covered military affairs for the Tampa Bay Times as a Senior Writer. Howard’s work has appeared in various publications including Yahoo News, RealClearDefense, and Air Force Times.