Israel-Gaza Situation Report: U.S. Military Leaders Push For Scaled-Back Campaign

While America’s top military leaders urged Jerusalem to shift away from the most intensive combat operations, Israeli officials remain reluctant.

byHoward Altman, Thomas Newdick|
U.S. officials are urging Israel to scale down its war against Hamas.
(Photo by Ariel Hermoni (GPO) / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
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During meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in Israel, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appealed for a shift to less intense combat operations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Austin and Brown pressed Israel to shift to more targeted raids in Gaza to limit civilian casualties, allow more humanitarian aid to reach the enclave’s population and regain more international support for the effort, the publication said.

Those meetings are part of a larger diplomatic effort by Washington and some Middle Eastern governments for Israel to begin to wrap up the most intense phase of its military operation in Gaza, the Journal noted. 

As we previously reported, U.S. officials have privately told the Israelis they want to see the scale of the fighting reduced in a matter of weeks, not months, over growing concerns about the humanitarian toll.

Palestinians are gathering amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following an Israeli bombardment in Deir El-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, on December 19, 2023, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Israel, however, has resisted calls to end the intense phase of fighting, with indications the fighting could go on at this level for months longer.

“The tone was one of resolve. I think this is still a society still very much in mourning given the horrific nature of Oct. 7,” is how one U.S. official described the meeting to the Journal, referring to Hamas’s attack on Israel that triggered the war. The Israeli side made clear that it wants “to see this mission through,” the official said.

Analysts say they have doubts that Israel will be able to achieve victory within a U.S.-set timeline, especially if Israel is pushed to reduce the intensity of its ground offensive by the end of January.

“If we end the war right now, it will be a terrible Israeli defeat,” former Israeli army general Giora Eiland, who previously chaired Israel’s national security council, told the Journal. Eiland added that he didn’t think pulling out ground forces and shifting to airstrikes and commando raids would succeed in uprooting Hamas.

In an opinion piece for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, former diplomat Alon Pinkas argues that U.S. President Joe Biden understands Netanyahu is trying to lure America into a wider war for his own political gain.

“Netanyahu is blatantly trying to gaslight both the U.S. administration and the Israeli public by advocating repeatedly that this is a much bigger war than Gaza," Pinkas wrote. "This is a civilizational conflict, one that Biden is trying to avoid, he claims.”

The Gaza Strip and Red Sea shipping “are now the two central arenas around which the U.S.-Israel dialogue revolves, as well as American concerns about preventing an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah. In those two arenas, the United States is preempting Netanyahu's politically driven efforts to confront Biden by taking steps and exerting soft pressure.”

The Biden administration, Pinkas stressed, wants to avoid a confrontation with Netanyahu, and, as a result, has yet to demand a ceasefire.

Given that, the U.S. president “is unlikely to issue an ultimatum, make demands or initiate visible public pressure on Israel,” wrote Pinkas. “There are more nuanced ways to effect behavioral change and impel Israel to shift its management of the war from high intensity to low intensity conflict, and the Americans began employing those means this week.”

Additionally, Netanyahu does not share Biden’s vision for a two-state solution with involvement by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a post-war Gaza. His failure to advance viable alternatives, and Jerusalem’s assertion that Israel will maintain overall security control of the Strip are dissuading regional and global actors from cooperating with U.S. efforts to rehabilitate the enclave after the war. That according to the Times of Israel reported, citing three senior Western diplomats — two of whom are ambassadors.

Meanwhile, Biden - who faces a tough reelection fight from likely Republican nominee and former President Donald Trump - continues to see his poll numbers slide over his ongoing strong support for Israel. Given the Netanyahu government's seeming intransigence, it remains to be seen if or when Washington comes down harder to make its private vision for the future of this conflict a reality.

US President Joe Biden (L), sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo by Miriam Alster / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MIRIAM ALSTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

After Austin and Jones made their push for Israel to reduce the scope of their attacks, Israel’s military said it is adding forces to destroy tunnels and undertake targeted raids aimed at Hamas’s leadership in southern Gaza, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The new moves are a response to the demands of southern Gaza’s densely populated battle zone, Israeli officials said. In the north, Israel’s military has relied more on airstrikes and holding territory and on Tuesday said it had established full operational control of Jabalia, a former Hamas stronghold in Gaza City, after more than two months of fighting.

The Israeli military said Tuesday that it had carried out what it called targeted raids in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, where it believes Hamas leaders are hiding and many hostages are still being held. The IDF said it found a weapons storage facility containing explosives, weapons and military vests. Israel believes senior Hamas leaders are hiding in the group’s network of tunnels under the city. 

Israeli officials said the use of targeted raids in Khan Younis isn’t a response to U.S. pressure. Israel’s military leadership has stated repeatedly they are conducting the war on their own terms, the Journal reported. The fight in southern Gaza may still require airstrikes and heavy combat, they added.

While Israel said it has taken control the Jabalia neighborhood, there was a lot of combat still taking place in Gaza City, especially in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood.

Hamas has claimed several attacks on Israeli troops and equipment in that part of a city Israel had claimed last month it had largely captured.

Hamas released new video it says shows its fighters battling the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza City.

Another Hamas video shows intense street fighting above ground in northern Gaza and their operations in tunnels underground as well.

Palestinians say a number of people were killed and injured after an Israeli bombardment of the Assalam Association charitable organization in Gaza City.

The IDF says its troops from the Shaldag Unit have found 1,500 tunnel shafts in Gaza City since the beginning of the war.

Troops from the IDF's 162 Division operating in the Al-Atatra and Jabalya areas of northern Gaza found "weapons production sites and a storage facility containing a large stockpile of armaments," the IDF said. "The soldiers located missiles, rockets, and explosives inside a building. During the operation, the soldiers conducted targeted raids on the residences of terror operatives where they located weapons, maps of significant tunnel routes and intelligence findings. While scanning a building, a rocket lathe was discovered with hundreds of missiles and a truck intended for their transportation to launchers."

The IDF said it also found an explosive device planted inside a medical clinic near a school in the Shejaiya neighborhood.

This video below shows the bombed out remains of the neighborhood, with several Israeli Merkava tanks parked outside destroyed buildings as Israeli troops maneuver to the sounds of gunfire.

The IDF demolished a Hamas memorial in the Zeitoun-Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City dedicated to the kidnapping of Israeli troops, pulling it down with an armored bulldozer.

Ahmad Kahalot, director of the Kamal Adwan Hospital in Jabalya, who was apprehended Dec. 12, said during interrogation that Hamas has turned hospitals into military facilities under their control, the IDF claims. Kahalot told his interrogators that Hamas was hiding its operatives there, carrying out military activity, moving around Hamas members, and even bringing a captured soldier to the hospital.

"I was recruited to Hamas in 2010 with the rank of Brigadier General," Kahalot said. "There are employees in the hospital who are military operatives of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades - doctors, nurses, paramedics, clerks, and staff members."

"They hide in hospitals because for them a hospital is a safe place," he said during the interrogation. "They won't be targeted when they are inside a hospital."

The IDF said it killed Subhi Ferwana, a top Hamas financier, in a targeted airstrike. Ferwana and his brother "funneled tens of millions through his company 'Hamsat' to fund Hamas' military forces, terrorists' salaries and war activities," the IDF claimed.

A journalist said he was shot by an Israeli sniper while in Jabalya. Mohammed Balousha, working for the Emirati-owned Al Mashhad channel, told the Washington Post that he was filming a report near his home at the weekend when he was shot in the thigh. He said he was wearing a helmet and press badge at the time.

Balousha said he was unconscious for around 20 minutes after he was shot, and that it took him six hours to reach the second floor of his house, where he kept a first aid kit. According to the report:

“He needed surgery, which could only be done at al-Ahli Hospital, the last functioning operating facility in northern Gaza. The ambulance headed out but had to turn back because Israeli tanks blocked the way to the hospital, Balousha said. With no other option for surgery in Jabalya, he returned home.”

Balousha accused the IDF of directly targeting him as a journalist:

“I was wearing everything to prove that I was a journalist, but they deliberately targeted me, and now I am struggling to get the treatment necessary to preserve my life.”

Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that as of December 17 at least 64 journalists and media workers were among the more than 19,000 people killed since the Israel-Gaza war that began on October 7. About 18,000 died in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, CPJ said, citing Gaza Ministry of Health statistics and about 1,200 in Israel. This deadly toll on journalists’ lives is coupled with harassment, detentions, and other reporting obstructions as they go about their work across the region.

The IDF said its initial review of an incident in which two women who were shot dead by troops near the Latin Church in Shejaya on Dec. 17 concluded that "Hamas terrorists launched a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) at IDF troops from the vicinity of the church. The troops then identified three people in the vicinity, operating as spotters for Hamas by guiding their attacks in the direction of the IDF troops. In response, our troops fired towards the spotters and hits were identified."

While this incident occurred in the area where the two women were reportedly killed, "the reports received do not match the conclusion of our initial review which found that the IDF troops were targeting spotters in enemy lookouts. We are continuing our examination of the incident."

The IDF said it "takes claims of strikes on sensitive sites very seriously, especially churches that are the holy sites for the Christian faith. The IDF directs its operations against the Hamas terrorist organization and not against civilians, regardless of their religious affiliation. The IDF takes many measures to mitigate harm to civilians in the Gaza Strip. These efforts stand in contrast to Hamas that does everything in its power to endanger civilians and exploits them, as well as religious sites, as human shields for their terrorist activities."

The victims were reported as Nahida Khalil Anton and her daughter Samar, who were killed in the compound of the Holy Family Parish in Gaza.

At a regular briefing, White House spokesperson John Kirby said:

“We’ve been very clear that we believe every effort possible must be made to prevent civilian casualties.”

Hamas continues to launch rockets across Israel, including another barrage against Tel Aviv.

Among the hostages still being held are three elderly Israeli men who appeared in a recent video released by the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, and which the Israel Defense Force (IDF) described as an “atrocious terror.”

According to The Times of Israel, IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari said of the video: “It shows the cruelty of Hamas against elderly civilians, innocents, who require medical attention. The world must work to allow medical aid and to verify their conditions.”

Hagari also provided the following message to the three men in the video:

“You should know that we are doing everything to return you home safely. We will not rest until you return.”

Those men have been named by the media as Chaim Peri (aged 79), Yoram Metzger (80), and Amiram Cooper (84). All men’s wives have also been released.

Israeli operations in the West Bank city of Jenin are causing internal Israeli frictions.

IDF Chief-of-Staff Herzi Halevi and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir traded barbs in a closed cabinet meeting on Monday night following the IDF’s announcement that it was suspending soldiers for reciting the Shema Yisrael prayer in a mosque there, The Times of Israel reported.

Halevi explained to him the decision was based on the values of the IDF and its commanders, at which point the minister replied: “I am a cabinet member, I am the political rank, we decide [what is moral].”

The Israeli military chief responded: “You are wrong; I will decide what is a moral act and what is not in the army. Do not threaten me.”

There has been a significant development on the humanitarian aid front, with the Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza opening on Sunday for aid trucks for the first time since the outbreak of war, according to officials. It is hoped that this will double the amount of food and medicine reaching Gaza, with Kerem Shalom operating alongside the Rafah crossing.

On Sunday, more than 200 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were inspected and transferred to the Gaza Strip, according to the Israeli government. More than 190 trucks were inspected and passed into Gaza today (Monday), the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced.

The IDF says it has uncovered the largest Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip so far, only a few hundred metres from a major border crossing. According to an AFP photographer who was granted access to it, the tunnel was big enough for small vehicles to drive into. It was just one part of a more elaborate tunnel network, stretching for more than 2.5 miles and coming within around 400 yeards of the Erez border crossing, according to the IDF.

The IDF released additional video showing the machine that was used to construct the tunnels as well as more evidence of their extent, with heavy doors leading to large, multi-level chambers.

The Lebanese border remained tense as Israel and Hezbollah traded attacks.

The Iranian-backed group claims it caused "substantial damage" to an Israeli Iron Dome air defense system, according to The Telegraph.

"The Lebanon-based group said it had hit two missile launchers in Kabri, northern Israel, on Monday afternoon," the newspaper reported. "The claim came amid reports that an Israeli missile strike hit a building opposite a Hezbollah fighter’s funeral procession in southern Lebanon, without causing casualties."

Israel has not yet commented on the alleged strike. It has previously warned it would “destroy” Lebanon if Hezbollah, which backs Hamas, entered the war.

A number of projectiles were launched into northern Israel Tuesday, including the town of Kiryat Shmona.

In response, the IDF carried out a number of attacks on Hezbollah positions.

The IDF continues to warn that the constant attacks by Hezbollah could open the door for a wider conflict. You can read more about the massive arsenal the Lebanese group can rain down on Israel in our deep dive here.

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

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com

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