The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have suffered their deadliest day since the October 7 massacre. Nine soldiers were killed, including the Golani Brigade’s 13th battalion commander, during a coordinated Hamas ambush in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza city. The attack was a rare success for Hamas, but despite the painful blow to the IDF, troops still have high morale and the Israeli public continues to support the war — at least for now.
The scene of the ambush is no surprise: Shujaiyeh is a small, densely-populated neighborhood. Before war between Israel and Hamas broke out, it was home to roughly 100,000 people. Many inhabitants have fled, but the area remains strategically important to both sides, not least because of its proximity to the border with Israel. The town is only half a mile away from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, where Jews were slaughtered and kidnapped during Hamas’s attack on October 7. Israel believes that Shujaiyeh is a Hamas stronghold where the terror attack was planned and coordinated from.
Despite the widespread destruction and the constant shelling by the IDF in the area, Hamas has maintained its ability to attack troops. Most assaults are carried out by small groups of terrorists who emerge from tunnels. The IDF has already managed to kill many Hamas commanders and destroy lines of communications, meaning that most attacks are uncoordinated. But, as Tuesday’s attack showed, the risk to Israeli troops remains high.
Israel believes that as many as 20,000 Hamas terrorists are continuing to operate in Gaza. Many are lurking in tunnels, hoping to buy time until Israel comes under enough pressure to change its tactics. That pressure is certainly building: the Israeli government is facing calls from the Biden administration and its European allies to reduce the number of Palestinian civilian casualties. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far resisted demands to conduct the war in ways that minimize Palestinian casualties because restricting the army will reduce its ability to fight Hamas.
But if American pressure grows, and if the Israeli public show signs of war-weariness as casualties mount, the IDF might be instructed to reduce the number of troops in Gaza and perform more limited targeted operations against Hamas, rather than combing the streets, buildings and tunnels, which places ground troops’ lives at risk. Limited operations may also be preferable to Israel’s allies because they would reduce civilian casualties and help humanitarian efforts.
Netanyahu’s priority is to keep the military operation going
The government also faces considerable public pressure to reach a temporary ceasefire deal with Hamas in return for the release of hostages. Although Israelis want to see Hamas lose its hold over Gaza, hostages are a priority as they live on borrowed time. Those who were freed in the previous ceasefire deal have told of the torture they have experienced, as well as starvation, no access to medical treatment and an inability to maintain basic levels of hygiene that have caused diseases while in captivity. Israel also claims to have evidence of sexual abuse of hostages. Hamas has also been executing hostages, making their release even more urgent.
Despite this, Netanyahu seems to be in no rush to reach another deal with Hamas. His priority is to keep the military operation going. Netanyahu believes that military pressure is the primary way to force Hamas into a deal.
Although the Israeli public stands firmly in its support for the IDF, the same cannot be said about Netanyahu. Public anger against Israel’s leader is building. Many now believe that Netanyahu should concentrate on setting clear, realistic goals for the war and its aftermath and even set a timetable for his departure. For now, Netanyahu refuses to do so. But if the death toll of Israeli soldiers — which has already reached over 100 — continues to rise, he might soon have little choice but to change tactics in his war on Hamas.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.