“We are adapting combat methods in every area of Gaza. 2024 begins tonight. The objectives of the war require a long fight.” For the Israeli army, 2023 ended with an announcement entrusted to the now-familiar figure of spokesman Daniel Hagari: thousands of soldiers are returning home.
Five brigades – the 460th and 14th Armored, 261st, 828th Infantry and 551st Paratroopers – are leaving the Strip ahead of the coming months, which will see the military offensive continue. It “will last for months,” the government insists: six months, to be precise, which is the expected duration of the so-called third phase of Operation Iron Sword, following the first (carpet bombing, still ongoing) and second (the ground invasion which began on October 27).
There is no hope that the withdrawal might be a symptom of a slowdown, as Hagari stressed: “They will return to train and rejoin the army […] Some reservists will go back to their families and their jobs.” For the most part, those who will go home will be reservists, part of the 300,000 mobilized after the October 7 Hamas attack. This decision came with half of the Strip already occupied, street-to-street fighting with Hamas militiamen and air raids concentrating on central and southern Gaza.
The campaign has not gone smoothly: Al Jazeera’s Sanad Agency analyzed satellite images captured between December 24 and 30 in Khan Yunis – the current frontline in the south – which showed the failure of Israeli units to advance, stopped at the same positions for a week or forced to retreat. Hence the escalation in shelling and the destruction of almost all civilian buildings in the East Park area and the Abu Hamid Mosque.
“Netanyahu has spoken about Israel’s intention to take control of the Philadelphia corridor, the border between Gaza and Egypt,” explained Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking the Silence, the peace movement of former soldiers, and now working at the Ofek Center. “If that’s really the case, no end can be envisioned yet. What is being discussed is the transition from a phase of total assault to a less aggressive phase.” Such a phase would not involve an abandonment of the reoccupied areas, but a redeployment of the army along Gaza’s eastern borders and to the south, with more limited air raids and the deployment of ground brigades (2,000 to 3,000 soldiers each) for specific operations and in particular areas.
“The army needs to reduce the number of soldiers, to give them opportunity to rest and because of the massive impact on the economy,” Shaul continued. “It’s the difference between running a marathon and a 100-meter dash. I don’t think there is a contradiction between the two announcements. Quite the opposite: for Israel, the withdrawal is necessary in order to implement the strategy in the long term.”
The final goal – an outcome that could make the Netanyahu government claim it has archived victory – remains unclear. Views differ across Israeli society, but also within the government majority itself: destroy Hamas, reoccupy half of Gaza, reoccupy all of it.
The far right is dictating its own agenda, both with words and actions (e.g. blowing up last week’s war cabinet, which, according to Tel Aviv, was supposed to debate the future of the Strip). Among the most active bomb throwers is Bezalel Smotrich, Finance Minister and leader of the ultra-right Otzma Yehudit party: “Israel will assume permanent control of Gaza to ensure security” through “the permanent presence of armed forces” and “the establishment of Jewish colonies, the backbone of security, as they are today in Judea and Samaria (the biblical term for the West Bank, n.ed.),” he said on Monday.
“Prominent elements of this government want colonies, from the day after the end of the offensive,” Shaul says. “And maybe a mass transfer of the Palestinian population to Sinai. That’s why people are beginning to wonder what the end goal is. I agree with their criticisms: the idea that you can destroy Hamas with bombs won’t work. Hamas will only be defeated politically, if there is an alternative to its kind of achievements. I fear that Israel’s handling of the war, the staggering civilian death toll and the enormous and disproportionate use of force will produce nothing but hatred in the hearts and minds of Gazawis for a generation to come.”
It is the same “fuel” that keeps the anger of the Israeli public going, at least for an important part of it. The army itself is saying so, pointing to the steady popular support and a lack of acts of civil disobedience. Even the high death toll among soldiers doesn’t seem to be lowering support for the war: the figures provided on Monday spoke of 172 killed, including 30 who lost their lives due to friendly fire or accidents.
According to Shaul, this death toll has been lower than expected, and it is “overruled” by October 7 in any case: “With 1,200 people killed in one day, the death toll among soldiers is not something Israeli society can’t tolerate any longer. Many analysts thought that a high number of casualties as an effect of the ground offensive would reduce support for the war. I see no indication of that. It is true, however, that some are raising their voices. On two issues, basically: the hostages, because it’s clear to more and more people that the government isn’t prioritizing their return; and the absence of discussion in the government about a political solution.”
Discontent is growing on the left of the political spectrum, but Israeli society still appears united. Also telling is the number of refuseniks since October 7: in three months, there has been only one conscientious objector, Tal Mitnick, who would have needed to enlist for the first time.
“There are two kinds of objections: to the draft and to the reserves,” Shaul concludes. “Mitnick refused the draft. Maybe others will follow his lead. But what matters is the objections of reservists, which have declined dramatically when compared to the years of the Second Intifada. Why are they declining? Because of the impact of October 7: I have many friends involved in the refusenik movement since 2002 who have gone back to serve after 20 years. But also because the army is no longer pursuing them: it’s not calling up those who have refused to serve in the past.”
This is one way to effectively combat the phenomenon of conscientious objection: the movement has all the more impact when objectors end up in prison. By ignoring them, Israel has found a way to render them invisible, in the midst of an offensive that is more brutal than ever.