Two months into Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army is continuing its aggression following a week-long truce. Israeli warplanes conducted raids on various parts of the Strip, focusing on the southern and central regions, and the Israeli army released a map dividing the sector into “evacuation zones.”
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the war had entered a new phase, marked by heavy bombardments causing significant casualties and extensive destruction and accompanied by violent ground clashes and unprecedentedly intense air strikes.
The UN warned on Friday about further tragedies in the Strip, home to 2.4 million people across 362 square km of land. The Israeli army began its war against Gaza following attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas on 7 October that left 1,400 Israelis dead.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza reported that since the outbreak of the war, 15,523 Palestinians have died, and 41,316 have been wounded, while 70 per cent of the victims are women and children.
Some 281 health personnel have lost their lives, hundreds have been injured, and 56 ambulance vehicles and 56 health institutions destroyed. Twenty six hospitals and 46 primary care centres have been rendered inoperative, and 72 journalists have been killed.
A seven-day truce brokered through Qatari-Egyptian mediation ended on Friday. During the ceasefire, prisoners were exchanged and humanitarian aid was delivered to the besieged and divided Strip. Israel’s devastating war has resulted in extensive infrastructure destruction, tens of thousands of civilian casualties, primarily children and women, and a profound humanitarian, environmental, and health crisis.
Avichay Adraee, a spokesperson for the Israeli army said it had published a map on its Website outlining “evacuation zones” and dividing the Gaza Strip into designated “blocks” as part of preparations for a new phase of the war.
The map serves to specify areas that will be targeted by Israeli bombardments, allowing Palestinians to evacuate in advance. Residents are urged to identify their areas based on the numbers provided on the map.
Political analyst Nidal Khadra told Al-Ahram Weekly that Israel is attempting to create a new model of warfare by dividing the Strip into blocks to force survivors into safe areas, unlike its approach in the northern Gaza Strip, which has resulted in extensive destruction and horrific massacres.
He said that Israel aims to present its operations in the south as a significant achievement following the release of some kidnapped civilians, women, and children. He explained that this phase is intended to establish a formula that could lead to a comprehensive ceasefire agreement.
Khadra believes that the Israeli project of displacing Palestinians from the Gaza Strip is still ongoing. Israel is taking advantage of the US deadline, which spans several weeks, to escalate its bombing campaigns before transitioning to a new phase involving ground battles and then imposing a ceasefire instead of relying on short-term humanitarian truces.
The fear of displacement, according to Khadra, arises from the Israeli army’s tactics of besieging and starving the majority of Gazans near the border with Egypt and then opening a corridor for them to leave the area. As a result, people would be compelled to leave against their will, he said.
He added that the displacement project had been halted due to Egypt’s explicit declaration it would be considered an act of war. He said that the Israeli plan involves demolishing the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip and reducing the population through killings and displacement.
This strategy aims to assert Israeli dominance by undermining the collective consciousness of the Palestinians, thus preventing Hamas from governing Gaza in the future, he stated.
Israeli analysts have reportedly confirmed that the Israeli government is initiating a new phase in the war that involves a ground operation led by the army and is considered the most challenging stage in the ongoing two-month conflict. Israel’s objectives include crushing Hamas and rescuing the Israeli prisoners held in Gaza, all against the backdrop of a worsening humanitarian, environmental, and health crisis.
Although Israeli forces have managed to gain control over areas in the northern and Western parts of Gaza, they have not been successful in neutralising Hamas’ military capabilities or capturing and eliminating its leaders. As a result, the Israeli leaders have decided to shift their focus towards the south.
The Israeli analysts said that many Hamas fighters have sought refuge in the southern area of the Strip with the advancement of Israeli forces. Some Hamas leaders may be hiding in densely populated towns or underground tunnels, which have experienced fewer air strikes and less intense fighting compared to Gaza City in the north, they added.
Former Israeli officers believe that the capture of Israeli prisoners by Hamas constitutes the group’s most valuable bargaining chip in the light of the Israeli shift towards the south.
The Israeli plans for the south are expected to resemble those implemented in the north, they said. However, the situation is expected to be more complex this time around due to the large civilian population and the overcrowding resulting from the presence of thousands of displaced people in the southern region.
Miri Eisin, a former deputy head of Israel’s Combat Intelligence Corps, said that most Hamas leaders will likely remain near their homes, particularly in the central and southern parts of the Gaza Strip. He was referring to Yehia Al-Sinwar and Hamas military commander Mohamed Deif, whom Israel has accused of coordinating the 7 October attacks.
The Israeli army’s plan for the new phase in the war began with intensified air strikes on Khan Younis and Rafah, both densely populated areas in the south of the Gaza Strip believed to contain numerous Hamas tunnels. Ground forces then advanced from multiple directions with the objective of isolating Hamas strongholds and gradually clearing them of fighters on the ground.
Analysts anticipate that the Israeli forces aim to penetrate Khan Younis, reach the homes of Hamas leaders, destroy them, and search for tunnels beneath them.
Eyal Benko, a retired Israeli military officer and former intelligence official, said that Hamas fighters are proceeding cautiously to confront the Israeli attack. The operation started with air strikes, followed by naval and ground assaults, with infantry and tanks then entering the area later. The goal is to demolish tunnel entrances to prevent Hamas fighters from using them to set up ambushes against the Israeli forces.
According to Benko, as the search for prisoners in the south continues, it may become increasingly difficult to identify tunnels that can be destroyed without endangering them.
Azmi Bishara, director of the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies and a former member of the Israeli Knesset, said that the armed resistance to the Israeli occupation has gained legitimacy among the people due to its capabilities and courage. He noted that the resistance’s success depends on its capabilities, steadfastness, preparedness for the worst, and effective planning.
In a TV interview, Bishara spoke about the brutality exhibited by Tel Aviv when it resumed its war on Gaza after the seven-day truce. This was expected, he said, because the pressure on Hamas needed to be increased according to the Israeli logic.
However, Israel is in a race against time, he added, emphasised by the message conveyed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Israel’s leaders last week that Israel has weeks, and not months, to end the bombing and targeting of civilians in Gaza.
Bishara said that “those who believed that Blinken’s words meant that Israel would be more lenient in this stage turned out to be mistaken. The Americans still share the goals of the war with Tel Aviv, but they are becoming increasingly frustrated with the high rate of killing. However, this has not reached the point of the US issuing warnings to Israel regarding the targeting of civilians or even advising them to avoid killing them.”
“The Israeli response seems to be along the lines of ‘we will try.’ Even the Spokesperson for the US National Security Council John Kirby, appears to resemble a spokesperson for the Israeli government in his public appearances.” Bishara said.
The next stage of the war will primarily consist of ground battles, and the US position will become more evident, he added.
Regarding the possibility of reaching a new ceasefire in Gaza through Qatari mediation, Bishara said that Israel is not interested in a ceasefire. The Israeli army initially wanted to continue the battle, but the pressure to rescue the hostages had compelled the military and political leadership to shift their focus.
At the first opportunity, Israel manufactured justifications to resume the killings, and it began negotiating truces on an hourly basis rather than daily. At that point, Hamas deemed that it had nothing to gain from this type of temporary truce, Bishara said.
He noted that “the significant goal should be reaching a comprehensive ceasefire, rather than temporary truces. Hamas should contribute by presenting ideas for a ceasefire in exchange for matters to be negotiated.”
Pressure exerted by the families of the Israeli hostages on the Israeli military and political leadership is significant, Bishara stressed. These families are currently the only ones allowed to demonstrate in Israel.
They have begun to realise that the Israeli government has been deceptive regarding the issue of the hostages, especially after witnessing the humane treatment they have received in Gaza, contrary to how this was portrayed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly