Israel says it has destroyed Hamas as a fighting force in north Gaza


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The Israeli military says it has successfully destroyed Hamas as an organised fighting force in northern Gaza and has shifted its focus to the centre and south of the battered territory in a fresh stage of its war against the Palestinian militant group.

Three months after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said that 12 Hamas battalions based in north Gaza were no longer functioning as coherent fighting units.

About 8,000 militants had been killed, including key field commanders, and 30,000 weapons seized, Hagari said. Israeli intelligence estimates that Hamas has two dozen battalions in total and about 25,000 to 30,000 fighters.

“We have completed the dismantling of Hamas’s military framework in the northern Gaza Strip and will continue to deepen the achievement,” Hagari said in a briefing on Saturday evening.

“Now, we are focusing on dismantling Hamas in the central and southern Gaza Strip. We will do this differently, thoroughly, based on the lessons we have learned from the fighting so far.”

Hagari last week announced that the IDF had begun withdrawing five reservist battalions from Gaza, in a bid to ease the country’s economic burden and allow troops to “gather strength for the upcoming activities in the next year”.

More reservist units are set to be released from active duty in the coming weeks, said several people familiar with the matter.

While heavy air strikes and ground combat were still reported over the weekend in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis and refugee camps in the territory’s centre, military analysts were clear that Israel had already moved into the war’s “low intensity” phase, at least in Gaza’s north.

This phase of the war, according to Israeli war planners and US officials, will involve more targeted operations by smaller IDF forces in an effort to minimise Palestinian civilian casualties.

More than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza so far, according to health officials in the Hamas-ruled territory.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is set to visit Israel this week, as part of his fourth trip to the Middle East since October 7.

Speaking to reporters in Doha, Qatar, late on Sunday, he said he would “continue to raise with Israel the need to do everything possible to facilitate . . . humanitarian aid into Gaza”.

“I will also raise the imperative of doing more to prevent civilian casualties,” Blinken added. “Far too many Palestinians, innocent Palestinians, have already been killed.”

The IDF has also begun creating a “buffer zone” inside Gaza, in some cases likely to stretch 1km into the territory, as part of new defences along the border.

Map and chart showing percentage of buildings damaged across the 5 districts of Gaza. Almost 80% of buildings in the two northern districts are likely to have been damaged since October 5

At least 1,200 Israelis were killed, and 240 taken hostage, during Hamas’s October 7 cross-border attack on the Jewish state. That sparked the devastating retaliatory air and ground offensive in Gaza, in which vast areas of the enclave have been reduced to rubble and international aid groups have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The fighting in Gaza comes as tensions escalate on Israel’s northern border with the Iran-backed Hizbollah movement based in Lebanon. Hizbollah has been trading almost daily cross-border fire with Israel since the war between Israel and Hamas began. Senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed last week in a suspected Israeli missile strike in Beirut.

Hizbollah launched about 60 rockets at Israel on Saturday morning in a move that the powerful militant group called “part of an initial response” to the Arouri killing.

Blinken, visiting Jordan and Qatar on Sunday as part of his latest trip to the region aimed at reducing tensions and preventing the Gaza war from widening across the Middle East, said: “This is a moment of profound tension in the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasise, causing even more insecurity and even more suffering.”

Israeli leaders have been counselling patience to their own public and the international community as they pursue their stated goal of dismantling Hamas as a military and governing force in Gaza, and safely returning more than 130 remaining hostages held by the militant group. 

They have also said they will pursue the removal of Hizbollah forces from the Jewish state’s northern border, to facilitate the return of 80,000 Israeli residents displaced from their homes by the fighting.

“This will take time. The fighting will continue throughout 2024, as we work according to a plan to achieve the war’s objectives,” Hagari said on Saturday.

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