TEL AVIV — The Israeli military is thrusting deeper into the Gaza Strip in a ground assault that has encircled the Palestinian enclave’s biggest city and cut off the main roads connecting its north and south, Israeli officials and Western military analysts said.
The campaign has been shrouded in mystery, with growing numbers of Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers reported dead, but without a clear, publicly stated plan from Israel about how this campaign might end — or, in fact, a statement that it had even begun. Experts have been forced to read between the lines of nonspecific military briefings, satellite imagery and shaky footage from the battlefield.
On the other hand, the mounting Palestinian civilian death toll is more than apparent. Israel blames Hamas for using people as human shields, but international organizations and even the United States are becoming increasingly alarmed at the civilian cost of Israel’s intensifying operation in the densely populated enclave.
The stated goals of Israel are clear: defeat Hamas and rescue the 240 or so hostages confirmed being held inside Gaza.
“We are advancing,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday. “Nothing will stop us.”
How Israel achieves these goals is less certain, given the amorphous nature of Hamas as an organization; the huge risk involved in attempting to retrieve the hostages; and growing international pressure, including from the United States and Arab leaders, to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties and supply humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave.
Israel has resisted calls for a pause in the fighting, and appears to be pushing forward through the streets of Gaza. Based on Israeli military and Hamas statements, satellite images and footage posted on social media that has been analyzed by NBC News, it seems clear Israel has now encircled Gaza City, which it says is the main base of Hamas, the militant group that carried out the attacks on Oct. 7.
IDF soldiers were fighting “face-to-face” battles with Hamas militants around the densely populated city, Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari said at a news briefing on Wednesday, while destroying its infrastructure and seeking to control its network of tunnels. Meanwhile, Israel’s relentless bombardment, now three weeks old, was continuing, with Israeli troops calling in airstrikes, Hagari said.
The assault also appears to have split the enclave in two, attacking from Gaza’s eastern flank and reaching as far as the coastline, said Michael A. Horowitz, a Jerusalem-based analyst who is the head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a risk-management consultancy focused on the Middle East. This is an apparent attempt to hive off northern Gaza from the south, where Israel has told Palestinians to evacuate to but it is still bombing.
Hamas says it’s fighting back, claiming to have killed four Israeli soldiers in overnight fighting, and posting a video appearing to show one of its members ambushing a tank and planting a bomb on it — a hint of the kind of tactics that could hamper Israel’s advance.