Washington expects the most intensive phase of Israel’s war on Hamas in southern Gaza to be scaled back and become more targeted as soon as early January, US officials said.
Israel still has military aims in Gaza’s south that justify its continued assault around Khan Younis and other areas where senior Hamas militants are thought to be sheltering, according to the officials.
But Washington expects a switch in tactics, likely in January, away from a full ground offensive to raids in pursuit of senior Hamas leaders and other high-value targets, said several US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Now is the most intense phase . . . at some point the approach will be different with fewer boots on the ground but [they] will go in when they have to,” a senior US administration official said.
The expectation of an Israeli shift in tactics comes as Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, is set to travel again to the region this week to discuss the war and preparations for what will follow it.
On a stop in Israel, he is expected to urge the government to be more precise in its military operations and allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza.
“I will certainly be talking to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, the war cabinet and the senior national security leadership of Israel about timetables,” Sullivan said at the WSJ CEO Council conference on Tuesday.
He said Israel can still go after Hamas and put pressure on the group to release hostages even if it is not pressing the offensive at the same intensity.
“High-intensity military operations of the kind we have seen over the past several weeks, it doesn’t have to be that you go from that to literally nothing in terms of putting pressure on, going after Hamas targets, Hamas leadership or continuing to have tools in your toolbox to try to secure the release of hostages.
“It just means that you move to a different phase from the kind of high- intensity operations that we see today.”
Sullivan’s trip comes as Israel and the US face mounting international pressure over the death toll in Gaza, where local authorities say at least 17,000 people have been killed since October 7.
At a White House reception on Monday to celebrate Hanukkah, Biden said the US would keep providing aid to Israel “until they get rid of Hamas,” but he warned Tel Aviv to use it cautiously.
“We have to be careful — they have to be careful,” Biden said. “The whole world’s public opinion can shift overnight. We can’t let that happen”.
The US was alone last week as it vetoed a UN resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. The resolution was backed by the UN’s secretary-general and most members of the security council, including Germany and France.
Israel is focused on finding senior Hamas leaders believed to be in Khan Younis, the largest urban centre in south Gaza, as part of a long war effort — a strategy that is supported by the US.
Biden administration officials said that while they have given Israel no deadline for its military effort, they are keen to see the Jewish state’s military move as fast as possible to degrade Hamas.
“Everyone wants to see this campaign come to a close as quickly as possible,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday. “[Israel] has to get to the point where it is confident that [October 7] can’t be repeated.”
Blinken and other senior American officials have said they are in agreement with Israel’s goal to continue the war until Hamas can no longer govern Gaza or directly threaten Israel. Its surprise attack on October 7 killed 1,200 people.
While US officials think Israel could adopt less intensive and more targeted tactics within weeks, analysts have cautioned that the switch would depend on the military’s success in hitting its targets in the south.
“A lot will hinge on whether they’re successful in killing or capturing the senior Hamas leadership, which is believed to be in Khan Younis,” said Jonathan Lord, senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security think-tank.
“The plan is to move after Khan Younis to more of a raid-like disposition.”
The US support for Israel’s southern offensive contrasts with some of Washington’s European and Arab allies, who continue to call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The US says it is seeking to reinstate temporary pauses that would allow hostages to leave Gaza and aide in getting humanitarian aid in.
“There’s no daylight” between the US and Israel on the goals of the operation, said a senior Israeli official. These are to crush Hamas, including end its ability to rule the Gaza Strip or conduct terror attacks into Israel.
“There’s a high-level understanding of what we are doing,” the official said, adding that Israeli officials brief American officials on operations several times per week.
American officials have said they do not want to see Israel occupy the Gaza Strip but acknowledged a temporary occupation may be necessary until longer-term arrangements are struck with Arab countries and other partners.
Israel has said it expects to take indefinite security control of the enclave, but US officials said this would not entail long-term occupation.
“The Israelis understand control of Gaza as not being physically present but reserving the right to go in,” a senior US official said.