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WASHINGTON: Hamas has lost about half its forces in eight months of war and is relying on “hit and run” insurgent tactics to thwart Israeli attempts to seize control of Gaza, US and Israeli officials told Reuters.
The ruling group in the enclave has been reduced to between 9,000 and 12,000 fighters, according to three senior US officials familiar with the battlefield, down from US estimates of 20,000-25,000 before the conflict. In contrast, Israel says it has lost nearly 300 soldiers in the Gaza campaign.
Hamas fighters now largely avoid protracted clashes with Israeli forces closing in on the southernmost town of Rafah, instead relying on ambushes and improvised explosive devices to hit targets, often behind enemy lines, one of the officials said.
Several Gazans, including Wissam Ibrahim, said they too had noticed a change in tactics.
“In previous months, Hamas fighters intercepted Israeli troops, clashed with them and fired at them as soon as they penetrated their territory,” Ibrahim told Reuters by phone. “But now there is a noticeable shift in their modus operandi, they wait to deploy and then launch ambushes and attacks.”
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said such tactics could sustain a Hamas insurgency in the coming months, backed by weapons smuggled into Gaza through tunnels and weapons converted from unexploded ordnance or captured from Israeli force.
That kind of long-term timeline is echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, who said last week that the war could last at least until the end of 2024.
A Hamas spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on its battlefield strategy.
In a parallel propaganda campaign, some of the group’s fighters film their ambushes of Israeli soldiers before editing and posting them on Telegram and other social media applications.
Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), told Reuters that they were still far from destroying Hamas, which he said had lost about half of its fighting forces.
Lerner said the military is adapting to the group’s change in tactics and acknowledged that Israel cannot eliminate every Hamas fighter or destroy every Hamas tunnel.
“The goal is never to kill every last terrorist on the ground. This is not a realistic goal,” he added. “Destroying Hamas as the leading authority is a feasible and achievable military goal,” he added.
Hamas leaders Sinwar and DEIF
Netanyahu and his government are under pressure from Washington to agree to a ceasefire plan to end the war, which began on October 7 when Hamas fighters invaded southern Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking more than 250 hostages. according to Israeli data.
The ensuing Israeli ground and air campaign left the Gaza Strip in ruins and killed more than 36,000 people, according to Palestinian health authorities. The United Nations says more than a million people face “catastrophic” levels of hunger.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 Hamas fighters are believed to be in Rafah, the group’s last major bastion of resistance, according to Israeli and US officials. Top leaders Yahya Sinwar, his brother Mohammed and Sinwar’s second husband Mohammed Deif are still alive and believed to be hiding in tunnels with Israeli hostages, they said.
The Palestinian group has shown the ability to quickly retreat, seek cover, regroup and re-emerge after attacks in areas Israel believed to be cleared of extremists, a US administration official said.
Lerner, the IDF spokesman, agreed that Israel faces a protracted battle to defeat Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006.
“After 17 years of building their capacity, there is no quick fix,” he added.
Over the years, Hamas has built a 500 km (310 mi) underground city of tunnels. The maze, dubbed the Gaza Metro by the Israeli military, is about half the length of the New York subway. It is equipped with water, electricity and ventilation, and provides shelter for Hamas leaders, command and control centers and weapons and ammunition depots.
The Israeli army announced last week that it had taken control of the entire land border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent arms smuggling. About 20 tunnels used by Hamas to transport weapons to Gaza were found in the area, he added.
Egypt’s State Information Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Israeli claims of weapons being smuggled out of the country. Egyptian officials have previously denied any such clandestine trade, claiming they destroyed networks of tunnels leading to Gaza years ago.
Echoes of the insurgency in Fallujah?
The incursion into Gaza is Israel’s longest and worst conflict since it invaded Lebanon in 1982 to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Netanyahu has resisted domestic and international calls to outline a post-war plan for the territory. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the absence of such a plan could spark lawlessness in the enclave.
One Arab official told Reuters that criminal gangs in Gaza had already emerged amid the power vacuum, seizing food deliveries and carrying out armed robberies.
The official and two other Arab government sources, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said the IDF could face threats similar to those faced by America in the city of Fallujah in 2004-2006 after the invasion of Iraq under USA.
The massive insurgency in Fallujah bolstered the ranks of first Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State, plunging Iraq into conflict and chaos from which it has not fully recovered two decades later.
Washington and its Arab allies have said they are working on a post-conflict plan for Gaza that includes a time-bound and irreversible path to Palestinian statehood.
When the plan, part of a “grand bargain” envisioned by the United States aimed at normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, is completed, Washington plans to hand it over to Israel, US officials said.
A United Arab Emirates official with direct knowledge of the discussions said a Palestinian invitation was needed for countries to help Gaza in an emergency operation, as well as an end to hostilities, a full Israeli withdrawal and clarity on Gaza’s legal status, including border control.
According to a UAE official, who said the aim was to stabilize the enclave rather than rebuild it, the process could take a year in an emergency and could be extended by another year.
A more detailed timetable for a two-state solution was needed to begin reconstruction, he added, as well as serious and credible reform of the Palestinian Authority.
It is unclear how the US plans to overcome Netanyahu’s repeated rejection of the two-state solution, which Riyadh says is a condition for normalizing relations.
David Schenker, former US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, dismissed any suggestion of a clean IDF withdrawal from the Palestinian territories.
“Israel says it will maintain security controls, which means it will constantly fly drones over Gaza and that they will not be restricted, if they see Hamas re-emerging, they will come back,” said Schenker, a senior U.S. think tank Washington Institute.
Gadi Eisenkot, a former Israeli army chief in Netanyahu’s war cabinet, proposed an Egyptian-led international coalition as an alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza.
In a closed-door meeting last week in the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he emphasized the complex nature of the fight against militants.
“This is a religious, nationalist, social and military struggle without a knockout blow, but a protracted war that will last for many years,” he said.

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