An IDF artillery unit (Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

February 20, 2024   4 mins

To the immense chagrin of those calling for a ceasefire, victory remains Israel’s war objective — and it is far from a distant prospect. Of the two key metrics that will decide its victory, one is mostly satisfied, while the other could soon follow.

The first, the destruction of Hamas’s infrastructure, can be measured in the hundreds of kilometres of subterranean tunnels that the IDF has penetrated, cleared and thoroughly wrecked. Since many of these housed rocket workshops, a clear indication of progress is the drastic decline in the number of them launched from Gaza each day: first thousands, then hundreds, then a few, then none.

The second vector of progress — the killing or capture of fighters and military leaders — cannot be measured so easily. Towards the end of January, Hamas’s death toll was reported as approximately 9,000, and yesterday it was reported as 12,000. Moreover, when one fighter is killed, another is sufficiently wounded to be removed from the battlefield.

Because they live very safely in Qatar, none of Hamas’s top political leaders has been killed, so far. Khaled Mashal, the group’s emeritus founder, Khalil al-Hayya, its propaganda chief, and senior leader Ismail Haniyeh are all in luxury suites in Doha. Back in Gaza, meanwhile, Israel has not yet captured Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas field commander who orchestrated the October 7 attack, and who had learned to speak Hebrew in an Israeli prison, where he was successfully treated for a dangerous brain tumour while serving time for multiple murders.

But it seems that Sinwar had understood little about the Israelis. Clearly he did not expect Israel to launch such such a sustained and bloody counter-offensive. But they did, and were soon in his luxury Khan Yunis mansion. From there, Israeli troops followed an escape tunnel monitored by a CCTV camera, whose footage would show Sinwar and his family fleeing. Today, it is very likely that Sinwar, along with Hamas’s surviving officers and men, is now the target of Israel’s final offensive: in Rafah, hard up against the Egyptian border.

When the battle for Rafah begins, it will only loosely resemble previous Israeli attacks. There will be the same heavy Merkava tanks, with their canopies that can pre-detonate drone attacks, Namer “battle taxis”, currently the world’s best-protected armoured vehicle, and troops armed with Tavor rifles only a little longer than a pistol but with machine-gun firepower. There will also be the same buzz of mini-drones feeding imagery to Israel’s commanders in the field and all the way back to military HQ.

In other respects, though, things will be very different. To start with, Rafah has very few of the high-rise apartment houses, condo towers and mansions of Gaza City and Khan Yunis. This makes street-fighting much simpler because there are no multi-level basements from which many fighters can erupt at once, nor looming heights with firing positions for snipers. Above all, if a building must be entered and cleared room-by-room, perhaps because a high-value target is thought to be hiding there, it does not take hundreds of soldiers to search the place quickly.

Yet despite these tactical advantages, the forthcoming offensive faces several truly major complications. The most obvious is that Israel’s offensive must be preceded by the return to the north of the million or so displaced Palestinians who have arrived from Gaza City and Khan Yunis, and who are now living in tents and huts. To launch the last offensive of this war without doing so would maximise both civilian and Israeli casualties. Hamas fighters know how to use these crowds: they fire at Israeli soldiers while hiding directly behind civilians.

“The forthcoming offensive faces several complications.”

Rafah’s urban geography will dictate the progress of the flight from Rafah. Along the coast, just behind the beach, the al-Rasheed road is now scarcely usable because of all the people camping there, while the inland Gush Katif road is too narrow. The evacuation must therefore heavily depend on the one multi-lane boulevard named for Salah-al-Deen (Saladin), which curves north-east back to Khan Yunis.

This will allow the Israeli army to deploy in linear fashion, to form multiple corridors through which people can move north at a reasonable pace, but under close observation from both sides. In this formation, the Israelis hope to capture the fighters and commanders who tried to elude them by escaping to the south. It seems unlikely, however, that the bulk of the remaining Hamas forces will try to sneak past the watching soldiers with a great many eyes, image-recognition devices, and chemical detectors. Rafah, as a result, is likely to witness a number of battles of resistance.

When this finally happens, Israel will have to contend with one final hurdle: the fact that its forces cannot proceed without close coordination with Egypt’s rulers. President el-Sisi’s government detests Hamas — the Gaza offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood they overthrew — and shed no tears at the prospect of its further destruction in Rafah. However, they also greatly fear the arrival of a flood of Palestinians fleeing from the Israeli offensive.

This would leave Egypt’s rulers with two choices: to let them in, to the fury of a population that deeply resents decades of Palestinian ingratitude for all the help they received since 1947, or to keep them back by fire in what would unfold as a massacre. In Syria, the killing of tens of thousands of civilians by Assad’s father in 1982, and of hundreds of thousands since 2011 by his son, actually strengthened their rule. But Egypt’s culture is altogether more humane, and any such mass murder is inconceivable. Hence the reports that Egypt is preparing a well-fenced temporary holding area in its own territory just across the border, in which Palestinians can receive temporary shelter and sustenance, before heading north.

As for the Israeli war cabinet, it is equally determined to win this war in Rafah and to preserve strategic cooperation with Egypt, which has served both sides very well. That takes some doing, and accounts for the IDF’s failure to move quickly into Rafah. But victory is Israel’s aim — and it’s not going to give up on that.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.