Israel’s decision two weeks ago to hold off on a full-scale invasion of Gaza and instead carry out a more deliberate, phased ground offensive aligned with suggestions from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to his Israeli counterparts, officials said.
But Israel has also dropped thousands of tons of bombs in its punishing air campaign while protecting its ground troops from Hamas ambushes. Nearly three dozen Israeli soldiers have died, an indication that the Israeli army is moving cautiously on the ground while warplanes and artillery pound targets.
Encircling Hamas in one of its strongholds and cutting off its resupply lines and communications forces the group to use up existing supplies and exhausts its fighters, said former U.S. commanders who have fought in urban battles in Iraq and Syria.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., a retired head of U.S. Central Command, said the Israeli military set five major objectives for the Gaza campaign: dismantle Hamas, minimize civilian casualties, reduce the risks to its own troops, recover the hostages, and avoid widening the war beyond Gaza.
Israel is achieving most of those goals, General McKenzie said, carrying out a focused campaign to cut off Gaza City from the rest of the enclave, suppressing Hamas rocket fire into Israel and, with U.S. assistance, searching for the hostages, many of whom are believed to be held in a vast tunnel complex — all the while trying to minimize civilian casualties.
“The Israeli campaign has been very deliberate,” General McKenzie said.
Strategically, however, he said that time “is not necessarily on Israel’s side.” Criticism of Israel is growing as memories of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks fade and images of Gaza in ruins and of civilian casualties dominate news feeds. That is putting pressure on the I.D.F. to inflict damage on Hamas as quickly as possible.
General Brown said the longer the war goes on, the more challenging it will become for Israel.
“Every conflict that I’ve been involved with throughout my military career, with the exception of probably Desert Shield/Desert Storm, has gone a lot longer than most people would have imagined,” he said, referring to the 1991 Persian Gulf war.