US officials think Gaza ground operation could end by January as Biden admin privately warns Israel about its tactics

Photo courtesy of CNN
Originally Published: 05 DEC 23 16:13 ET
Updated: 05 DEC 23 17:13 ET

(CNN) — US officials expect the current phase of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza targeting the southern end of the strip to last several weeks before Israel transitions, possibly by January, to a lower-intensity, hyper-localized strategy that narrowly targets specific Hamas militants and leaders, multiple senior administration officials tell CNN.

But as the war enters this new ground phase in the south, the White House is deeply concerned about how Israel’s operations will unfold over the next several weeks, a senior US administration official said. The US has warned Israel firmly in “hard” and “direct” conversations, they said, that the Israeli Defense Forces cannot replicate the kind of devastating tactics it used in the north and must do more to limit civilian casualties.

The US has conveyed to Israel that as global opinion has increasingly turned against its ground campaign, which has killed thousands of civilians, the amount of time Israel has to continue the operation in its current form and still maintain meaningful international support is quickly waning.

In perhaps the most direct public warning to date, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admonished Israel that it can “only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.” Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, Austin said US support for Israel is “not negotiable,” but he said Israel risks replacing a “tactical victory with a strategic defeat” if it did not do more to prevent civilian deaths.

Almost 16,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its campaign in October, following Hamas’ terror attack on Israel on October 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health. Israel believes it has killed “several thousand” Hamas militants, an Israeli official said.

Though senior Biden administration officials have publicly called on Israel to do more to minimize civilian deaths, they have been careful to avoid directly admonishing any of Israel’s tactics, believing officials believe it is more effective to quietly counsel Israel behind the scenes rather than loudly shame them.

The senior administration official told CNN that they did not feel comfortable using the word “receptive” to capture Israel’s response so far to the administration’s military advice – contrary to some public statements from senior-most members of the administration.

Both in public and in private, Israeli officials maintain that part of their end goal is to weaken Hamas to such an extent that the group can never repeat the attack that it unleashed on Israel on October 7. That goal, one senior US official told CNN, is unlikely to be achieved by the end of the calendar year, and Israel is expected to continue pursuing that objective in the next phase of the conflict that US officials see as a “longer-term campaign.”

An Israeli official agreed that a transition is likely to come in the next few weeks, saying: “We are in a high-intensity operation in the coming weeks, then probably moving to a low-intensity mode.”

CNN asked the National Security Council and Israeli government for comment.

Israel can’t maintain high-intensity operations indefinitely

Current US assessments also show that Israel simply cannot maintain its level of high-intensity operations indefinitely, especially the mobilized reservists, a source familiar with the intelligence said. Israel has also needed to respond to near-daily attacks by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on its northern border — another reason Israeli forces will likely need to transition to more targeted raids once they have cleared as many Hamas militants based in Gaza as they can, the source said.

US officials are hopeful that Israel will move to a more targeted strategy by January, which will resemble how the US transitioned away from high-intensity combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to a more narrow campaign against terrorist leaders, senior US officials told CNN. Israeli officials have indicated that that is their intention, one of the officials said.

Senior US officials have been careful not to publicly criticize Israel and are increasingly insisting that their strategy of counseling Israel to target Gaza more deliberately and surgically has delivered some results.

After Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Israel to take concrete steps to protect civilians during a visit to the region last week, the IDF unveiled an online map of Gaza divided into tiny parcels as an apparent effort to allow Israel to warn residents of a specific area to evacuate because of military operations. But the map requires electricity and internet connectivity to access, both of which have been cut off in Gaza multiple times.

Pointing to that development, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday that Israel has “actually taken the quite unusual step for a modern military and identified precisely the area that they intend to have ground maneuvers, and they have asked the people in that area to move out.”

Still, he declined several times to offer an assessment of whether Israel’s tactics have been more proportional since a truce with Hamas broke down last week and the fighting resumed, telling reporters on Monday that it is “too soon” to pass judgment.

Officials have also insisted that the Israel Defense Forces’ initial incursion into northern Gaza would have been far wider in scope had it not been for the US’ warnings. Israel’s original plan after the Hamas terror attack involved an immediate large-scale land, air and sea operation involving hundreds of thousands of Israeli troops and a desire to “level” the entirety of the Gaza Strip, people familiar with their planning said.

US officials have also argued in recent weeks that Israel has heeded the lessons senior American military advisers have shared with their Israeli counterparts about how to conduct urban warfare.

“I do believe that they have listened,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters on Sunday when asked whether Israel is listening to the US. Two days earlier, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby had told reporters: “We believe that the approach that we’re taking thus far has produced effective results.”

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