As the war in Gaza continues, the situation in the battered enclave is one of devastation and despair. According to Gaza health officials, more than 29,000 people have been killed, most in a relentless Israeli bombing campaign. Neighborhoods have been razed, families exterminated, children orphaned and an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced.

As global scrutiny grows over Israel’s conduct in the war, the Israeli military has, in its assessment, dealt a severe blow to Hamas’s capabilities, killing commanders, destroying tunnels and confiscating weapons. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s goal of destroying Hamas remains elusive, according to current and former Israeli security officials.

They anticipate a prolonged campaign to defeat Hamas.

An Israeli military intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with military protocol, said Israel was engaged in a comprehensive mission to dismantle Hamas’s military capabilities.

“Is it possible that this mission will be left in the hands of my children?” he said. “The answer is yes.”

U.S. officials say they believe Hamas has been constrained by Israeli operations, but that Israel will not be able to achieve, in the foreseeable future, its goal of eliminating the group’s military capabilities. The officials requested anonymity to discuss the intelligence assessments.

Israel launched its assault on Gaza after a Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7 in which an estimated 1,400 people were killed or taken hostage.

Since then, Israel says it has killed more than 10,000 militants but has not explained how it calculates the number and analysts say it is difficult to get a precise figure in the chaos of war. Israeli officials say the army has dismantled the command structure of 18 of Hamas’ 24 battalions in Gaza, killing commanders, deputy commanders and other officers, effectively rendering the units ineffective.

But thousands of Hamas fighters, attached to remaining battalions or operating independently, remain above and below ground, according to former and current security officials.

Hamas has revealed little about its own losses, although it has publicly mourned the deaths of at least two top commanders, Ayman Nofal and Ahmad al-Ghandour. The group periodically issues statements saying it has attacked Israeli soldiers throughout the enclave.

“The resistance is still capable of inflicting pain on the enemy,” said Youssef Hamdan, Hamas representative in Algeria. he said this month.

During the most recent fighting in Gaza, Israeli analysts say, Hamas has avoided direct confrontations with Israeli units, which Israel has cited as a sign of weakness.

But other experts say Hamas has a reason for this strategy. Hamas leaders, according to Western officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, believe that if a significant amount of their military force survives the war, it will represent victory.

Mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been meeting to try to reach a ceasefire agreement. But Israel has shown no signs of relenting and is pressing ahead in three separate combat zones.

When the Israeli army’s 401st Brigade invaded Gaza in late October, it took an entire week of fierce firefight to reach the northwestern edge of Gaza City, according to military officials. About three weeks ago, the brigade did it in two hours.

That contrast was a reflection of the blow the military had dealt Hamas’s military capabilities in the north, dismantling its command structure, current and former security officials said. Groups of Hamas fighters in the region were now operating in isolation, without support from the broader military wing, the military intelligence official said.

But the fact that Israeli soldiers returned after withdrawing weeks earlier also indicated that Hamas was still active there. The Israeli military believes that at least 5,000 militants remain in the north, the intelligence officer said.

That would represent a small but formidable force capable of launching rockets toward Israel and attacking ground troops, Israeli military officials said.

“Hamas has not been completely defeated in northern Gaza,” said Colonel Nochi Mandel, chief of staff of the Nahal Brigade, which operates in the north. “We have worked hard, but there is still more to do.”

The army returned this month to the vicinity of Al-Shifa hospital, the scene of heavy fighting in November, to fight militants regrouping in the area, he said, and would return to other parts of the north in the coming weeks. Colonel Mandel, however, stressed that the army was no longer encountering strong resistance.

For the estimated 300,000 Palestinian civilians believed to still be in the north, the incursions have been sudden and unpredictable, intensifying the humanitarian crisis. It has made it difficult to navigate the area, where food is scarce and lawlessness is rife, residents say.

Yahya al-Masri, a doctor at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, said he had to walk two extra miles to work last week when clashes broke out between his home and the hospital. “You try to avoid fighting but there is no feeling of security,” said Masri, 28.

Current and former Israeli officials said Israeli forces will most likely continue sweeping northern Gaza to crush the Hamas insurgency for the foreseeable future, at least until there is some kind of political settlement for postwar Gaza.

Since the collapse of a fragile ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in early December, Israeli troops have advanced through the southern city of Khan Younis, moving west toward the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli military officials have said the city has been one of the most important centers of Hamas military activity.

Israeli forces are targeting Hamas’ extensive network of underground tunnels in and around the city, the intelligence official said. The official added that many key underground command centers had been destroyed, but most of the tunnel network remained intact.

Hamas fighters have notoriously avoided clashes with the army in Khan Younis, hoping to outlast their opponents in the safety of their underground lairs, military analysts said.

“The military is being very aggressive there without facing much competition from the other side,” said Amos Harel, a military affairs analyst for the Haaretz newspaper.

Over the past month, Israeli troops massed on the western edge of Khan Younis, which includes two major medical complexes – Al-Amal and the Nasser Medical Center – to attack what officials called the last bastions of organized Hamas resistance. In the area.

Israeli forces stormed the Nasser hospital on Thursday and the army arrested hundreds of people inside who they said were affiliated with Hamas and other militant groups. Many Palestinians taking refuge inside the compound fled to Rafah.

Ahmed Moghrabi, Nasser’s surgeon, described joining those fleeing as Israeli drones called on the remaining displaced Palestinians to evacuate the hospital. Leaving Khan Younis, he said he saw the devastated city outside the hospital walls for the first time in almost a month.

“No more buildings. No more streets. Bodies rotting,” she said. “I can not stop crying”.

Israel’s leaders have said that Israeli forces will eventually enter Rafah, the southernmost city on the border with Egypt, to fight four Hamas battalions they say are based there. The Israeli military says about 10,000 Hamas fighters remain in the area.

But it is an operation that would potentially cause many civilian casualties. According to the United Nations, around one million people are believed to be taking refuge in the city.

As they await an expected Israeli invasion, Palestinians crowded into tents, apartments and schools in Rafah have been overwhelmed by uncertainty and exhaustion amid widespread hunger. Israel has said there was no shooting inside the hospital, but extensive fighting around it.

“You are terrified all day and night,” said Sobhi al-Khazendar, 30, a lawyer sheltered in Rafah. “Everything is very confusing. “You don’t know what to do, whether to stay where you are or look for somewhere else to go.”

Netanyahu has vowed to evacuate civilians from combat zones there, but his words appear to have done little to quell growing criticism from the United Nations and the Biden administration over an operation targeting Rafah.

Israeli officials say an operation in Rafah is essential to eradicate remaining Hamas forces and destroy tunnels between Egypt and Gaza used to import weapons.

Israel’s military has already drawn up multiple plans for a ground operation in Rafah, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the army’s chief of staff, told reporters last week. The timing of the operation would require a decision by the country’s civilian leaders, he said.

In recent days, a division has emerged within Israel’s war cabinet over when to begin an operation in Rafah, said an Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details.

Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the Israeli cabinet from the opposition after the Hamas-led attack on October 7, favored reaching a deal to release all hostages held by militants in Gaza before carrying out carried out an operation, the official said.

The official said Netanyahu and Ron Dermer, his closest ally in the five-person cabinet, wanted to invade Rafah before concluding any such deal to free the hostages. The prime minister’s office declined to comment on whether there was a rift over Rafah in the cabinet.

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington and Iyad Abuheweila from Istanbul.

By Sam