As the war in the Gaza Strip ended its third month on Sunda, with top diplomats touring the region to try to stop the conflict from spreading, Israel said it had broken up Hamas’s command structure in northern Gaza and signaled that it would not change its objective of dismantling the group’s capabilities across the ravaged territory.
“The war must not be stopped until we achieve all of its goals — eliminating Hamas, returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will never again constitute a threat to Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting. His message, he said, was intended for “both our enemies and our friends.”
Fears of a wider war have added urgency to visits to the region by the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and the European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles.
Early Sunday, even as diplomats were working to stop the fighting from spreading more broadly, a spike in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank left about a dozen people dead, among them nine Palestinians, including a young child, an Israeli border police officer and a man from East Jerusalem, officials said. Cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, has also become a point of increasing concern.
“We have intense focus on preventing this conflict from spreading,” Mr. Blinken told reporters on Saturday, a day before meeting in Jordan with King Abdullah II. The king said he had warned the secretary of state about “catastrophic ramifications” if the war continues.
Of growing concern are clashes with Iran’s proxies: skirmishes with Hezbollah along the northern border with Lebanon and attacks on ships and missiles launched at Israel by Houthis in the Red Sea. In recent days, the United States has conducted strikes on militants in Iraq and Israel is presumed to have carried out targeted assassinations in Syria and Lebanon.
Israel is under great pressure from its allies, neighbors and world leaders to curtail the fighting in Gaza, where more than 22,000 people have been reported killed in the weeks since Oct. 7, when a Hamas-led attack on Israel killed an estimated 1,200 people and set off the war. As the conflict reached its three-month mark, the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator issued a plea for peace,
The Biden administration has been pressing Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis has been unfolding since the start of the war in October. Mr. Blinken reinforced that message with a visit on Sunday to a warehouse holding boxes of canned food intended for Gaza. The desperately needed provisions are being brought into the Palestinian enclave by truck in an aid effort organized by the United Nations World Food Program.
Sheri Ritsema-Anderson, the resident U.N. coordinator in Jordan, told reporters that in her 15 years working in the Middle East, she had never seen a humanitarian situation as dire as the one in Gaza, describing it as an “epic catastrophe.” About 220 trucks of various types of aid and fuel are now going into Gaza daily, but that is only a fraction of the amount needed, she said.
“We continue to demand an immediate end to the war,” the U.N. official, Martin Griffiths, said, “not just for the people of Gaza and its threatened neighbors, but for the generations to come who will never forget these 90 days of hell and of assaults on the most basic precepts of humanity.”
In the three months since the “horrific 7 October attacks,” he said, “Gaza has become a place of death and despair.”
Over the weekend, the Israeli military offered the public a detailed presentation on gains it said it had made against Hamas, but it cautioned against unrealistic expectations. The military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said it was still determined to dismantle the capabilities of Hamas both above and below ground, where the militants have an extensive network of tunnels. But achieving that goal, he warned, “will take time,” and he predicted that the fighting would continue throughout 2024.
Admiral Hagari, in a presentation broadcast on Israeli television and on the internet Saturday night, said the military had “completed the dismantling of Hamas’s military framework” in the northern part of Gaza, where Israel began its ground invasion in late October.
But even with their command structure destroyed, Hamas fighters there are still engaged in skirmishes with Israeli fighters, the Israelis say.
“While Hamas’s ability to function in the north has indeed suffered a blow, it still has infrastructure above and below ground, so it is still a fighting zone,” said Gabi Siboni, a colonel in the military reserves and a fellow of the conservative-leaning Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Hamas, Colonel Siboni said, is “a difficult and determined enemy.”
“It will take time to dismantle it completely,” he said, adding that the fighting in the south is all the more complicated because of the density of the civilian population there. About one million Gaza residents moved south after the Israeli military ordered them to leave the north.
Nachman Shai, a former Israeli government minister who was once the chief military spokesman, said Admiral Hagari’s presentation appeared intended in part to shore up Israeli morale. “This is a very long war in Israeli terms,” Mr. Shai said. He added that the presentation “was a way to encourage people. To say we are reaching our goals but it will take time, so please be patient with us.”
In the presentation, Admiral Hagari said that in the Jabaliya area of northern Gaza, Hamas had maintained two military brigades with 12 battalions, amounting to about 14,000 fighters. Israel found eight kilometers of tunnels in that area alone, he said. Hamas fighters there “now operate without a framework and without commanders,” and are still capable of launching sporadic rocket fire toward Israel, he said.
The military announced in recent days that it would begin withdrawing several thousand troops from the Gaza Strip, at least temporarily. But what a next phase might look like remains unclear.
Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief and founder of MIND Israel, a research organization that specializes in national security, laid out several possible scenarios in an article published on Sunday on N12, a prominent Israeli news site.
One option for Israel, he wrote, would be to hold onto northern Gaza to prevent Hamas from re-establishing itself in that territory and to use it as a bargaining chip for the return of the hostages, while forcing the remaining fighters out of the tunnels there. Another possibility, he said, would involve allowing the gradual return of residents to the north, with a goal of establishing stability there and trying to turn it into a model for the eventual reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, even as fighting continues in the south.
On Sunday, an Israeli airstrike in the south killed two journalists, including Hamza al-Dahdouh, the son of Wael al-Dahdouh, a well-known Palestinian correspondent for Al Jazeera TV, who has spent his career covering Gaza. Wael al-Dahdouh had already lost his wife, another son, a daughter and an infant grandson in an Israeli airstrike in October.
The official Palestinian news agency, Wafa, reported that an Israeli drone strike hit the car Hamza al-Dahdouh was traveling in, west of the southern city of Khan Younis. The other journalist killed was Mustafa Thuraya.
“I wish that the blood of my son Hamza will be the last from journalists and the last from people here in Gaza, and for this massacre to stop,” Wael al-Dahdouh told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
As of Saturday, at least 70 Palestinian journalists and media workers had been killed in Gaza, some while covering the conflict, some when they were at home or sheltering with their families, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem. Vivian Yee and Andrés R. Martínez contributed reporting.