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WASHINGTON — Israel’s military operations in the Gaza Strip have weakened Hamas. Most Hamas battalions have been degraded and are scattered. Thousands of its members have been killed, and at least one senior military leader has been eliminated. Yet Israel has not achieved its primary goals of the war: freeing hostages and fully destroying Hamas. The war and the tactics of the Israeli military have come at a great cost. Vast numbers of Palestinian civilians have been killed in the Israeli campaign; hunger is widespread in Gaza; and deaths around relief efforts have generated condemnation. Six months into the conflict, the question of what Israel has achieved — and when and how the fighting could come to an end — is creating ever more intense global strains around a war that has cost Israel support from even close allies. Israel’s own military casualties have begun to climb, with about 260 killed and more than 1,500 injured since its pulverizing ground assault began in the weeks after the Hamas-led terrorist attacks on Oct. 7. Israeli officials say that about 133 of the hostages taken remain in Gaza. But talks to secure the return of at least some of them in exchange for a halt in the fighting and the release of Palestinian prisoners have hit a snag. Hamas has rebuffed the latest proposal and claims it does not have 40 hostages who meet the terms of the first part of the proposed deal, raising questions about how many are still alive and how many are held by other groups. The war has settled into a deadly pattern of skirmishes and airstrikes as Israeli forces continue to operate in Gaza, targeting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters. Last week, with tensions between Israel and Iran increased, the Israeli military said it struck more than 100 targets and killed dozens of fighters in the central part of the enclave, including a Hamas security officer who served in the group’s intelligence wing. The Israeli military says Hamas casualties continue to mount but that no Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in Gaza since April 6. That suggests that the pace of the fighting and Hamas’ capabilities have waned for now. But both sides are bracing for a larger operation in the southern city of Rafah, Hamas’ last stronghold that Israel has not invaded. And there is more uncertainty about what will follow Rafah, with questions about who will govern Gaza and provide its security if the fighting is to end. This article is based on interviews with U.S. and Israeli officials, members of Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military planning, sensitive diplomacy or secret intelligence assessments. Despite Hamas’ heavy losses, much of its top leadership in Gaza remains in place, ensconced in a vast underground network of tunnels and operations centers, calling the shots in the hostage negotiations. Those tunnels will allow Hamas to survive and reconstitute once the fighting stops, current and former U.S. officials say. “Palestinian resistance to Israel, manifested by Hamas and other militant groups, is an idea as much as it is a physical, tangible group of people,” said Douglas London, a retired CIA officer who spent 34 years at the agency. “So for as much damage Israel might have inflicted on Hamas, it still has capability, resilience, funding and a long line of people most likely waiting to sign up and join after all the fighting and all the destruction and all the loss of life.” In an annual intelligence assessment released in March, U.S. spy agencies expressed doubts about Israel’s ability to truly destroy Hamas, which the United States has designated a terrorist group. “Israel probably will face lingering armed resistance from Hamas for years to come,” the report said, “and the military will struggle to neutralize Hamas’ underground infrastructure, which allows insurgents to hide, regain strength and surprise Israeli forces.” After six intense months, the war has come down to Rafah. The Israeli military believes four battalions of Hamas fighters are based in the city and that thousands of other fighters have taken refuge there, along with around 1 million civilians. The Israeli military says those battalions must be dismantled. Israeli officials said the only way to destroy those battalions is with a major push into Rafah by ground forces. Israeli security experts contend that destroying the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that supply Hamas with arms will also be a critical goal. But the planned invasion has become a point of friction between the United States and Israel. Israel has not developed a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah, U.S. officials said. Without one, the death toll in Gaza — already about 34,000, according to health officials there — will climb even higher. The Israeli government disputes those numbers, saying they do not distinguish between Hamas fighters and civilians killed during the war. “I have not yet seen a credible and executable plan to move people that has any level of detail about how you not only house, feed and provide medicine for those innocent civilians, but also how you deal with things like sanitation, water and other basic services,” Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters this month. U.S. military officials say that Israel should model its plan on the siege of Mosul, Iraq, in 2017 by Iraqi forces and the U.S. Air Force. The operation destroyed large swaths of what was once Iraq’s second-largest city. While roughly 3,000 civilians were killed as a result of Iraqi or U.S. military action, by some estimates, the coalition successfully evacuated 1 million residents from the city before the assault on the city. For Rafah, U.S. military planners want Israel to carry out targeted raids on Hamas strong points, but only after civilians have been relocated. Israeli officials say they expect civilians to move to safer areas. But U.S. officials have said that with much of the strip nearly uninhabitable, Israel needs a better plan. “This is an opportune time for Israel to transition to a new phase focused on very precise counterterrorism operations, particularly given the situation of 1.2 to 1.3 million Palestinians all clustered within Rafah and its environs,” said Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired U.S. Special Operations commander who served as the U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The movement of civilians within Gaza, and the Palestinians taking refuge in Rafah, is a major sticking point not just between the United States and Israel but also in the talks about a temporary cease-fire to secure the release of hostages. On Thursday, CIA Director William Burns placed the lack of progress in the talks squarely at the feet of Hamas and its negative reaction to a U.S.-backed proposal presented this month. “It’s a big rock to push up a very steep hill right now,” Burns said. “It’s that negative reaction that really is standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief.” U.S. officials say privately that the only way to get Israel to stop the Rafah operation is through a hostage release deal. But Israeli officials say they believe it is only the looming operation in Rafah that has kept Hamas in negotiations. As the talks continue, there is rising anger among families of hostages about Israel’s failure to bring their loved ones home. Gilad Korngold, whose son Tal Shoham is one of the hostages, said he was overcome with feelings of “despair, frustration, anger and fear” because of the government’s failure to strike a deal to free the hostages. “They abandoned them,” he said in an interview. “Time is running out. We don’t know how they’re doing, if they’re eating or drinking, or if they’re getting medicine. We don’t know anything about them.” Korngold said three members of his family were killed on Oct. 7 and that six others who had been abducted were released during a short-lived cease-fire in late November. “Hostage recovery comes down to thoughtful and unified negotiations, and that will likely not happen until Israel withdraws the hammer,” said Jay Tabb, a Marine officer who fought in Iraq and served as a top FBI executive working on counterterrorism and hostage issues. Since the beginning of the war, Israel has tried to destroy the extensive tunnel network below Gaza. The system runs for hundreds of miles, at points reaching 15…

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