Israeli generals, running out of ammunition, want truce in Gaza

Israeli generals want to initiate a ceasefire in Gaza, even though that would keep Hamas in power for the time being, widening the rift between the military and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has opposed a truce that would allow Hamas to survive the war.

According to interviews with six current and former security officials, the generals believe a truce would be the best way to free the approximately 120 Israelis still held, dead and alive, in Gaza.

Ill-equipped to fight further after Israel’s longest war in decades, the generals also believe their forces need time to recover should a ground war break out against Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that has been engaged in a low-level clash with Israel since October, several officials said.

A truce with Hamas could also make it easier to reach an agreement with Hezbollah, according to the officials, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues. Hezbollah has said it will continue to strike northern Israel until Israel stops fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Collectively known as the General Staff Forum, Israel's military leadership consists of approximately 30 high-ranking generals, including the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, the commanders of the army, air force and navy, and the head of military intelligence.

The army’s attitude toward a ceasefire reflects a major shift in its thinking in recent months, as it became clearer that Mr. Netanyahu refused to articulate or commit to a postwar plan. That decision essentially created a power vacuum in the enclave that forced the army to return to fighting in parts of Gaza it had already liberated from Hamas fighters.

“The military fully supports a hostage-taking agreement and a ceasefire,” said Eyal Hulata, who was Israel’s national security adviser until early last year and who speaks regularly with senior military officials.

“They believe they can always go back and engage militarily with Hamas in the future,” Mr. Hulata said. “They understand that a pause in Gaza makes de-escalation in Lebanon more likely. And they have less ammunition, less spare parts, less energy than before, so they also think that a pause in Gaza gives us more time to prepare in case a bigger war with Hezbollah breaks out.”

It is unclear how directly the military leadership has expressed its views to Mr Netanyahu in private, but there have been hints of frustration in public, as well as the prime minister’s frustration with the generals.

Mr Netanyahu is wary of a truce that keeps Hamas in power because such an outcome could collapse his coalition, some of which have said they will abandon the alliance if the war ends with Hamas undefeated.

Until recently, the army publicly argued that it was possible to simultaneously achieve the government’s two main war goals: defeating Hamas and rescuing hostages captured by Hamas and its allies during the October 7 attack on Israel. Now, the military’s top command has concluded that the two goals are mutually incompatible, several months after the generals began to have doubts.

Since invading Gaza in October, Israel has overwhelmed nearly all of Hamas's battalions and occupied most of the territory at some point in the war. But just under half of the 250 hostages taken to Gaza in October remain captive, and the high command fears that further military action to free them could risk killing the rest.

With Mr. Netanyahu publicly unwilling to commit either to occupying Gaza or to handing over control to alternative Palestinian leaders, the army fears an “endless war” in which its energy and ammunition are gradually eroded even as the hostages remain captive and Hamas leaders remain at large. Faced with this scenario, keeping Hamas in power for now in exchange for the return of the hostages seems the least worst option for Israel, Mr. Hulata said. Four senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed.

Asked to comment on whether it supports a truce, the army issued a statement that did not directly address the issue. The army is seeking the destruction of “Hamas's military and governance capabilities, the return of hostages, and the safe return of Israeli civilians from the south and north to their homes,” the statement said.

But in other recent statements and interviews, military leaders have publicly hinted at their private conclusions.

“Those who think we can make Hamas disappear are wrong,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the army's chief spokesman, said in a television interview on June 19. He said: “Hamas is an idea. Hamas is a political party. It is rooted in the hearts of the people.”

To argue otherwise, Admiral Hagari said in a veiled criticism of Mr. Netanyahu, is “throwing sand in the eyes of the public.”

“What we can do is build something else,” he said, “something that will replace it, something that will let the population know that someone else is distributing food, someone else is providing public services. Who that someone is, what that thing is: that’s up to the decision makers.”

Chief of Staff General Halevi has recently sought to play up the military's successes, in what some analysts have called an attempt to create a pretext to end the war without losing face.

As Israeli troops advanced through the southern Gaza city of Rafah on June 24, General Halevi said the army was “clearly approaching the point where we can say we have dismantled the Rafah Brigade, which has been defeated. Not in the sense that there are no more terrorists, but in the sense that it can no longer function as a fighting unit.”

The army estimates it has killed at least 14,000 fighters, the bulk of Hamas's forces. But officials also believe several thousand Hamas fighters remain at large, hiding in tunnels dug deep beneath Gaza's surface, guarding stockpiles of weapons, fuel, food and some hostages.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment for this article. In a statement on Monday, he said Israel was close to “eliminating the terrorist army of Hamas,” but stopped short of saying that would allow Israel to end the war in Gaza.

In a rare television interview in late June, the prime minister rejected suggestions to end the war, but acknowledged that the army should reduce its presence in Gaza to “shift some of our forces to the north.”

Military officials say the move is needed to help the military recover in the event of a larger war with Hezbollah, not because Israel is preparing to invade Lebanon any time soon. However, other news reports have suggested that Israel may be planning an invasion in the coming weeks.

After nearly nine months of war unplanned by Israel, its army is short of spare parts, ammunition, motivation and even troops, officials said.

The war is the most intense conflict Israel has fought in four decades, and the longest it has ever fought in Gaza. In a military that relies largely on reservists, some are on their third tour of duty since October and are struggling to balance fighting with their professional and family commitments.

Fewer reservists are reporting for duty, according to four military officials. And officers are increasingly distrustful of their commanders, amid a crisis of confidence in the military leadership fueled in part by the failure to prevent a Hamas-led attack in October, according to five officials.

More than 300 soldiers have been killed in Gaza, fewer than some military officials had predicted before Israel invaded the territory. But more than 4,000 soldiers have been wounded since October, according to military statistics, 10 times the total during the 2014 war on Gaza, which lasted just 50 days. An unknown number of others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

At least some tanks in Gaza are not loaded with the full capacity of the shells they usually carry, as the army seeks to conserve its stockpile in case a larger war with Hezbollah breaks out, according to two officials. Five officials and officers confirmed that the army was running low on shells. The army also lacks spare parts for its tanks, military bulldozers and armored vehicles, according to several of those officials.

All the officials, including Mr. Hulata, said that Israel had more than enough ammunition to fight in Lebanon if it felt it had no alternatives.

“If we get dragged into a bigger war, we have enough resources and manpower,” Mr. Hulata said. “But we would like to do it in the best possible conditions. And right now, we don't have the best conditions.”

John Reiss contributed to the writing of the report.

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