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New challenges lie ahead for Israeli military


The Israeli military says it has inflicted heavy losses on Hamas in its air and ground operations in the Gaza Strip. Its strikes have killed scores of civilians as well. Gaza health officials say more than 12,200 have been killed. Israel's military response came after the October 7 Hamas attack, and so far, the Israeli ground operation has focused largely on northern Gaza after Israel ordered hundreds of thousands of northern residents to go to the south. NPR's Peter Kenyon has been speaking with Israeli military and political analysts about what could lie ahead and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Michael Milshtein served in the Israeli military until 2019, including a stint as head of the Palestinian department in military intelligence. I reached him via WhatsApp as he was preparing to rejoin his unit. He's one of the thousands of reservists called back to active duty. He says Israelis should be proud of the way the military bounced back after failing to anticipate the attack, inflicting what he calls severe damage on Hamas and sharply reducing the group's fighting force.

MICHAEL MILSHTEIN: And the many - it seems thousands of terrorists were killed during the battles inside Gaza City and in the northern parts of Gaza.

KENYON: Milshtein adds, however, that this should only be seen as a case of so far, so good.

MILSHTEIN: But here is my basic reservation. First of all, all the southern parts of the Gaza Strip are still under the control of Hamas. And second, all the military and even the political and the civil infrastructures of Hamas, mainly in the cities of Rafah and Khan Yunis, they still exist and they are quite active.

KENYON: Gaza officials say most of those killed were women and children. Milshtein says that as Israel tries to disarm Hamas and render it powerless to threaten Israeli security, it's going to face some new problems. He notes that before Israeli forces moved into the northern Gaza Strip, it ordered civilians to evacuate to the south, and hundreds of thousands of them did. When it turns its attention to Khan Yunis and Rafah and other parts of southern Gaza, Milshtein wonders if it will order all those evacuees, plus all the people already living in the south, to make the reverse trek and head north. That, he says, would be problematic, to say the least.

MILSHTEIN: The problem is that in the northern part right now, there are no infrastructures, no serious civil services. So I do assess that there's going to be a problem. I do think that all the international agencies that supply the refugees water and food and electricity will have to work much more in order to supply them their needs.

KENYON: Palestinians in Gaza are already suffering severely. There's a lack of safe drinking water, food shortages and chronic power outages, plus hospitals struggling to care for tens of thousands of wounded people, according to Gaza health officials. Analyst Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says in his view, evacuating people from southern Gaza to the north at this point is probably untenable. And he doesn't see how the military can repeat the massive aerial bombardment that preceded the ground operation in northern Gaza in the now even more overcrowded southern part of the strip.

REUVEN HAZAN: There are two things that cannot be done. One is we can't really move everybody back up north. There's nowhere to really go to. And second, the troops moved in up north after we had pummeled the area. And you can't do that after telling everybody to move down south. From what we hear from the military, the hostages are being held down south. So at some point, we're going to have to go there. How we do it, God help us.

KENYON: If these analysts are correct, it suggests that the Israel-Hamas conflict could get worse, possibly much worse, before it's over.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID AXELROD'S "HOLY THURSDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.