December 5, 2023 Israel-Hamas war

An Israeli artillery unit operates at the border with Gaza on Tuesday, December 5. Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

US officials expect the current phase of Israel’s ground operation of Gaza targeting the southern end of the strip to last several weeks before Israel transitions, possibly by January, to a lower-intensity, hyper-localized strategy that narrowly targets specific Hamas militants and leaders, multiple senior administration officials tell CNN.

But as the war enters this new ground, the White House is deeply concerned about how Israel’s operations will unfold over the next several weeks, a senior US administration official said.

The US has warned Israel firmly in “hard” and “direct” conversations, they said, that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) cannot replicate the kind of devastating tactics it used in the north and must do more to limit civilian casualties.

The US has conveyed to Israel that as global opinion has increasingly turned against its ground operation, which has killed thousands of civilians, the amount of time Israel has to continue the operation in its current form and still maintain meaningful international support is quickly waning.

In perhaps the most direct public warning to date, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admonished Israel that it can “only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians.”

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, Austin said US support for Israel is “not negotiable,” but he said Israel risks replacing a “tactical victory with a strategic defeat” if it did not do more to prevent civilian deaths.

Devastating death toll: Almost 16,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its campaign in October, following Hamas’ terror attack on Israel on October 7, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health. Israel believes it has killed “several thousand” Hamas militants, an Israeli official said.

Though senior Biden administration officials have publicly called on Israel to do more to minimize civilian deaths, they have been careful to avoid directly admonishing any of Israel’s tactics, believing officials believe it is more effective to quietly counsel Israel behind the scenes rather than loudly shame them.

The senior administration official told CNN that they did not feel comfortable using the word “receptive” to capture Israel’s response so far to the administration’s military advice —contrary to some public statements from senior-most members of the administration.

Both in public and in private, Israeli officials maintain that part of their end goal is to weaken Hamas to such an extent that the group can never repeat the attack that it unleashed on Israel on October 7.

That goal, one senior US official told CNN, is unlikely to be achieved by the end of the calendar year, and Israel is expected to continue pursuing that objective in the next phase of the conflict that US officials see as a “longer-term campaign.”

Read more about the US view of Israel’s ground operation of Gaza.