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What Israel says its military has done toward its goal of eliminating Hamas

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We are going to look now at what Israel says its military has done toward its stated goal of destroying Hamas. It has been just over 100 days since Hamas attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people and kidnapping more than 200 others. Israel's response since October 7 has been a ground, sea and air offensive that has killed thousands of Palestinians. The United Nations says nearly 2 million more have been displaced. Israel says it's on the way to eliminating Hamas. NPR's Carrie Kahn examines that claim.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: To prove their claims, Israel's military often points to its biggest trophies in the war after more than three months of fighting - Hamas' notorious tunnel network.

DORON SPIELMAN: This is why we're fighting.

KAHN: Major Doron Spielman, with about a dozen journalists in tow, heads to Israel's biggest tunnel discovery to date. Passing through a section of the concrete border barrier blown out by Hamas fighters on October 7, we move on to Gaza's sandy soil. Drones buzz overhead.

SPIELMAN: Right now we're in Gaza, and we're heading into an opening. We're looking into a shaft that looks like a subway - single subway tunnel.

KAHN: After going about a hundred feet down what looks like a rusty drainage pipe, the huge concrete tunnel opens up. Wiring and ventilation run its length, snaking past two armed soldiers and disappearing into the dark.

SPIELMAN: So the tunnel itself is two and a half miles, 2.4 miles long. There are, along this tunnel, shafts that are going down with ladders to underground command centers 170 feet into the Earth, where they're storing weapons, going through maps and planning their attacks.

KAHN: Spielman says hundreds of miles of tunnels run under all of Gaza. Cars drove through this one, he says, to and from Gaza City.

SPIELMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for your group to exit the tunnel, please.

KAHN: Under strict military control, we emerge back on the surface and, in the distance, can see blown-out buildings amidst huge plumes of smoke rising above nearby Gaza City.

SPIELMAN: These tunnels are best seen and dismantled and cleaned out from terrorists by people on the ground.

KAHN: But, you know, the death toll in Gaza - it's over 20,000, and that's just what they can count. Is this really the only way to prosecute the war?

SPIELMAN: We would love to have a better way. And I know we don't want to kill civilians, and they're a very unfortunate consequence of Hamas having spent so many years building underneath their feet. If anyone has a better idea, I think we would love to hear it.

KAHN: That logic makes no sense to 30-year-old Palestinian Mohammad Hamdan.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBLE CLATTERING)

KAHN: He's cleaning up rubble after a recent Israeli airstrike leveled his neighbor's home, killing the family. He asks, why destroy everything above ground?

MOHAMMAD HAMDAN: (Speaking Arabic).

KAHN: "Go underground and fight Hamas," he says. "We are not Hamas. They are not dying. The people are." According to Gaza's health ministry, the death toll has now topped 23,000, with more than 60,000 injured. Israel's leaders push on, though, insisting a military victory can be achieved, something military experts question. Daniel Byman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says Israel's military is winning but with many caveats. Israel has destroyed a lot of tunnels, but it has also seen how vast Hamas' underground network grew over the years. Byman is also cautious about Israel's claims to have killed many top commanders and as many as 8,000 Hamas fighters.

DANIEL BYMAN: Hamas continues to retain, you know, the majority of its fighters. It continues to retain significant military capacity, but after several months of fighting, Israel has made a dent in it.

KAHN: He says the definition of a fighter is debatable, too. Young, angry men in a neighborhood picking up a gun is much different than a trained militant. And with some Hamas troop estimates as high as 40,000, 80% of the force could still be on the ground. Samir Ghattas is a Gaza expert based in Cairo.

SAMIR GHATTAS: (Speaking Arabic).

KAHN: "We can say that statements from both sides have been exaggerated," he says. "Israel's military control over northern Gaza was quick, and rocket fire from Gaza has slowed dramatically," he adds. But Ghattas, who runs the Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies and National Security in Egypt, says while Hamas' weapons stockpiles have been reduced, they remain significant.

GHATTAS: (Speaking Arabic).

KAHN: With military capability to fight for one or two months well into February, he adds. This indicates that the outlook will be tougher for Israel's military and more destructive for Gazans as the battleground has shifted to cities teeming with displaced Palestinians ordered to move by Israel. Ahron Bregman, who teaches at the war studies department at King's College London, says Hamas will just embed deeper into that population, breaking into smaller insurgent groups harder for Israel to find.

AHRON BREGMAN: They are better trained, the Israelis, in fighting regular armies than fighting insurgency. And they will find it very difficult, the Israelis, if they do stay in the Gaza Strip, to do counterinsurgency.

JAMES RANDS: The problem is that there's 2.2 million civilians in the Gaza Strip.

KAHN: James Rands is a military analyst with the defense intelligence company Janes.

RANDS: You can't just keep moving them around indefinitely. So that final blow against Hamas to actually destroy them probably isn't going to be feasible.

KAHN: He says the way to end an insurgency is to offer people hope for a better future. Rands says most of Hamas' fighting force remains, and there are still plenty of tunnels left, too, he says, for militants to hide and regroup. Many Israelis fighting the war agree, like 37-year-old Omri Erental in a Jerusalem hospital after being shot early this month searching a tunnel. At least 185 Israeli soldiers have been killed so far in Gaza. A group of rabbis bless Erental while making rounds through the hospital.

OMRI ERENTAL: (Speaking Hebrew).

KAHN: A Hamas fighter shot Erental at the tunnel's entrance he had discovered in an open orange grove.

ERENTAL: My luck - I fell backwards and not forwards, not into the tunnel.

KAHN: The bullet went through his cheek, broke his jaw, exited and lodged in his shoulder. He says he won't stop until Hamas is totally defeated.

ERENTAL: They surprised us in October 7, but we will rise, and we'll win.

KAHN: And if winning means eliminating Hamas, experts say the fight will continue to be destructive and deadly. The Israeli military has said it will keep troops in Gaza through 2024. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN KREISBERG'S "CANTO DE OSSANHA") 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.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.