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What will it take for Israel to affirm mission accomplished in Gaza, and end the war?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

What will it take for Israel to declare mission accomplished in Gaza and end the war?

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: That's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising Israelis, quote, "we will continue to fight until the definitive victory over Hamas." The offensive in Gaza has killed over 22,000 Palestinians, according to health officials there, and caused vast destruction. But there's growing debate in Israel about what kind of victory is even achievable. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The most prominent group of Israelis pushing to change Israel's war strategy is made up of Israeli citizens whose relatives were dragged into Gaza when Hamas attacked Israel October 7.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: We are standing outside Israel's military headquarters, and the families of hostages still held in Gaza are blocking traffic, preventing military officials from driving in and out of the headquarters. Every hour they stop the traffic here, and they read the names of more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza.

The government says the military campaign in Gaza will eventually pressure Hamas into releasing more hostages. These families of hostages say Israel should put the combat on hold and strike a deal with Hamas immediately.

UDI GOREN: The slogan of destroying Hamas - it's an empty slogan.

ESTRIN: Udi Goren has a cousin who was killed in the October 7 attack on southern Israel. His body is being held in Gaza.

GOREN: It's impossible to get rid of Hamas, not only because it's an ideology, but also because we're talking about over 20,000 militants. We're talking about miles of underground tunnels. We're talking about a war that's now going on in an urban area that has about 2 million refugees and hostages. The IDF is fighting with its hand tied behind its back. It's very clear that we need to find a ladder to climb down.

ESTRIN: Voices from Israel's center left are seeking a pragmatic deal with Hamas and searching for ways to redefine victory.

DANA HELMAN: There is no victory because they came in and murdered 1,200 of our people, so we lost already.

ESTRIN: Dana Helman is one of the protesters outside military headquarters.

HELMAN: What I know for a fact is that if Israel will not have the hostages back and will not do everything to bring them home safely - not in body bags, safely - then Israel will never be the same again.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The former spymaster of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen, was interviewed on Israeli army radio last week. The anchor's first question was...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: ...When will we know that we've won?

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YOSSI COHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: His answer - we'll know we've won when we've captured or killed the leaders of Hamas. It's about delivering a cautionary warning to the region, says Michael Milshtein, former head of Palestinian affairs in Israeli military intelligence.

MICHAEL MILSHTEIN: If, for example, the final results of this war will be occupation of Gaza, huge, broad destruction of this place, killing thousands of Hamas members and of course, killing the head of the snake, it will have a very dramatic impact on enemies like Hezbollah, like the Iranians, like Syria, that, no, you cannot promote such brutal, violent moves against Israel without any payment.

ESTRIN: A senior Hamas official in Lebanon was killed this week in a drone strike, but Israel's most wanted man, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, is still at large. Milshtein says the promise of full victory against Hamas' guerrilla warfare is an illusion.

MILSHTEIN: I don't think that we can speak about, you know, victory in such conditions. I do think that Israel can achieve some prominent results.

ESTRIN: Week by week, Israel announces more Hamas tunnels destroyed, more Hamas fighters killed. But the Israeli soldier death toll keeps climbing, and Hamas is still putting up a fight on the ground and firing rockets at Israel. Voices on Israel's right say Israel is not going far enough.

TAL USACH: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Nineteen-year-old Tal Usach, at a bus stop outside military headquarters, says there will only be 50% victory in Gaza. He says 100% victory would be for Israel to take over Gaza forever, and make sure every single Palestinian there moves to neighboring countries. That is an example of the right-wing pressure facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even some politicians in his own governing coalition say he's being too soft on the Palestinians. So with all these conflicting demands, how long will Netanyahu continue the war?

REUVEN HAZAN: If it was up to Netanyahu, this would continue for quite some time.

ESTRIN: Reuven Hazan teaches politics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He says Netanyahu will face tough questions when the war ends. It's expected a commission will investigate who's responsible for the security failures that resulted in the Hamas attack. Plus, Netanyahu's own corruption trial continues, and polls show his approval ratings have dropped during the war. There could be calls for a new election.

HAZAN: For Netanyahu to end the war in Gaza, even with a victory, means he has to start dealing with the political issues at home and the legal issues which he does not want to.

ESTRIN: Israel's Supreme Court this week struck down Netanyahu's signature legislation that curtailed the court's powers. His judicial overhaul fueled massive protests before the war.

HAZAN: If the war drags on and Netanyahu's onslaught on the judicial branch returns, then you will see Israelis back in the streets. But this time, it won't be half the population. It'll be significantly more than half the population. And the government cannot survive that for too long.

ESTRIN: This week, Israel is starting to pull out thousands of reservist soldiers from Gaza, so they can return to their jobs and boost the lagging economy. Israel could slowly transition from the big ground invasion of Gaza to a lower intensity conflict like the U.S. has called for. But fighting is escalating with Lebanese militants on Israel's northern border. The reckoning facing Netanyahu might come soon, even as the country could still remain at war.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv. 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.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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