One and a half years after Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the Israeli farmers’ fields around the coastal enclave are green and growing with peanuts and wheat. But across the security fence, Hamas is emerging from the ruins and preparing itself for the next round of violence.
The group’s future military moves are being overseen by Muhammad Deif and Yihye Sanwar, who are repairing Hamas’s military terrorist infrastructure; restocking its rocket arsenal; and supervising the digging of attack tunnels, including some that reach inside Israeli territory.
Deif is Hamas’s military commander, who the IDF tried, unsuccessfully, to assassinate during Operation Protective Edge, and Sanwar is a convicted terrorist who was among the most senior Palestinians freed in 2011 in the prisoner exchange for Gilad Schalit.
The common Israeli security assessment is that Hamas is not interested in a military confrontation in the near future, but if it has an opening to carry out a large terrorist attack that will lead to a diplomatic achievement, such as the release of prisoners, it will not miss the opportunity.
In any event, security officials estimate that Hamas is not afraid of going another round with Israel. Hamas’s moves on the ground demonstrate that it is looking forward to confrontation, and the timing of when a clash will take place is probably in its hands.
In the meantime, Hamas is giving a stage to small and rebellious jihadi groups, like the one that planted an explosive devise on the border with Israel last week. Hamas may not have directed this operation, but it also did not stop it. The IDF, as usual, is preparing for the worst-case scenario, including the infiltration of terrorists by way of tunnels aiming to execute a mass-casualty terrorist attack or abduction.
Another scenario the army is contemplating is the firing of a massive volley of mortar shells from Gaza as a means of neutralizing Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, which would achieve a significant coup in the first minutes of a campaign and could even be viewed as delivering the much sought after victory photo.
Hamas understood how sensitive and terrifying mortar shells were to Israel’s civilian home-front. After learning from media reports during Operation Protective Edge that Iron Dome is ineffective against mortar shells and that the projectile-warning system does not provide enough time to run for cover, Hamas has set as a high priority the restoration of its launching capabilities.
Those that follow Hamas’s maneuvers know that it trains by firing rockets and mortar shells into the sea on a near-daily basis; single projectiles are not fired, but rather heavy salvos.
Such an attack on Israel would require more than one Iron Dome battery and would decrease the system’s interception success rate.
Most of the rocket-defense batteries will be protecting strategic locations in Israel, so if a volley of rockets is accompanied by a volley of mortar shells on a gathering spot where a high concentration of IDF soldiers are located, there would be heavy losses. It is such a scenario that worries the security echelon.
There is no doubt that Muhammad Deif is alive.
He is also succeeding to revive Hamas’s sole military achievement of the war: the tunnels. The Gazans had dug 32 tunnels by the summer of 2014, and, according to a senior IDF source, they were all destroyed completely during the war to the extent that it would be impossible to reconstruct them.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that since the end of Protective Edge, Hamas has dug dozens of tunnels of varying lengths. No one can, or wants to answer the question of whether some of these tunnels cross into Israeli territory, but the assumption can be made that they do.
The working assumption is that Hamas has no reason to neglect its most important strategic weapon.
There is no obstacle in its way on the border, and the creation of such an obstacle is not in the offing.
There is no money, and worse still, there is still no technological solution to the tunnels threat.
Since the end of the 2014 war, many companies have presented the IDF with “magic” solutions to the tunnels problem, including charlatans who wished to gain media publicity and others that offered only partial solutions.
The only way to combat the underground threat is to spread detection means along the border that will identify the location of the new tunnels.
The reality, is that there is no commander in the IDF Southern Command who sleeps peacefully regarding the tunnels, and who can promise that Hamas will not decide at any given moment to send a terrorist cell to Israel to carry out a large-scale attack.
Deif, the man with nine lives, commands Hamas military logistics and by his side stands Sanwar, 54, who was sentenced to four life-terms in an Israeli prison in 1989 for planning terrorist attacks and abductions, including the kidnapping and murder of Nachshon Wachsman.
One of the founders of its military wing, Izzadin Kassam, Hamas has great faith in Sanwar’s capabilities.
Along with Deif, he has become the most senior military-political figure in Gaza in recent months.
He is favored by the political echelon and it seems he has succeeded in restoring communication between the politicians and military leadership that had been severed since the end of Protective Edge.
Sanwar’s rejection of the Palestinian Authority is uncompromising, and he is seen as one of the central proponents of the ideology of continued resistance against Israel.
He believes in unrelenting war against the Zionists, something that makes him dangerous and unpredictable.
Shortly before his release in the Schalit deal, Sanwar led a prisoner rebellion from his cell, and argued that the deal was bad and was a sign of surrender to Israel.
The Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency) decided to place him in solitary confinement until the prisoner swap was complete. Following his release, he went straight to the Hamas military command center in Gaza.
Since then, he has assassinated a number of suspected collaborators with Israel and has cooperated with the Islamic State affiliate operating in the nearby Sinai Peninsula.
The Palestinians in Gaza fear him and understand that those who opt not to cooperate with him do not stay alive. He has carved out for himself the role as the second Hamas military commander, and some say he is even stronger than Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s deputy political bureau chief in Gaza.
Sanwar thinks the best tactic for Hamas is to obtain military successes before a war breaks out with Israel. He would like to see a severe terrorist attack following which the Hamas leadership would disappear into their underground bunkers, and allow Israel to go to war against a Gaza Strip that already lies in ruins.
Israel is aware of this and, in closed discussions at various levels, the question is raised: Should we continue to prepare for the next war, or should we preemptively strike? The situation for the population in Gaza continues to be difficult and has been made worse by recent heavy rains. Entire neighborhoods and markets have been flooded and people limit their time walking outside or driving for fear of collapsing buildings.
The population suffers from rolling electricity blackouts caused by increased usage during the winter.
Power is supplied for three-to-four hours and then blacked out for eight due to the high demand and the fact that electricity lines from Egypt are still not operational.
In recent days, there have been blackouts lasting more than 15 hours. The living conditions are especially dire for those Gazans who live in tin or asbestos-roof structures that do not efficiently maintain warmth or keep out the rain.
Most of the funds promised to Gaza from countries around the world for rebuilding after the 2014 war have not reached the territory, and unemployment remains very high at 42.7 percent.
While a large part of the population is poor and hungry, Hamas is taking advantage by recruiting Gazans to dig its new tunnels in exchange for food, perhaps some money and the ability to stay alive.
Many Gazans, however, are buried alive during the digging in work accidents.