Unlike previous military campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah, the current round of violence in Gaza began without any tactical or strategic surprises.
It is a war which both sides were reluctant to launch, and one which both sides entered into without a clear exit strategy.
The opening shots of 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense were fired when Israeli air strikes killed Ahmed Jabari, the commander of Hamas’s military wing, and destroyed the Islamist organization’s small arsenal of long-range missiles. Hamas was in shock.
Based on precise intelligence, the 2006 Second Lebanon War began with a 34-minute surprise Israel Air Force strike that demolished Hezbollah’s long-range missiles.
This time around, there was a partial lack of intelligence regarding the location and size of Hamas’s long-range rockets. Thus, by press time Thursday, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had already fired nearly 300 rockets – including five rounds at Tel Aviv, one at Haifa, two at Jerusalem and two at Dimona – and will continue pounding these and other places.
Israel has so far carried out some 600 sorties on targets in Gaza, focusing on targeting military commanders and their houses, field operatives, missile depots, mobile and fixed rocket launchers, and underground tunnels. These tunnels are one of the IDF’s biggest challenges in this war; according to the army, over 100 tunnels have been demolished in air strikes, but hundreds remain intact.
The tunnels and underground fortifications are one of the factors – although perhaps not the main factor – behind Israel’s hesitation to send ground forces into the Gaza Strip. Yet it seems that an Israeli incursion is getting closer and closer by the hour, as rocket fire from Gaza continues unabated and is even being stepped up.
The tunnels pose a double threat, with the first to rural communities along the border with Gaza.
While it does not know their location, the IDF estimates there are dozens of tunnels constructed by Hamas to infiltrate Israel and kill or abduct civilians and soldiers, in order to inflict a psychological blow and demoralize the Israeli public.
It was via a tunnel that a Hamas special forces unit managed in 2006 to surprise an Israeli tank crew, killing two and kidnapping IDF tank gunner Gilad Schalit, who did not show any resistance and was smuggled back via the tunnel to a secret location in Gaza.
The rest of his story has been well told and retold. Schalit’s case turned into a strategic national security issue and five years later, Israel had to “buy” his freedom by releasing 1,027 Palestinian terrorists.
Earlier this week, an even more sophisticated tunnel that led to Kibbutz Kerem Shalom was fortunately discovered and exposed by the IDF.
The other threat posed by the tunnels is to IDF forces, should they enter Gaza. The tunnels would be used to slow Israel’s forces by using rear guard and delay tactics – in IDF jargon, the “underground medium battlefield.”
Hamas started building tunnels nearly 25 years ago. The first tunnels were intended to connect Gaza to Sinai and smuggle weapons and goods.
Over time, Hamas’s engineers and diggers – known by the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) as “spiders” – gained a great deal of expertise and technological knowhow. The tunnels expanded rapidly, becoming Gaza’s lifeline when Israel imposed a siege and blockade of the Strip eight years ago. Civilian goods were smuggled via the tunnels, helping the local economy survive and, by taxing the smugglers, also financing Hamas terrorist activities.
In recent years, Hamas began expanding the tunnels into “underground cities,” with bunkers and fortifications, all hooked up to electricity and oxygen.
Some of the tunnels run 30 meters deep.
Hamas was helped in building the tunnels by Iranian and Hezbollah engineers, but the strategic inspiration came from Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong built an extensive underground network of tunnels and military facilities that helped them to launch surprise strikes against the US army and its South Vietnamese allies.
Similarly, though on a much lesser scale, Hamas’s underground cities serve to store weapons and ammunition, as command, control and communication posts and safe houses for the movement’s military and political leadership.
Through the tunnels, Hamas has managed to partially deceive Israeli intelligence and smuggle longrange rockets from Sinai– supplied by Iran via Sudan and occasionally, via Syria and Hezbollah. Another source of supply was the flourishing black market in Libyan military surplus.
There are two types of longrange missiles in the Hamas arsenals. One is the self-produced M-75, based on the Iranian Fajr 3 and 5 models. This rocket, though inaccurate, has a warhead of up to 40kg., and has been launched in the current conflict against Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Dimona.
The other one is the M-302, with an extended range of up to 200km., which has been fired at Hadera in the Center and Haifa in the North. The M-302 is originally a Chinese artillery rocket, licensed to be produced in Syria and also supplied to Hamas by Iran.
The underground facilities enable and enhance Hamas’s ability to keep launching its rockets. There are indications that some of its underground launching operations are done electronically, via remote-controlled devices without human intervention.
So far, the IAF has managed to destroy more than 200 launching pads, positions and mobile launchers.
The fact that despite the extensive aerial bombardment aimed at disrupting Hamas’s launch capability, it keeps on firing and will continue to do so, is evidence of how sophisticated and hard to trace and destroy the underground bunkers have become.
If the aerial campaign does not soon put an end to the rocket fire or if a cease-fire is not achieved – and the chances for both seem very slim at the moment – the IDF will have no choice but to send its ground forces into Gaza. The Israeli cabinet and military leadership does not want to enter the Strip, but the shower of rockets and public discontent will leave it with no choice.
This is exactly Hamas’s strategy – to lure Israel into unleashing its ground forces.
Hamas knows that even if Israeli troops do enter Gaza, Israel does not intend to topple its regime because Jerusalem knows that if it leaves a power vacuum, more radical elements in the mold of the Islamic State group (formerly ISIS) or al-Qaida will move in.
Thus, Hamas does not fear an Israeli incursion.
All it needs to do is hold on as much as it can, keep launching rockets to prolong the war, and provoke the Israeli government to invade Gaza, causing Israeli casualties – and leading the Jewish state to bleed and sink in the Gazan sand dunes.
Yossi Melman tweets at @yossi_melman