On this day two years ago, one of Israel’s longest wars erupted, and despite the fact that a cease-fire reached with Hamas has held firm, the Gazan border today remains as explosive as ever.
In the summer of 2014, the IDF and Hamas in Gaza traded fire for 50 days; Israeli cities came under near daily Hamas rocket attacks, warning sirens rang out and Iron Dome interceptors flooded the skies; IDF ground units moved into the Strip to destroy 34 cross-border tunnels; and the Israel Air Force dropped thousands of bombs at Hamas targets, which had been cynically hidden near residential buildings, hospitals and mosques.
According to IDF assessments, the conflict began because Hamas was isolated regionally, following the loss of its Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ally. Broke financially, Hamas was at risk of losing its grip on power in Gaza, which it had seized in 2007.
Today, Hamas’s situation has not changed much. It remains largely isolated, with few regional friends. The Hamas political wing struggles to accept Shi’ite Iran’s demands of loyalty, fearing this will isolate it further from the Sunni powers. The armed wing is less concerned with sectarian politics; it needs money and weapons from Tehran.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s economy, held hostage by Hamas, continues on course for collapse.
Despite the similarities between then and now, a great deal has changed since July 8, 2014, on both sides of the border. In Gaza, Hamas is working to replenish its rocket stockpiles, through its local arms production industry, while trying to come up with new ways of overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome air defense batteries, which proved so effective in the last war. One way Hamas hopes to achieve this is by focusing its short-range rocket and mortar fire in more accurate strikes on southern Israeli communities and IDF staging areas.
Iron Dome, for its part, may look like its 2014 equivalent, but other than appearance, everything about the groundbreaking system has changed. The batteries can intercept at greater range, deal with larger salvos, and have additional, classified abilities.
Hamas has dug a new network of tunnels all across Gaza – two of which were discovered recently using new Israeli technology – and it is building up its naval commando unit.
Hamas’s armed wing is gradually seizing power in Gaza at the expense of the political wing. The armed wing is prepared to engage in an endless series of wars against Israel, with intervals in between to regroup and rearm. It seems that Israel has lost patience with this reality, and in any eruption of hostilities will not aim at establishing deterrence, as in past Gaza conflicts, but to destroy Hamas’s “military” wing.
That wing has no interest whatsoever in the economic and social welfare of Gazan civilians, and views the Strip only as a fortress of jihad, for which all resources must be directed.
Over the past two years, the IDF Southern Command has taken steps to ensure that its ability to deal with the tunnel threat is vastly stronger than in 2014. Advanced tunnel detection technologies are in place. The Southern Command is also constructing a massive underground barrier on the Gazan border, which should be completed within a year and a half, and stymie the tunnel diggers.
Operation Protective Edge in 2014 was the IDF’s first network-based war, in which all three military branches – the ground forces, navy and air force, created a common battlefield picture, and integrated with Military Intelligence. For the first time, field commanders had digitally generated maps, in which targets and threats appeared in real-time, as Military Intelligence learned of them. Tank computers communicated with drones. Officials from the IDF’s C4i (Teleprocessing) Corps said these abilities were just the start of a wider network revolution.
Further down the line, they say, field commanders will have cloud computing and a range of military applications at their disposal.
Hamas, meanwhile, is aware of the IDF’s progress, and is trying to set up surprises of its own. These likely include activating Hamas cells in the Sinai Peninsula, or activating its allies in the Islamic State in Sinai organization, with instructions to fire rockets or launch border attacks on Israel during a war. Hamas could be trying to set up similar options in Lebanon and Syria.
Yet, unlike in the summer of 2014, Hamas fears miscalculating and provoking a war with Israel. To that end, it works hard to ignite the West Bank, and seeks to turn Palestinian terrorist attacks that originate there into better organized, more highly armed operations.
Back in Gaza, Islamic Jihad, which has approximately 5,000 operatives, has a better rocket launch system than it did in the past. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have improved cooperation with one another, and Hamas has better control of the various terrorist factions that call Gaza home.
In an effort to ease conditions for its commanders, Hamas has created new roles. Now they can focus exclusively on fighting Israel.
One major change in Gaza since 2014 is the Hamas armed wing’s decision to listen less to the political wing, which it accuses of restraining it during the last round. The Izzadin Kassam Brigades (“military” wing) won’t utterly ignore the political wing, but it has taken independent decisions to cooperate with Iran, work with Islamic State, and focus exclusively on the next phase of the jihad against Israel.
Figures such as Ismael Haniyeh may attract headlines with fiery Friday sermons in the mosques, but it is armed wing chiefs like Muhammad Def and Yahya Sinwar who really run Gaza. They are building up the elite Nuhba force, which accounts for a quarter of Hamas’s 20,000 fighters. Many are trained to enter Israel through tunnels in murder squads.
Over in Israel, the IDF is implementing a new defensive program for Gaza border communities, and has drawn up plans for full-scale military victory over Hamas in the event of war.
All the battalions under the Southern Command now train heavily in urban warfare, logistics and preparing for war with Hamas.
Meanwhile, the Southern Command’s Fire Control Center is honing its capability to destroy Gaza’s internal tunnel network with precision- guided firepower. The Combat Engineering Corps’ elite Yahalom unit has a subsection the size of a brigade, which has new, classified abilities to detect and destroy tunnels.
Before 2014, Israel found Gazan tunnels through random searches.
This is no longer the case. This fact alone may increase deterrence against Hamas, or, eventually, push it to do something reckless.