Security and Defense: Five years later, another Gaza war on the horizon

The last round of violence between Israel and Hamas saw five Israeli civilians and more than 20 Palestinians killed. And it wasn’t even war.

IDF soldiers take part in Operation Protective Edge. (photo credit: ANNA GOLIKOV)
IDF soldiers take part in Operation Protective Edge.
(photo credit: ANNA GOLIKOV)
There’s little doubt that the next war between Israel and the Gaza Strip is not far away, and it will be deadlier and more destructive than any previous war.
In the last war between the two, Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israel lost 68 soldiers and six civilians. Some 2,500 Palestinians are believed to have been killed, roughly half civilians and half combatants.
Estimates for casualties in the next war are much higher toll, for soldiers and civilians.
IDF officials have repeatedly said that any future war with Israel’s enemies, be it Hamas in the Gaza Strip or Hezbollah in the North, will have to have a clear and decisive win by the Israeli military so that the other side will think twice about going to war in the future.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi has prioritized the southern front as the most likely to explode into conflict. He has already approved operational combat plans and recently set up an administrative unit to handle the formation of a list of potential targets in the coastal enclave for when the next war breaks out.
Israel’s military, which has had the past five years to recover and plan for the next war, says it’s prepared. Its troops have increased training, ammunition and weapons have been restocked with four times the amount as before the last war, and military intelligence has hundreds of targets ready.
Israel has also completed more than half of its 65-km. underground barrier to stave off attacks by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) via cross-border attack tunnels. Israel has already finished the maritime portion of the barrier, meant to stop any attacks by Hamas frogmen.
Since the end of Operation Protective Edge, Israel has been able to locate and destroy 18 cross-border tunnels. While it is believed that most of the tunnels have been exposed, the IDF announced on Monday that it had discovered an old tunnel dug by Hamas in the southern Strip.
But while the army says most of the cross-border tunnels have been destroyed and no longer pose a threat, the IDF knows that any tunnel opening found inside the Strip is connected to a network of tunnels, full of weapons and fighters.
The IDF knows the next war will include an all-out ground offensive, as an air war alone will not bring Hamas to its knees. Thousands of soldiers will enter Gaza, in tanks, armored personnel carriers, under cover of massive air bombardments and navy gunboat fire.
Elite commandos from special forces units will likely also take part, carrying out targeted killings and other secret operations.
In the last round of violence, in May, when close to 700 rockets were fired on Israel, the Israel Air Force carried out the first targeted killing in five years, taking out Hamed al-Khoudary, who Israel accused of being the man in charge of transferring funds from Iran to terrorist groups in Gaza.
Another Hamas operative was struck while riding his motorcycle on Salah al-Din Street, near the city of Khan Yunis. The Israeli military also targeted the private homes of other senior Hamas activists.
The targeted strikes temporarily brought Hamas to its knees and a ceasefire arrangement was hammered out.
But in the next war, a ceasefire arrangement won’t be pounded out by airstrikes and targeted killings. IDF soldiers will have their boots on the ground, fighting in densely populated urban areas.
Their mission will be to remove the capabilities of Hamas, PIJ and other smaller groups quickly and effectively. The military is concerned about troops being static for too long and becoming easy targets for the well-armed terrorists fighting on their home turf.
With the knowledge that the home front will be pounded by incessant rocket and mortar fire in the next war, Israel has increased its air defense capabilities and has formulated plans to evacuate communities bordering the Gaza Strip.
IN THE five years since the last war between Israel and Gaza, groups in the blockaded enclave haven’t been sitting idly and waiting.
They have increased their knowledge and capabilities in several arenas: drones, precision weapons, anti-tank missiles, cyber and intelligence gathering, defensive and offensive underground infrastructure, and air-defense systems.
Despite being blockaded by Israel and Egypt for over a decade, terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip have been able to increase their missile arsenals in both quality and quantity.
While weapons-smuggling into the blockaded enclave from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has decreased over the years, groups in the Strip have invested in producing their own locally-made rockets.
Hamas and PIJ have carried out tests on an almost regular basis since the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, firing rockets toward the sea in an attempt to increase their range and destructive power.
Hamas has been producing their Qassam rockets since 2001. The rockets had a range of four kilometers. Eighteen years later they are able to strike as far away as Nahariya, nearly 200 km. to the north.
The group is believed to have thousands of short-range rockets (such as the Qassam which can carry a warhead of up to 20 kg. up to distance of 10 kilometers), thousands of medium-range rockets which can strike targets 20-55 km. away (such as the popular 122 mm Soviet Grad rocket which carries a 20 kg. warhead or the Chinese Ws-1e and Sejil).
The group also has hundreds of rockets with a range of 80 km. (such as the Iranian M-75 which carries a 10 kg. warhead and can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv or the Iranian Fajr with a 90 kg. warhead), and dozens of rockets which have a range of over 100 km. (like the R-160 that was launched to Haifa in Operation Protective Edge some 120 kilometers away from Gaza or the M-302 Khaibar which has a range of some 200 km and can carry a 125-170 kg. warhead).
According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Hamas had about 11,000 rockets before Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is believed that the group had surpassed its military capabilities to its pre-2014 strength by 2015. They are also estimated to have thousands more mortars in its arsenal.
But following the several rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas over the past year, and hundreds of airstrikes against Hamas weapons warehouses and other military targets, defense officials estimate that the number of rockets have been reduced to half that amount, to some 5,000-6,000.
Hamas has a fighting force of close to 40,000 men, as well as highly trained naval commandos who are expected to take part in the next conflict with Israel.
PIJ, the second most powerful group in the Strip, was left relatively unscathed by Israeli airstrikes until recently, and is therefore estimated to have 8,000 rockets (more than Hamas) and a fighting force of 9,000 men plus another 6,000 fighters.
Put it all together and it’s a major threat to the IDF.
Gaza has been absolutely destroyed over the past 10 years which saw Israel and Hamas go to war three times. With a population of two million people living in dire humanitarian conditions, Hamas is desperate to secure an easing of Israeli restrictions on the beleaguered coastal enclave and an end to Israel’s 12-year blockade.
In an attempt to force Israel to accept their demands, Hamas has used The Great Return Marches to carry out a war of attrition with Israel. In addition to the violent riots, there have been nine deadly rounds of violence over the past year which included thousands of rockets fired into Israel, sniper attacks against troops, and Kornet anti-tank missiles fired at civilians.
The last round of violence between Israel and Hamas saw five Israeli civilians and more than 20 Palestinians killed. And it wasn’t even war.
It won’t be easy and it will definitely see a high casualty count, but the IDF needs to be able to win the next war with Gaza on Israel’s terms in the shortest time possible in order to restore long-term quiet to Israel.