Despite the highly critical State Comptroller’s Report on Operation Protective Edge, two-and a- half years since the end of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, the IDF has integrated many of the lessons it learned into its military strategy for the next conflict.
But so, too, has Hamas.
Hamas boasts about its continued tunneling activities, and the IDF has warned that the terrorist group has restored its military capabilities to pre-2014 strength, expecting that in the next war the southern communities bordering the Strip would be incessantly pounded with rockets and mortar attacks.
So is the IDF prepared? The report, which was published on Tuesday, leveled criticism at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon for failing to prepare for the threat posed by Hamas tunnels from Gaza, despite the intelligence that they had received.
It was a major intelligence failure, which struck fear into the Israeli population and killed 11 IDF soldiers. During the war, the IDF destroyed 32 cross-border tunnels used by Hamas to ferry weapons and operatives into Israeli territory.
Since the end of the war, the army has continued to discover cross-border tunnels, and Israelis living near the border with Gaza have reported hearing underground drilling, raising fears of new tunnels that could be used to conduct raids into Israel.
A senior IDF officer stationed on the border with Gaza told The Jerusalem Post that the army is well aware of Hamas’s continued tunnel building, and takes every report of drilling seriously, as Hamas is building tunnels toward civilian communities in a strategic effort to inflict the largest amount of casualties.
Since the conclusion of the war, Israel has invested over NIS 600 million in technology to detect and destroy tunnels.
Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the same companies that produced the Iron Dome missile defense system, are said to be working on the development of an “underground Iron Dome” system that would be capable of detecting, mapping and neutralizing cross-border tunnels.
The IDF’s Combat Engineering Corp’s Yahalom unit, which was responsible for blowing up the tunnels during the war, has also changed since then, having received upgraded technology to deal with the threat and having increased threefold in strength. In a base in the Center, the unit trains on tunnels built to the exact specifications of Hamas attack tunnels, in order to best understand underground warfare.
The army’s overall training of soldiers has also changed since the war, with the IDF now training every ground soldier in how to face the threat posed by the tunnels.
A senior IDF officer in the Ground Forces training branch told the Post that there has been a significant improvement between the ground forces, navy, air force and intelligence.
The merging of the Ground Forces Command with the Technological and Logistics Directorate, under the command of Maj.-Gen. Kobi Barak, has also greatly improved the army’s ability to coordinate not only during training exercises but also in time of war, the senior officer told the Post.
But Hamas is known to have invested a large part of its budget in building tunnels, and despite all the work Israel has done to face the threat, Channel 2’s Amit Segal reported this past week that government sources have confirmed that the terrorist group has at least 15 attack tunnels crossing the border into Israel, half of what they had in 2014.
According to a statement released by the Defense Ministry in response to the State Comptroller’s Report, technological capabilities developed by the IDF since the conflict constitute a significant response to the challenge of dealing with underground threats, capabilities that offer “solutions unlike anything developed by any country in the world.”
But according to a former senior security cabinet minister, despite the IDF receiving over 400 solutions to the threat posed by the tunnels, “none is what we need. We still don’t have the optimal solution.”
IDF protocols have also changed since the end of the war – for example, the cancellation of the Hannibal protocol by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot in January.
The protocol, which allows troops to do whatever is deemed necessary, including using a massive amount of force, to prevent the abduction of a soldier, was used in Operation Protective Edge following the abduction of the body of Lt. Hadar Goldin through a Hamas tunnel in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
In its place, three distinct protocols were formulated, each depending on where an abduction occurs and when, such as an abduction in the West Bank during peacetime; beyond Israel’s borders during peacetime; and in any location during time of war.
The new protocols also specifically state that soldiers should avoid hitting the captive while firing at abductors, a change from the older protocol that allowed endangering the life of a captive soldier.
Another lesson learned by the IDF regards Hamas’s tactic of waterborne infiltrations by its naval commando unit. On the first day of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, five Hamas frogmen (naval commandos) tried to infiltrate Kibbutz Zikim, before they were engaged by the IDF. All five commandos were killed.
The defense establishment has warned that the IDF must pay special attention to the strengthening of the frogmen unit, which the Islamist group is actively training.
The unit is also said to have more divers than it had before the 2014 conflict.
Accordingly, the IDF has since integrated the training of its soldiers not only for underground infiltrations but also for waterborne infiltrations, with the last major drill against Hamas infiltrations scheduled to take place soon.
The navy has also upgraded its sensor system placed on the naval border with the Gaza Strip, in order to thwart infiltrations into Israel and attacks against ships.
Following the war, the state comptroller also carried out comprehensive audits on issues related to the protection of civilians by the IDF Home Front Command, and according to a report released in December, there are several significant discrepancies between what needs to be done to protect citizens and what is actually being done – specifically, regarding preparations in the fields of physical protection, early warning systems and the evacuation of the population, which would increase the risk to civilians during a combat event.
While the threat posed by tunnels was a major aspect of the State Comptroller’s Report, during the war 4,594 rockets were fired from the Strip toward Israel. Toward the end, Hamas focused on short-range mortar fire, with deadly results, killing both soldiers and civilians, who had little or no warning of incoming projectiles.
Last year the IDF unveiled the Rotem radar system, deployed along the Gaza border and designed to give an additional eight seconds for residents to seek shelter from mortar shells. The system has allowed for sirens to be triggered in areas where previous warning times were insufficient or even nonexistent.
The IDF has since improved the capabilities of units stationed on the border, and is also working on a new system of mobile sirens that can provide warnings of incoming mortar shells to soldiers stationed in open areas bordering the Gaza Strip.
New technology, including an upgrade to the Iron Dome missile defense system and the official transfer of the first Arrow-3 missile interceptors to the Israel Air Force in January, has made Israel’s multi-layered missile defense even stronger, along with the Arrow-2, David’s Sling and Iron Dome systems. Rafael is also working on the Iron Beam, a system designed to intercept low-altitude and low-trajectory threats, such as mortar shells, using a laser beam.
During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, the IDF said it struck Hamas facilities that were being used to develop drones capable of carrying explosives, with then- OC Southern Command Tal Russo saying that the military destroyed “advanced weaponry, such as the development of a UAV that isn’t used for photography but for attacks deep inside Israel.”
In recent years Hamas drones have on occasion come near, and sometimes breached, Israeli airspace, leading the IDF to scramble jets or fire missiles, and since Operation Protective Edge, Hamas is known to have invested in its drone capabilities.
Both Islamic State and Hezbollah have used weaponized drones to carry out attacks, and it is not hard to imagine that Israel could face the same threat from Hamas, which is reportedly producing drones that can carry bombs.
In December Hamas’s chief drone expert and engineer, Muhammad al-Zawari, was assassinated in Tunisia. According to Izzadin Kassam, Hamas’s armed wing, Zawari, who had been a member of the group for 10 years and had supervised its drone program, was gunned down in his car near his home, close to the city of Sfax. Hamas blamed the Mossad for his assassination, and warned that “the enemy must know the blood of the leader Zawari will not go in vain.”
Should Hamas use weaponized drones, “Hamas knows the retaliation would be very deadly; it would be an act of war,” Yoram Schweitzer, senior research fellow and head of the program on terrorism and low intensity conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies, told the Post in a recent interview.
Despite the upgrades in equipment and training by the IDF, in the December audit there was criticism by the state comptroller of shortcomings in the coordination among the various government bodies that deal with the home front, including the Defense Ministry, the IDF and the National Security Council.
Nevertheless, the Home Front Command has said it is prepared for the next conflict. It has carried out simulations with emergency services personnel from several regional councils in the South to train them in disaster scenarios that may hit their communities, such as an incoming rocket or mortar barrage.
According to Lt.-Col. Keren Dan, head of Municipal Authorities and Infrastructure in the Home Front Command, who spoke to the Post, between 2013 and 2016, 28 communities were trained, and another 22 communities are set to be trained on the simulator in 2017.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has stated several times that Israel has no intention of initiating another round of fighting with its enemies, but should Israel be pressed into a confrontation, “we will go in at full force and not leave a stone unturned.”
The military assumption is that Hamas is not looking for a confrontation with Israel in the near future. But that was the assumption by Military Intelligence prior to the outbreak of the 2014 war.
So is the army prepared for the next confrontation with Hamas? It better be, as it’s only a matter of time.