Security and Defense: Assessing Operation Black Belt

Both the IDF and Islamic Jihad can point to victories in this week’s conflict.

A ROCKET fired from Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad heads toward Israel this week (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
A ROCKET fired from Gaza by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad heads toward Israel this week
After two days of heavy fighting between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both sides can claim that they accomplished their goals: Israel’s military took out a “ticking time bomb,” while the Gazan-based terrorist group shut down half of the country.
Launching Operation Black Belt, Israel’s military took out a man they accused of destabilizing the Gaza Strip, Bahaa Abu al-Ata, dealing a heavy blow to the Iranian-backed terrorist group. It also succeeded in focusing its attack on PIJ, which enabled Hamas to remain out of the conflict.
PIJ, meanwhile, was able to shut down half of the country for hours on Tuesday and fire close to 400 rockets toward Israel’s home front over the course of 50 hours.
Not a small feat for a terrorist group.
PIJ, the second-most powerful group in the Strip, had been 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, with another 6,000 fighters.
PIJ, which has a significant arsenal of rockets, several of which can reach the center of the country, assumed that Israel’s Gush Dan region was protected by the country’s missile defense system, including the famed Iron Dome, which was used to take down 90% of rockets fired towards residential areas.
And while only the Iron Dome was used, IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman said that other systems, including the Arrow and David’s Sling, were also available to use if necessary.
PIJ fired its long-range rockets toward central Israel, including Tel Aviv, early in the fighting on Tuesday morning. The country was brought to a standstill, millions of people stayed home, and the streets of Tel Aviv, which are usually packed and bustling with activity, were reminiscent of Yom Kippur. Dead quiet.
By shutting down the country and disrupting the economy for several hours, leading to the loss of billions of shekels, PIJ was able to undermine the sense of security for those in the “bubble” who are usually never affected in such a way.
When asked by reporters if shutting down half the country was the right decision to make, Zilberman was adamant that it was better to be safe than sorry, assuming that such a move was necessary following a situational assessment.
“If we would have had fatalities in the Gush Dan region, we would not have been able to finish this round within 48 hours, and that’s very important,” he said, adding that “residents of the Gush Dan are less used to finding shelter during their routine life than the residents in the South.”
Residents in the South have been incessantly pounded by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip over the past 18 years. Those in the Center feel the threat only once in a blue moon when Israel is not at war in the Strip.
After winning its first battle by instilling fear in the millions of residents of central Israel, PIJ then decided to focus its firepower on communities in southern Israel, launching barrage after barrage of rockets toward the towns and communities surrounding the Strip.
But while it fired close to 400 rockets in 50 hours, Zilberman said that it fired a lot less than it could have.
While the Home Front Command lifted restrictions off of the majority of central Israel by Tuesday evening, southern Israel remained at a standstill until the ceasefire went into effect.
WHILE ISRAEL has had a dozen violent rounds with the Gaza Strip since March 2018, all were focused on the ruling party of the Strip, Hamas – even if PIJ, under the command of Bahaa Abu al-Ata, was the one behind the attacks, be it sniping or rockets.
This time, Israel’s military changed its policy and focused all its firepower against PIJ infrastructure and operatives, killing 25 operatives who were in the midst of firing, or preparing to launch, rockets toward Israel.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the ceasefire was announced, Zilberman said the operation was characterized by “surgical operations and surprise” as well as by cooperation between the air force, Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
“We conducted the battle using initiative, subterfuge and surgical precision,” he said, adding that “we had intelligence officials from various disciplines working alongside commanders to direct strikes.
“With a combination of military personnel from a variety of units who specialize in SIGINT and HUMINT, we were able to attack cells and close the circle against targets very quickly. That’s what killed 25 terrorists who were in the midst of carrying out hostile activity.”
The “surgical strikes” against the PIJ and rogue Fatah operatives were carried out through the “Fire Canopy” concept, first envisioned by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi as commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division prior to the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip in 2005.
While the concept was relatively unsuccessful at first, 14 years later it was the star of the show.
The operations during Black Belt were managed from a mobile command and control center full of flat screens, showing troops everything that was happening.
With a dense network of surveillance and attack resources, from unmanned aerial vehicles to fighter jets over the Strip and significant intelligence resources from the Shin Bet, the military was able to spot and identify its targets and close the circle on them in real time.
While a total of 11 Palestinian civilians, including several children, were killed in the two-day operation, the IDF stressed that precision airstrikes reduced the number of civilian casualties and stopped the PIJ operatives from carrying out their attacks in real time.
That Hamas also stayed out of the violence was also considered a success in Israel’s books.
The killing of al-Ata allowed Hamas to breathe a sigh of relief, as the PIJ commander hampered the group’s ability to govern the Strip and adhere to the ceasefire arrangement with Israel, which gives them millions of dollars from Qatar and other much needed infrastructure, such as electricity, fuel and a new hospital.
Unlike PIJ, Hamas has the Gazan street to contend with. It needed to be the responsible adult.
Following intense mediation by Egypt, the two sides agreed to a ceasefire after 50 hours of fighting. Both sides claimed victory; but for the IDF, the fact that the conflict didn’t stretch into weeks of fighting was paramount.
“We are at high readiness and preparedness on all fronts, not only in Gaza,” Zilberman said. “We are facing a significant challenge against Iranian activity in a variety of arenas, and not only in Syria.”