Security and Defense: Waiting for a trigger

While Iran and Syria grab headlines, Gaza is far from forgotten; an IDF operation seems only a matter of time.

Member of Hamas security forces at site of Israeli stike 390 (photo credit: Suhaib Salem/Reuters)
Member of Hamas security forces at site of Israeli stike 390
(photo credit: Suhaib Salem/Reuters)
In 2008, the IDF developed the “knocking on the roof” tactic. The idea was quite simple and was formulated by the Southern Command’s chief operations officer at the time, Col. Y.
Facing a growing number of arms caches located in civilian homes, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) would call up the homes and warn residents that they had five minutes to evacuate before the home was bombed. The system worked 54 times but the 55th time everything changed.
“After we called to warn the residents of the home, we saw via our drone that they had climbed to the roof together with some of their neighbors and were jumping up and down,” a senior officer from the Gaza Division recalled recently. “There was a debate whether to attack and we decided not to.”
The next day, the IDF called another home and the same thing happened.
“We understood that we had lost the tactical advantage,” the officer said.
But then, a few officers in the Southern Command came up with a new idea – call the home, wait for the residents to climb to the roof and then order a nearby attack helicopter to fire a small missile at a corner of the rooftop. In most cases, the weapon used was a small anti-tank missile that has low shrapnel dispersion so that no one would be injured.
When the missile struck, the people on the roof got the message and fled, leaving an empty home for the air force to then bomb.
WITH ISRAEL currently focused on the unstable situation in Syria and efforts to stop Iran’s race to nuclear power, it almost seems like the volatile Gaza Strip has been forgotten. It hasn’t.
As reported earlier this month in The Jerusalem Post, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz has ordered the Southern Command to complete preparations for a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip that could be launched within the near future.
It is true that a nuclear Iran features at the top of Military Intelligence’s threat list for the coming year, followed closely by Syria and Hezbollah. But at the same time, there is almost a complete consensus within the IDF that the most volatile front – and the one that will erupt first – is the Gaza Strip.
The reasons are quite simple. For one, just last week, while all eyes were on Iran, 16 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel. In response, the Israel Air Force bombed a number of tunnels in southern Gaza and attacked a mortar cell as well.
This is a war zone that is starting to look more and more like southern Lebanon in the period before the Second Lebanon War.
Positions along the border were always heavily fortified near Gaza but they recently received an extra layer of protection in the form of a metal mesh net that is meant to defend against anti-tank missiles. A missile, if launched, would first hit the net, undermining its ability to then penetrate the next layer of protection.
Another interesting characteristic of the Gaza front is that while Hamas and Israel do not engage in dialogue with one another, they have developed a language of their own – made up of Palestinian attacks and Israeli retaliations.
In 2011, for example, the Gaza Division’s operations center attacked 50 different rocket cells in the Gaza Strip, in comparison to just 10 in 2010.
The rules of engagement for the operations center – referred to figuratively in the military as the “Fire Canopy” – allows it to attack terrorists who are in the midst of firing rockets or mortars into Israel or immediately afterwards.
If however, the center finds a terrorist five hours after he launched a rocket, attack is no longer permissible.
Behind these rules is the understanding that Hamas will not escalate its rocket attacks into Israel if the IDF succeeds in killing terrorists who are in the midst of launching a rocket. If, however, the IDF strikes a random jeep driving in Gaza City with armed Hamas men inside, even though they are terrorists, this will lead to an immediate escalation.
The Fire Canopy is run by a group of officers from the Artillery Corps. The center’s walls are lined with large plasma computer screens and desks are available for use by officers from Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and even the Mossad on occasion.
The command center receives a live feed from drones that are operated out of various air force bases and is in direct contact with the operator as well as with helicopter and fighter jet pilots.
One recent attack in July was against an Islamic Jihad cell that the center tracked as it traveled for about six hours by car through the Gaza Strip. The car finally arrived at an open field and three people got out, carrying something that looked like a long pipe but was clearly a long-range Katyusha rocket.
The command center immediately ordered a strike and the cell members were killed. Later in the day, though, the IDF received reports that a woman was among one of the casualties. A subsequent inquiry revealed that she was the fiancée of the commander of that specific Islamic Jihad cell and that she had been there to film the launching of the rocket so it could later be posted on the terrorist group’s website.
One of the center’s main challenges these days is identifying who the terrorists are. In most cases, the terrorists do not arrive at the launch site with the rockets, which are usually placed there beforehand. This is in comparison to just a couple of years ago when drone operators spoke of seeing men in suits and ties walking down streets in Gaza carrying rockets on their shoulder on their way to launch them into Gaza.
“They are aware of our capabilities and take precautions,” a senior officer in the Gaza Division explained.
CURRENTLY, THE IDF assesses that Hamas is not interested in a major conflict. The first reason is the organization’s draw to diplomacy and international relations, demonstrated by Ismail Haniyeh’s recent trip across the Arab world and Khaled Mashaal’s planned visit to Jordan in the coming weeks.
Hamas’s main concern is the stability of its rule in Gaza, challenged today by Islamic Jihad, which receives more Iranian support and funding than Hamas, as well as from the direction of Mahmoud Abbas whose unilateral moves at the UN caused Hamas to feel left behind.
That is why it is moving forward with the efforts to reach a reconciliation agreement with Fatah, even though it will likely not last for long.
Although there are signs that Hamas is working to stop rocket fire into Israel – its operatives sometimes show up at the launch sites quicker than the IDF can get a drone over them – it mostly turns a blind eye in order to let the smaller terror groups in Gaza let off steam and not turn their weapons against Hamas.
The main question, though, is what would motivate Israel to launch such an operation in Gaza today where, even while there are rocket attacks going on, the country – for the most part – does not seem to notice.
This question is at the core of a debate within the IDF in which some officers believe that Israel already has all of the justification it needs to launch a large-scale offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad – the military buildup, the continued rocket attacks, the attacks from Sinai and the intelligence about plans to kidnap soldiers.
Other officers say that Israel will need a trigger that it can use to justify the decision to launch an operation on the international arena.
Some officers thought that the anti-tank missile attack against the yellow school bus in April – which killed 16-year-old Daniel Viflic – was enough. When it wasn’t, others thought the attack from Sinai in August – which killed eight Israelis – would suffice. It didn’t either.
That is why it will be interesting to see what happens in several months, after the Southern Command completes preparations for such an operation. The IDF will then be ready and all it will need is the right excuse.