Security and Defense: Preparing for round two

Security and Defense Pr

On Monday, Hamas will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of its founding with large rallies and parades throughout the Gaza Strip, which will be colored in green, the movement's hue of choice. A little over a week later, Hamas is planning another round of celebrations to mark the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, the IDF's three-week offensive against the Islamic group launched late last year. While militarily, Hamas emerged defeated from the operation, it will celebrate the fact that it survived. On the other side of the border fence, Israel will mark these dates not with celebrations but with a level of sobriety in light of the latest IDF assessments that a new round with Hamas could be just around the corner. The IDF believes this future conflict will be far different than its predecessor, and likely more lethal. In the year that has passed since the operation, Israel has enjoyed an unprecedented period of quiet along the border. While the operation brought a record amount of criticism - topped by the UN's Goldstone report which characterized some of Israel's actions as "war crimes" - it has created a semblance of normalcy in the communities along the Gaza border, even leading to a rise in real estate prices. Last week, for example, OC Gaza Division Brig.-Gen. Eyal Eisenberg visited Sderot for talks with municipal officials. On the way, he stopped at the old marketplace where he met a woman who mentioned to him that a few months ago her son left the house to go play in a park. It was his first time in eight years. Take the number of rocket attacks since Cast Lead - 300. This is a dramatic drop in comparison to the more than 1,750 rockets in 2008 ahead of the operation. In November, six rockets were fired in comparison to more than 40 in the same month last year. According to Military Intelligence, Hamas has not been involved in a single terror attack since the operation ended. The group does, however, allow other terror groups - such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - to attack occasionally. This drop in terror attacks does not mean that Gaza is ready to make peace with Israel, but it does lead the IDF to conclude that Cast Lead was a definite success, and that the operation achieved its goal of creating a new level of deterrence. AT THE same time that Hamas is ceasing its fire, it is in the midst of an unprecedented rearmament process, which includes the smuggling of advanced weaponry into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula, as well as the construction of new underground defensive networks. Following Cast Lead, Hamas - with assistance from Iran, Syria and Hizbullah - studied its actions in an effort to discover and fix its mistakes. The group's first mistake was its belief that Israel - due to the upcoming elections and ahead of Barack Obama's inauguration - would not launch an operation. Its second mistake was its belief that following the failures of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel would not dare send ground troops into Gaza. Senior Hamas officials were also extremely disappointed with the group's performance on the battlefield, since they thought that they were capable of stopping the IDF's ground attack with a combination of bombs, mines and tunnels. This understanding has not caused Hamas to change its ways, but has had the opposite effect on the group, which is now working to come up with a new combat doctrine which would include innovative ideas, tactics and methods aimed at succeeding next time where it earlier failed. Accordingly, Hamas is making unparalleled efforts to obtain advanced Iranian weaponry, including long-range missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and Russian-made, armor-piercing anti-tank missiles. The group is building silos that can contain and simultaneously launch more than 20 rockets, and it is digging dozens of kilometers of tunnels connecting open fields with urban centers with the hope of drawing the IDF into the built-up areas during the next engagement. Hamas's strategy is twofold since it understands that the IDF has a significant advantage not just from the air but also on the ground. As a result, it plans to use more civilian infrastructure; for example, the group has already taken control of over 80 percent of Gaza's mosques, which it uses to store weapons and shelter command-and-control centers. Hamas believes it can overcome Israel's qualitative edge by either forcing the IDF to penetrate deep into the residential areas to target its command centers and bases that are being "padded" with civilians, or by provoking the IAF to attack by air, an act which runs the risk of major international condemnation. Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has increased its weapons smuggling and today operates hundreds of tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor. According to latest assessments, it has smuggled in dozens of Iranian-made rockets that can reach Tel Aviv, as well as advanced anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Hamas is believed to have a significant number of shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, including the 9M113 Konkurs, which have a range of four kilometers and are capable of penetrating heavy armor. In addition, the Islamic group is believed to have today a few thousand rockets, including several hundred with a range of 40 kilometers, and several dozen with a range of between 60 km. and 80 km. Intelligence assessments are that Hamas smuggled the missiles into the Gaza Strip through tunnels, possibly in several pieces where they were later assembled by Hamas engineers. Ultimately though, Israel believes that Hamas has succeeded in mastering reverse technology on most of the missiles, and can manufacture them independently if need be. This need could arise in the event of an IDF takeover of the southern Gaza Strip and the cutting off of its main supply artery - the tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. Such a plan was considered ahead of Cast Lead but was deemed too costly by the government. Hamas has also recently increased its efforts to dig what the IDF calls "offensive tunnels" - underground passageways close to the border which the group could use to infiltrate into Israel and kidnap soldiers. These tunnels are believed to be of strategic value for Hamas, which would only use them for large-scale attacks and high-value targets. Hamas is not only investing in military infrastructure, but it is also working to bolster its grip on the Gaza Strip. One example was the crackdown a few months ago on an al-Qaida-linked group based in Rafah whose leader challenged its authority. Another example was when Hamas sent representatives to regular homes last month to talk to residents and see if they were lacking food or money ahead of the Id el-Adha holiday. Hamas's current goal, as understood by Israel, is to maintain the current quiet to enable it to solidify its control and complete preparations for the next round. It also is taking into consideration the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will hold elections sometime next year, and that another devastating round against Israel could bring Palestinians to cast a vote against Hamas. To complicate the situation, the negotiations for Gilad Schalit also play a role, since a mass release of prisoners would give Hamas a significant political boost, at least in the short-term. Working on the assumption that without a clear breakthrough in reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamic group will not be restrained, the IDF is preparing accordingly and is already training its forces based on future operational models. To date, several brigade-level exercises have been held. Israel has three goals when it comes to Gaza: One, it wants quiet, something it has temporarily achieved; two, it would like to see the territory demilitarized; and three, it would like to further disconnect from Gaza, a move that started with the disengagement in 2005 but was never completed. So while progress has been made regarding two of those goals - there is a temporary quiet and the ties with Gaza continue to be severed - the third, a demilitarized Hamas, is far from reality, with the group today stronger than ever. In just five years it has jumped from having rockets with a maximum range of 17 km. to rockets with a range of up to 80 km.