Hamas’s deployment at the Gaza border carries echoes of South Lebanon
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AnalysisHamas could try to send out troops from several directions simultaneously, dozens if not hundreds of armed men who will try to storm an Israeli community

Hamas’s deployment at the Gaza border carries echoes of South Lebanon

The Islamists are positioned just across the fence, better trained and better equipped than in the past. And it won't take much to shatter the current calm

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Gunmen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, patrol an area near the Israeli border with Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 3, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Gunmen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, patrol an area near the Israeli border with Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 3, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

ISRAEL-GAZA BORDER — At approximately 3:30 on a recent afternoon, one could see, with the unaided eye, three white pickup trucks belonging to Hamas arrive at a lookout point on the Gaza side of the border with Israel. In army language, their convoy is known as a “commanders’ patrol”: This was a group of Hamas officers on a tour of their positions, checking to see that the troops were alert and prepared for any possibility of escalation.

There were 13 members of the patrol in all, in black uniforms, climbing up to an observation post where armed Hamas troops keep constant watch on Israel.

Several hundred meters from the first is another Hamas position, and behind it is another position, and still another. A position manned by Islamic Jihad members peeks out from among them.

These are Hamas’s visible border positions. The Israelis can also point to several camouflaged observation points in open or built-up areas. They are located more deeply inside the Strip and contain more sophisticated equipment. On the horizon is an enormous flagpole on which, every morning, Hamas troops mount advanced observation equipment to keep an eye on what happens on the Israeli side.

This is the situation to which Israel has resigned itself since the end of Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014: a massive military presence of Hamas on the border fence, which at any given moment could turn into a surprise attack on Israel. Echoes of Hezbollah’s border presence in the north prior to the 2006 Second Lebanon War are inescapable.

Screenshot from a promo clip for a three-part documentary series on Hezbollah's preparations for the cross-border raid in 2006 that sparked the Second Lebanon War. (al-Mayadeen/YouTube)
Screenshot from a promo clip for a three-part documentary series on Hezbollah’s preparations for the cross-border raid in 2006 that sparked the Second Lebanon War. (al-Mayadeen/YouTube)

Hamas military activities in Gaza bear no resemblance to a “classic” terrorist organization’s patterns of action. It is a true guerrilla army equipped with the best of weapons, from the troops’ uniforms and boots to their personal arms, communications and night-vision equipment; anti-tank rockets that are among the best in the world; a range of precise (and imprecise) rockets; and special forces that can operate in the sea, in the air, and, of course, in the tunnels. Here, on the border between Gaza and Israel, one can see the relative ease with which tunnels to Israel can be dug under cover of the residential areas.

In the last war, Hamas contented itself with fairly small-scale operations. The largest attack involved approximately 13 armed members of Hamas. But we can assume that in the next war, mainly at its start, we will see an attempt by Hamas to surprise Israel with a much larger operation or terror attack than the ones we are familiar with. That is the scenario for which Israeli troops are preparing in the sector.

A still from Al-Jazeera footage, broadcast on Wednesday, August 6, 2014, showing Hamas gunmen, weapons and tunnels (MEMRI screenshot)
A still from Al-Jazeera footage, broadcast on Wednesday, August 6, 2014, showing Hamas gunmen, weapons and tunnels (MEMRI screenshot)

Few in Hamas will probably be party to that decision; few will know about it before the moment the attack begins. There is not necessarily a need to transport large numbers of troops to the border. Hamas is training hundreds of its people in installations that are close to the border in any event, and its commanders need only give the order to those troops to prepare for an actual operation.

Such an attack could be mounted at the least “convenient” time for Israel: say Friday at 2 a.m. And this time, Hamas could try to send out troops from several directions simultaneously — dozens if not hundreds of armed men who will try to storm an Israeli community.

Hamas gunmen dressed as IDF soldiers targeting Israeli forces after emerging from a tunnel near Kibbutz Nir Am, July 21, 2014. (Screen capture: IDF)
Hamas gunmen dressed as IDF soldiers targeting Israeli forces after emerging from a tunnel near Kibbutz Nir Am, July 21, 2014. (Screen capture: IDF)

It could happen by land, from underground, or by sea, and Hamas could use tools that we haven’t yet seen it use, such as motorcycles, gliders, and even transport vehicles disguised as Israeli ones. For example, two vehicles that have been adapted and disguised are in Hamas’s installations. They look exactly like Merkava tanks, and there is even one that looks like an Achzarit APC. Suddenly, the possibility that even a part of this force might succeed in reaching a populated area close to the border no longer seems all that imaginary or far-fetched.

For now, Hamas is restrained and calm. It is even stopping Gazan operatives of Salafia Jihadia who are attempting to fire rockets at Israel. But this period of calm will likely end one of these days. That end could come as the result of a rocket attack or simply because of the severe economic situation in the Gaza Strip. In such a case, Israel will encounter a far tougher and stronger adversary than the one it faced in the summer of 2014.

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