‘Guardian of the Walls’ wasn’t the resounding victory the IDF had hoped for

Though it had clear successes on the tunnel front and elsewhere, the military failed to prevent terror groups in Gaza from firing over 4,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israel

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A soldier from the Israeli military's Home Front Command walks outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon that had been struck by a Hamas rocket on May 20, 2021. (Edi Israel/FLASH90)
A soldier from the Israeli military's Home Front Command walks outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon that had been struck by a Hamas rocket on May 20, 2021. (Edi Israel/FLASH90)

The 11 days of fighting in Gaza that made up what the Israel Defense Forces calls Operation Guardian of the Walls constituted the first major conflict overseen by army chief Aviv Kohavi. The results were at best a mixed bag, despite claims by military and political leaders of unprecedented achievements.

On a strictly military basis, in this round of fighting, Israel emerged the clear victor. The IDF destroyed large amounts of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad weaponry and infrastructure and killed over 200 of their members, including senior leaders. The underground tunnels that represented the primary challenge for Israel before and during the 2014 Gaza war were not only not a threat, but were instead a liability for Hamas. And while the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups can count a number of small achievements to their credit, they failed to carry out any major, paradigm-changing attacks.

Yet this was far from a resounding victory for the IDF. Throughout the fighting, over 4,360 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern and central Israel, at rates far, far beyond previous rounds of violence — nearly three times as high as in the 2014 Gaza war, which saw on average 130 projectiles fired per day, compared to the nearly 400 launched per day on average during this month’s fighting. According to the IDF, some 3,400 of the rockets and mortars that were launched actually crossed into Israeli territory, while 680 fell short of the border inside Gaza and another 280 landed out at sea.

Due mostly to a lack of precise intelligence, the IDF was unable to destroy the lion’s share of the terror groups’ existing arsenals of rockets, Israeli military officials acknowledge. While the IDF developed techniques to somewhat address this rocket fire during the conflict, according to a senior IDF Southern Command officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad were overwhelmingly free to launch massive barrages at major Israeli population centers and key infrastructure. The IDF destroyed some 850 of the more than 15,000 rockets that the terror groups had between them going into the conflict, according to Israeli military tallies.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Monday, May. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Almost twice as many civilians in Israel were killed over the 11 days of Operation Guardian of the Walls — 11 — than were killed in the 51 days of the 2014 Gaza war. At the same time, one IDF soldier was killed in the fighting this month, Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib, whose jeep was hit by an anti-tank guided missile, compared to the 67 troops killed in 2014, almost all during the military’s ground invasion; ground forces did not enter Gaza in this conflict.

Hamas’s ability to fire barrages at the Israeli home front unhindered is a source of major concern for the IDF not only in the context of Gaza, but also in terms of what it means for a future war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, whose arsenals contain far, far more powerful rockets and missiles and in far, far greater quantities, military officials said.

If Operation Guardian of the Walls was a test run for a fight against Hezbollah, with its 190,000 rockets and mortar shells, including a number of precision-guided missiles and long-range munitions, the IDF General Staff recognizes that it will have to quickly learn some significant lessons on how to halt these types of attacks before they occur and not only rely on the Iron Dome anti-missile system and other defensive measures to protect Israel’s civilian population and critical infrastructure after they’ve been launched.

Alongside such efforts, Israel will also have to make serious investments in building up its physical defenses on the home front. The city of Ashkelon bore the brunt of Hamas’s rocket fire, with rocket sirens sounding 168 times in its southern industrial park, more than any other location in Israel, according to a tally by the Maariv newspaper.

A firefighter extinguishes a burning vehicle in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon following a rocket attack fired from the Gaza Strip, on May 16, 2021. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Hundreds upon hundreds of rockets were fired at the city over the course of the fighting, including nearly 150 in one fusillade last Tuesday, effectively overwhelming the otherwise successful Iron Dome missile defense system, which also suffered a malfunction at the time of the attack that was quickly fixed, according to the IDF. Two women were killed in the barrage and dozens more were injured. This was far from the first time that Ashkelon has been targeted by rocket fire, yet between one-third and one-quarter of the city lacks proper, accessible bomb shelters, a fact that has been well documented in multiple state comptroller reports, including one last year.

And Ashkelon is not alone. Over a quarter of a million Israelis who live near the Gaza Strip and Lebanon borders do not have access to bomb shelters in or close to their homes, according to the damning 2020 comptroller report.

During the fighting, the head of the IDF Home Front Command, which is formally tasked with ensuring Israelis have ready access to bomb shelters, acknowledged that this was an area that required significant attention going forward.

No attack tunnels this time

But the Israeli military did also have a number of notable successes.

For years, the Hamas terror group has been digging tunnels under and out of the Gaza Strip. It used them in 2006 to kidnap Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, holding him hostage until Israel agreed to a wildly lopsided exchange to get him back, releasing over 1,000 convicted terrorists. It also used them to deadly effect in the 2014 Gaza war. The IDF effectively made these tunnels, particularly cross-border ones, a non-issue in this round of fighting.

Following the 2014 conflict, Israel set out to neutralize this threat, pouring significant resources into technologies to detect tunnels as well as pouring concrete into the ground around the Gaza Strip to form a massive underground barrier studded with sensors to physically block tunnels from entering Israeli territory.

Palestinians pray by the bodies of members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group who died in Israeli bombardment of a tunnel, during their funeral in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 21, 2021. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

In addition, for years, the IDF dedicated huge amounts of intelligence-gathering efforts to locate and accurately map out the massive, sprawling networks of tunnels that Hamas has built underneath the Gaza Strip.

Initially, the Israeli military intended to use its knowledge of the locations of Hamas’s subterranean passages for the opening salvo in a ground campaign by dropping masses of bombs on the tunnel networks in order to deny Hamas access to what it considers to be one of its most significant strategic assets and to kill large numbers of Hamas operatives inside the tunnels.

Ultimately, IDF Southern Command chief Eliezer Toledano decided to strike the tunnel network, which the military took to calling the “metro,” as a center point of Operation Guardian of the Walls, as a goal in itself rather than as the opening gambit in a ground invasion. Over the course of seven raids, the Israeli Air Force destroyed over 100 kilometers (60 miles) of tunnels, knocking those passages out entirely and — the IDF hopes — forcing Hamas to reconsider its underground infrastructure entirely.

This decision to attack the so-called “metro” was a contentious one, with some in the military arguing that it such a strike should be saved for a future ground offensive as originally intended. Ultimately, however, Toledano decided that Hamas was quickly realizing that its tunnels were no longer the impenetrable, undetectable assets they once were and this campaign may be the last time that the tunnel networks could be destroyed while they were still in full use by Hamas, The Times of Israel has learned.

As a result, the bombing of these underground passages was of somewhat limited immediate tactical value to the IDF, but the military hopes that it will cause more lasting damage to Hamas as the terror group has to significantly overhaul its fighting strategies in light of the loss of the subterranean domain.

In total, the military believes it destroyed roughly a third of Hamas’s underground tunnel infrastructure in Gaza.

Preventing rearmament

The IDF also successfully destroyed much of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rocket production capabilities, meaning the groups will not be able to begin replenishing their somewhat diminished arsenals for at least several months for some types of simpler rockets, and for over a year, with longer-range munitions. Due to Israel’s ongoing naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, terror groups in the enclave are forced to domestically manufacture their rockets, meaning they are of far poorer quality than they would be if they could import them from abroad, notably from Iran.

The IDF, working with other Israeli security services, hopes to stretch out the amount of time it would take for the terror groups to rearm even longer by stepping up its operations against their smuggling efforts in order to prevent them from bringing in the technical equipment needed for rocket production.

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 20, 2021, during an Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave following rocket fire (BASHAR TALEB / AFP)

In addition to the IDF’s offensive efforts against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s tunnels and rocket production, the Israeli military’s defensive operations were also notably successful, preventing the terror groups from carrying out significant attacks besides rocket launches during the fighting.

At least three times during the fighting, Hamas attempted to send fighters into Israel to carry out cross-border raids to kill or kidnap Israeli soldiers and civilians using tunnels that approached but didn’t cross the border, and all three times, a senior IDF officer said, the military thwarted these efforts, once by targeting the operatives before they entered the tunnel and twice while they were inside, killing a total of 18 top Hamas fighters, according to Palestinian media.

Seven drones were launched from Gaza toward Israel and all of them were brought down, including at least one of them by the Iron Dome in the first such use of the system operationally. And at least two autonomous submarines — effectively small, explosive underwater drones — were also intercepted before they could be used against Israeli targets at sea and on the coast.

Mourners attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, in Elyakim in northern Israel, on May 13, 2021. Tabib was killed when Palestinian terrorists in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile near the border. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Though the Islamic Jihad and Hamas each carried out successful anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) attacks — killing Tabib and hitting an empty bus, respectively — the use of these particularly deadly weapons was relatively limited, in large part because Israeli ground and air forces bombed at least 20 ATGM teams during the course of the fighting, according to IDF assessments.

In total, the IDF estimates it killed upwards of 200 terrorist operatives, most of them members of Hamas but some of the Islamic Jihad, though it believes that the number is likely higher as many of those killed were in underground tunnels and their bodies have yet to be retrieved. The Israeli military currently knows the names of at least 123 of the terrorist operatives killed and is working to identify the rest, The Times of Israel has learned.

This appears to indicate that most of the people killed in Gaza were members of terrorist groups, though the exact ratio of civilians to combatants is not yet clear. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry has only acknowledged the deaths of 243 Palestinians in the fighting, likely a low figure given the IDF’s assessments, especially as the ministry says this includes 66 minors and 39 women.

Relatives mourn during the funeral of Reema Telbani and her 5-year-old son Zaid, who were killed in Israeli airstrikes on their family apartment building, at Dar Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on May 12, 2021. (AP/Adel Hana)

According to the IDF, a portion of the Palestinian civilian deaths were caused by failed rockets that landed within the Strip, though military officials acknowledge that many Palestinian civilian casualties were indeed caused — directly or indirectly — by Israeli bombs. In one case, in which at least 10 people including eight children were killed in the Shati refugee camp, the IDF believes a missile strike on an underground bunker caused the ground above to give way, collapsing the homes of at least two families. The military describes such civilian casualties as being the unfortunate result of Hamas’s strategy of intentionally operating within densely populated areas to use the residents as civilian shields. Human rights groups, however, regularly accuse Israel of using disproportionate force in such situations.

Just before the ceasefire went into effect, the head of IDF Operations said he believed that at least five years of calm from Gaza would constitute a success for Operation Guardian of the Walls. The 2014 war, in contrast, yielded four years of relative calm along the Gaza border. While the IDF plans to try to counter the rearmament efforts of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in order to push off the next round of fighting further, military officials acknowledge that this is nearly impossible to achieve fully.

But IDF officials warn that there is no military solution to the issue of the Gaza Strip, a tiny land mass with over two million people on it, ruled by an internationally recognized terrorist organization. Without major inroads toward a diplomatic, civil resolution, the next round of fighting is only a matter of time.

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