AnalysisAn approaching ceasefire

IDF believes it significantly hurt Hamas, and that’s the best it can do for now

Gaza’s terror rulers misjudged Israel’s readiness to respond to its rockets, and the IDF implemented a long-prepared response. But Israel is not about to end Hamas’s rule

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets above the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 15, 2021, following their launching from the Gaza Strip (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)
Israel's Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets above the coastal city of Tel Aviv on May 15, 2021, following their launching from the Gaza Strip (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces believes it has achieved its major goals in this round of fighting against the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups as of Sunday, indicating Jerusalem may soon accept a ceasefire offer, The Times of Israel has learned.

Though Israeli defense officials maintain that they have many more targets that they could destroy in the Gaza Strip if the fighting continued, the military has knocked out the terror groups’ main military assets — demolishing parts of Hamas’s sprawling underground tunnel network and demonstrating that all of its subterranean infrastructure is vulnerable to Israeli attack; destroying nearly all of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rocket production capabilities and most of Hamas’s, preventing them from being able to rearm in the coming months and years; and killing a number of top terrorist commanders and weapons experts.

This current round of fighting began with Hamas’s firing of seven rockets at Jerusalem on Monday in response to clashes that took place throughout the day between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Since then, however, the Israel Defense Forces has used the opportunity presented by the rocket fire to launch a massive campaign, dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls, against Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful terror group in the Gaza Strip.

IDF Chief of staff Aviv Kohavi at a May 16, 2021 press conference (Screenshot)

Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi made this explicit on Sunday afternoon, stating at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz: “Hamas made a serious mistake and did not calculate us correctly.” The IDF response, he said, had been following “a pre-prepared plan… with several stages, some of which have been completed and some which lie ahead.”

For a variety of reasons, the Israeli military does not typically launch operations of its own initiative, but instead waits to retaliate to attacks.

This is what occurred on Monday, as the IDF capitalized on Hamas’s mistaken belief that Israel had no tolerance for war and that while it would likely retaliate to the rocket fire on Jerusalem, it would not allow the situation to escalate beyond that.

Within a few hours, Israel’s political leadership gave the military the go-ahead to launch its campaign. The IDF top brass overwhelmingly view the latest round of fighting as a decisive tactical success for Israel and one that it expects will put off another conflict for years to come. It acknowledges, however, that Hamas has also had some achievements — notably in proving its willingness to make sacrifices in order to “defend” Jerusalem from Israel, giving it a somewhat elevated status to some Palestinians, Arab Israelis and others in the Muslim world.

Police and rescue personnel at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the city of Ramat Gan killing a man, May 15, 2021. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Throughout the campaign to date, Israel was approached a number of times by international intermediaries, notably the Egyptian military, to reach a ceasefire with Hamas and rebuffed each offer, insisting that it would continue the operation until it had achieved its goals, which Israeli officials increasingly indicated on Sunday that it had.

Israel currently sees no viable alternative for Gaza aside from leaving the brutal Hamas terror group in power there, allowing it to rule the enclave and serve as a convenient address for punishment whenever an attack on Israel is launched from the Strip. This is deemed preferable to leaving the enclave in a state of potential chaos, were Hamas to be toppled. As a result of this thinking, Israel’s best outcome in this campaign is to significantly weaken Hamas militarily in order to prevent it from conducting further attacks.

Build up

Israel has not fought these terror groups in over a year — since February 2020 — when both sides agreed to a ceasefire deal which saw an influx of humanitarian aid and investment in Gaza in exchange for an end to attacks from the enclave. It was a mutually beneficial situation for both sides, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Hamas and Islamic Jihad used that time without Israeli airstrikes to build up a massive arsenal of rockets, as well as smaller caches of drones and other more advanced weaponry. They also took advantage of the opportunity to expand their underground infrastructure, building out an already sprawling network of subterranean tunnels. Israel’s construction of a concrete underground barrier around Gaza effectively prevented the terror groups from using tunnels to conduct cross-border raids, but Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad dug over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of passages under the tiny beleaguered enclave, used for bunkers, weapons storage and to move fighters and commanders throughout the Strip.

Over the past week, the IDF has sought to dismantle all the gains that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have made — not only over the past year, but in the nearly seven years since the 2014 Gaza war, the last major conflict fought between the two sides.

The military has also targeted dozens of rocket production facilities, which it believes will make it extremely difficult for terror groups in the Strip to replenish their arsenals — in the coming months, for simpler rockets, and for several years, for more advanced models. According to IDF assessments, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rocket manufacturing network was more significantly damaged than Hamas’s.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Hamas has attempted multiple attacks using explosives-laden drones — which were domestically built but apparently inspired by some Iranian designs — with limited, if any, success. The IDF has also successfully prevented all of Hamas’s attempts to use its naval capabilities, notably its commando unit, against Israeli targets at sea and onshore, including multiple attacks on Israel’s Tamar natural gas rig.

The IDF has also destroyed most of the terror group’s naval infrastructure and weaponry over the past week, including several autonomous submarines that Hamas has developed in recent years, each capable of carrying 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of explosives and guided by GPS — though the military believes that a small number of the weapons may still be in Hamas’s possession.

Midnight at the ‘metro’

Around midnight on Thursday, the IDF launched its largest yet bombardment in the campaign, targeting a massive defensive tunnel network under northern Gaza, which it refers to as the “metro,” dropping hundreds of bombs from 160 aircraft on different passages and bunkers in the complex under the city of Beit Lahiya.

This attack was intended to serve three main functions: to destroy the physical infrastructure so it could not be used by Hamas in the future; to convince the terror group that its underground tunnels were no longer an asset but were instead a liability, where they could be bombed by Israeli jets with impunity; and to kill as many Hamas operatives as possible.

Fire and smoke rises from the Jala Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The military believes the strike fulfilled the former two goals, noting a reluctance among Hamas members after the fact to as freely enter tunnels, but according to initial IDF assessments, the number of terrorists in the complex was far lower than hoped.

Yet overall IDF officials regard the operation, which required years of planning in order to map out and locate the various sections of the tunnel system, as having been a success.

“No one wants to ride the metro,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters dryly on Sunday.

Comparison to wars past

In many ways, the past week has seen even more ferocious fighting than during the 51-day conflict in 2014, known as Operation Protective Edge. According to IDF assessments, rockets and mortar shells have been fired at an unparalleled rate at Israel in the past week, more of them each day than during the 2014 war. Indeed, the past week has seen nearly 3,000 projectiles fired by terrorists in the Strip, more than in the entirety of 2018, when 1,571 rockets and mortar shells were launched, and all of 2019, when 2,045 were fired.

In less than a week, these attacks have caused a greater number of civilian deaths in Israel — at least nine — than in the month-and-a-half of Protective Edge, when six civilians were killed. Most of those killed over the past week were directly hit by rockets or shrapnel when they were unable to reach a bomb shelter.

Ido Avigal, who was killed in his home in Sderot by a rocket fired from Gaza, May 12, 2021. (Twitter)

In only one case, that of 5-year-old Ido Avigal, did a piece of a rocket penetrate a bomb shelter, hitting the window at a particular angle and at a particular speed, which caused the fortification to fail in what the IDF described as a freak accident and not the result of a design failure.

However, as the 2014 war included a large-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip — in order to destroy cross-border tunnels — that conflict had a far higher number of overall fatalities; 67 soldiers were killed, compared to one soldier who was killed last week in an anti-tank guided missile strike on his jeep, which was parked near the border.

As Israel now has the military capabilities to strike tunnels from the air, such a ground operation is unlikely to occur in this round of fighting, despite apparent efforts by the military to suggest that such an invasion may indeed occur. While IDF officials indicate that there are certain types of raids that special forces and other ground troops could perform, the military believes that the potential costs of deploying such forces outweigh the benefits.

The number of Palestinians killed in the current round of fighting — at least 192 from Monday night to Sunday afternoon, or nearly 27 each day — is lower than in 2014, when over 2,000 Palestinians were killed over the course of the 51-day conflict, or over 40 each day. The IDF believes that a sizable majority of those killed this week were members of terror groups, with over 85 being positively identified as such and many more expected to be, as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad continue to remove the bodies of their members that were killed in underground tunnels.

On Sunday, in an IDF strike in an upscale neighborhood of Gaza City inhabited by many top Hamas officers, more than 40 Palestinian civilians were killed, Gaza health officials said, including a 1-year-old baby and a 3-year-old toddler, in what appeared to be the deadliest strike in the fighting. Commenting later Sunday, the Israeli military said it targeted Hamas military infrastructure under civilian homes.

As of Sunday evening, the Israeli security cabinet had yet to accept terms of a ceasefire from Hamas, instead signing off on additional strikes by the IDF against Hamas targets. However, as calls grow from Israeli allies to wrap up the fighting, particularly in light of recent Palestinian civilian casualties, Israel’s political echelon was expected to accept an armistice shortly.

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