IDF girds for Hamas surprise attack with Gaza border calmest it has been in a decade

Officials say troops conducting ‘maximum amount’ of operations in barrier area to counter terror groups’ ability to harm Israeli targets, ‘suppress their desire’ to continue trying

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

File: IDF forces are seen on the border with the Gaza Strip, in May 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)
File: IDF forces are seen on the border with the Gaza Strip, in May 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

More than a year after the Israel Defense Forces fought an 11-day war against terrorists in the Gaza Strip, military officials on Thursday touted new defensive measures as key to maintaining one of the quietest periods in southern Israel in recent years, but warned that the Hamas terror group is working to circumvent them in a potential surprise attack.

Since the fighting last May, which saw over 4,360 rockets and mortar shells fired at southern and central Israel, just 11 projectiles have been fired from the coastal enclave, marking the calmest period since Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, according to officials.

“During the 11 days of Operation Guardian of the Walls, we were able to disrupt and suppress almost all of the terrorist organizations’ offensive attempts, because we changed the defensive equation,” said Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, using the military’s name for the war that lasted between May 10 and 21.

“We did not wait for the terrorists to come to the border to fight them, rather we hunted them down every time they raised their heads and tried to harm our civilians and forces,” Aloni said.

On the second day of the war, the military struck two tunnels as elite Hamas fighters attempted to launch a raid against Israeli military forces or civilians in southern Israel, according to new information published by the IDF Thursday.

Both tunnels were between 10-20 meters (33-66 feet) deep and terminated in the Gaza Strip in an area close to the border with Israel. (The first near the towns of Nir Yitzhak, Sufa, and Holit, and the second near Kissufim and Ein Hashlosha). Several other tunnels used by terror groups within the Strip were struck amid the war.

The IDF believes Hamas has learned lessons from the war last year, and in the next round of fighting will attempt to launch a surprise attack. In the lead-up to last May’s fighting, Hamas announced its intention to launch rockets at Jerusalem at a specific hour, allowing the army to somewhat prepare for what was to come, including shuttering routes along the border and recommending civilians prepare their bomb shelters.

According to new IDF assessments, in a potential next round of fighting, Hamas would not launch rockets as its opening move, but instead conduct a ground operation, such as sending fighters through tunnels that terminate near the border or an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) attack.

Military officials said their new defense strategy for Gaza was a broad and “smart” deployment of forces along the border, using tanks and other armored vehicles with active defense systems, along with offensive and counteroffensive actions, to deprive enemy forces of the ability to harm Israeli targets, and to “suppress their desire” to continue trying to do so.

The strategy has included preventing the entry of unprotected military forces and civilians into exposed areas along the border. During last May’s war, one IDF soldier, Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib, was killed after his jeep was hit by an ATGM launched from Gaza. The jeep was parked within Netiv Ha’asara, which lies on a hill overlooking northern Gaza, in an area within direct view of the Strip — and thus vulnerable to attack — when it was struck by the ATGM.

Illustrative: Smoke rises following Israeli missile strikes on Gaza City on May 13, 2021. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Though terror groups carried out successful ATGM attacks — killing Tabib and hitting an empty bus — during the war, the use of these particularly deadly weapons was relatively limited, in large part because Israeli ground and air forces bombed dozens of ATGM teams, according to the IDF.

In total, the IDF estimated it killed upwards of 200 terrorist operatives, most of them members of Hamas but some of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to new assessments, at least half of them were killed in Israeli defensive or counteroffensive actions.

The UN reported that 256 Palestinians, including 66 children and 40
women were killed during the fighting, of whom 128 were believed to be civilians. Around 245, including 63 children, were seemingly killed by Israel, while the rest by terror groups in the Strip.

File: IDF artillery forces are seen on the border with the Gaza Strip, in May 2021. (Israel Defense Forces)

Officials also said that because the Gaza border barrier has been changed and improved, it has resulted in no infiltration incidents that the army was not notified of, in the past four years.

The upgraded barrier — completed in December — is made up of several components: an underground reinforced concrete wall that is studded with sensors to detect tunnels; a 20-foot (six-meter) steel fence; a network of radar arrays and other surveillance sensors; and remote-controlled weaponry. The underground section has effectively prevented tunnels from being dug into Israeli territory.

The 40-mile (65-kilometer) barrier lies all along the Gaza border and extends out to sea in order as well, to ensure that terror groups in the Strip do not dig underwater tunnels, as they have attempted in the past.

View of the barrier along the Israel-Gaza border, on December 8, 2021. (Flash90)

Various scenarios the Gaza Division has been preparing for were also taking into account that the barrier will affect the way terrorists in the Strip act, including attempts to operate in the area during calm periods, despite the upgrades. IDF officials said the Gaza Division wished to maximize the advantages of the barrier while reducing its disadvantages, without elaborating on specifics.

Officials said the barrier over the past year has been working as intended, and troops were conducting “a maximum amount” of operations in the area to foil any potential attacks, adding that the goal is to “destroy” any enemy fighter who enters Israel from Gaza, and prevent them from returning.

Other goals officials said the Gaza Division hoped to achieve were transitioning between routine and emergency operations within an even shorter period of time than they currently are able to, and making their defensive measures even more deadly by “exacting a price from the enemy in their territory.”

Still, officials said that if there was no need to send troops into Gaza, they wouldn’t. But when they are required to enter, they will with immense force, officials said.

Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, in southern Israel on June 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Despite the defensive success in disrupting the enemy’s offensive moves, we have also learned what we need to improve and we are learning the enemy’s adjustments,” Aloni said. “Our forces are constantly training to arrive more prepared for the next confrontation.”

“The new operational way of thinking has completely changed the conduct of IDF forces in the barrier area in the Gaza Strip, in a way that will let us take advantage of it and reduce the enemy’s opportunities to harm our forces,” he added.

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