Terror groups have rockets for 60 more days of attacks: army

IDF: Hamas chiefs spurred to launch war after seeing Monday Temple Mount clashes

Military Intelligence believes group hopes to paint itself as ‘defender of Jerusalem’; Israeli strikes on Hamas, Islamic Jihad setting them back for years to come, army assesses

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

A view into the Temple Mount compound amid clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, May 10, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)
A view into the Temple Mount compound amid clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, May 10, 2021 (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

The Hamas terror group decided to launch the current round of violence, at the risk of all-out war, when its leadership saw photographs and videos of Monday’s clashes between Israeli security forces and Muslim protesters on the Temple Mount, according to an Israeli Military Intelligence assessment.

Driven by both religious fervor and political ambition, the terror group hoped to establish itself in the minds of Palestinians and Muslims around the world as the “defender of Jerusalem” by demanding Israel remove its troops from the holy site and firing a salvo of rockets at Jerusalem when that didn’t happen, even though it risked Israel’s eventual response of punishing strikes on its tunnel infrastructure, rocket production capabilities and its senior leadership, Military Intelligence believes.

This messaging by Hamas be seen in a poster released by the group on its official social media channels on Friday, showing the profile of the commander of the group’s military wing, Muhammad Deif, with the caption, “He promise, he delivered,” referring to this Jerusalem ultimatum.

Hamas has also managed to insert itself into the ongoing domestic strife in Israel, in which Arab and Jewish mobs have taken to the streets in recent days, wantonly and viciously attacking members of the other ethnic group.

Hamas’s rocket launches at Jerusalem on Monday evening were widely seen as an intelligence failure by the Israel Defense Forces, as Israeli military officials for weeks prior to the attack had maintained that Hamas was not interested in a war. IDF Military Intelligence rejects this allegation, saying that it had warned the political echelon of the threat of an attack by Hamas nearly a month ahead of time, in mid-April, when significant clashes broke out regularly between residents of East Jerusalem and Israeli forces and amid the Palestinian Authority’s decision to indefinitely postpone Palestinian elections that were planned for May.

As a result of this warning, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi canceled a long-planned, highly significant trip to Washington, in which he was meant to share Israeli intelligence and assessments regarding Iran’s nuclear program and aggression in the region with the Biden administration.

According to Military Intelligence, on Monday, after determining Hamas’s intention, the IDF explicitly warned the country’s political leadership that the terror group indeed planned to fire rockets at Jerusalem, which it later did. A salvo of rockets screamed toward Jerusalem and the surrounding hill country just after 6 p.m. on Monday, catching much of the capital off guard. The military did not issue public warnings despite these concerns as it felt that it had sufficient defensive capabilities to respond to such an attack. Indeed, the rockets caused only a small amount of damage in towns outside the capital and no injuries.

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip, during Jerusalem Day, in Jerusalem, May 10, 2021. (Flash90)

The IDF sees Hamas’s boasts of being a protector of Jerusalem as representing a significant success for the terror group in this round of fighting, though the military maintains that its strikes on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip have set back the terror groups’ abilities to conduct future attacks against the Jewish state for months and years to come, far outweighing whatever public relations or political victories Hamas can claim.

Though 10 people in Israel have been killed in the current round of fighting as of Thursday, including a 5-year-old boy, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have so far failed to carry out any “surprise attacks” in Israel. The groups have not yet managed to conduct cross-border raids or attack Israeli targets with “suicide drones,” though not for lack of trying.

“We have disrupted the operational plans of the enemy: We have neutralzed the threat of incursions, intercepted attacks using drones and unmanned aerial vehicles and we have struck a serious blow at Hamas’s subterranean capabilities,” a senior IDF officer told reporters Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the military’s assessments, Israel’s precision attacks on Hamas’s massive network of over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of tunnels under the Gaza Strip over the past four and a half days of fighting — particularly its synchronized airstrikes killing a number of Hamas leaders located in five different underground bunkers in opposite sides of the enclave within the span of 18 minutes on Wednesday — have made the terror group fear that this primary strategic asset has become a liability. Shortly after midnight Thursday, the IDF launched one of its largest ever bombardments in the Gaza Strip, targeting a massive underground network of defensive tunnels under the city of Beit Lahiya, with 160 aircraft simultaneously firing at some 150 targets.

“We have killed dozens of top Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, which has given their leaders a feeling that they are being chased. This makes it difficult for them to operate and to continue overseeing the battle,” the senior IDF officer said.

Several top terrorist leaders have also been targeted in IDF strikes, in some cases more than once, but emerged from them unscathed.

Hamas rockets light up the night sky as they are fired towards Israel from Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2021, while Israeli Iron Dome interceptors rise to meet them (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

While Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired a massive quantity of rockets toward south and central Israel — roughly 2,000 as of Friday morning — and they, together, have several thousand more that they are still capable of firing, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, the terror groups will not be able to replace the projectiles they are firing as the IDF has destroyed the lion’s share of their domestic rocket production capabilities, bombing dozens of manufacturing facilities and killing 10 of the top weapons developers in the Strip.

Yet, the IDF estimates that the terror groups have enough rockets in their arsenals to continue fighting for at least another 60 days.

The senior Israeli officer said the IDF was also prepared for sustained fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“We are prepared with enough high-quality targets for a long time, for a long campaign. We will continue to exact a growing price from Hamas,” the officer said.

In total, Israeli intelligence believes that it has killed hundreds of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in its strikes, a far greater number than has been reported by the Strip’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, as many of the terrorists hit in Israeli attacks were in tunnels and bunkers at the time, and their bodies have not yet have been removed. So far the IDF has identified by name 85 slain terrorists, at least 20 of them in key leadership or technical positions, including the commander of Hamas’s Gaza City brigade, Bassem Issa.

Palestinians assess the damage caused by an Israeli airstrike at the Islamic National Bank of the Hamas terror group in Khan Younis , in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 13, 2021 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Gaza Health Ministry said Friday that at least 115 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the outbreak of fighting, including 27 minors. Israeli officials maintain that several of the children killed in the past week were hit not by IDF strikes but by errant rockets fired from Gaza that failed to clear the border and landed within the Strip.

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