Hamas is amassing fighters and materiel at a “surprisingly” quick pace in the Gaza Strip, a senior IDF officer told reporters on Thursday, but the terror group does not appear to be prepared for renewed direct conflict with Israel in the near future.
He stressed the terrorist organization would not again drag Israel into a war, and that any future conflict will be one undertaken at the initiative of the Jewish state.
Since the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the beleaguered Strip, Hamas has been working tirelessly to replace its diminished ranks and rocket arsenal — and with some success, the high-ranking Southern Command officer told reporters.
“Hamas is a highly intelligent enemy. They surprise me and learn their lessons very quickly,” he said.
In the nearly two years since summer 2014, the terror organization has replenished some of its ranks, principally in its special forces and commando naval units, the officer said.
Hamas now has some 5,000 fighters in its special forces and has also filled out its middle and upper ranks, with 25 battalion and brigade commanders, the official said.
Its short-range rocket and mortar programs have become a focus for the organization as well, in order to replace the thousands of missiles fired at Israel during Operation Protective Edge. Some of these new rockets have warheads that contain of hundreds of pounds of explosive material, which Israel has not seen up until now, the officer said.
Some medium- and long-range rockets have also been developed, as evident by test-fires into the sea off the Gaza coast, the officer said. However, these efforts have been hindered somewhat by Hamas’s inability to acquire the necessary materials for their construction, due to Israel’s careful guarding of the borders.
“Hamas is not yet mass producing mortars because of its difficulties in obtaining raw materials,” he said.
The group has, however, made strides in the production of drones and other advanced technologies, under the direction of Iran, the officer added.
Unprepared for a full campaign against Israel, the terror organization, which has ruled the Gaza Strip for nearly a decade, now fears the IDF will initiate an attack against it, instead of only responding to Hamas acts of aggression, according to the officer.
“Hamas fears a surprise attack,” he said.
As such, the organization has worked to prevent instigators from giving Israel any reason to carry out operations in the Strip.
“Hamas has created a defensive force that preserves the ceasefire and prevents terror attacks against Israel,” the officer said. “In places where there has been rocket fire, Hamas has rushed to stop those firing [them].”
‘Hamas has been mindful to send us messages that it’s working against the terror attacks against us [in the Gaza Strip]’
In the year and a half since the 2014 war, several dozen rockets have been fired at Israel, almost entirely by terror organizations besides Hamas.
“Even the recent improvised explosive device incidents — the latest one involved an old IED — were carried out by rogue groups,” he said.
In that latest incident, which took place early Friday morning of last week, an IED detonated next to an Israeli D9 bulldozer, causing no injury or damage.
“Hamas has been mindful to send us messages that it’s working against the terror attacks against us [in the Gaza Strip],” the officer said.
However, the group has also encouraged and applauded the six-month wave of terror attacks taking place in the West Bank and Israel, he added.
“This is the assessment of both the IDF and the other security bodies,” the officer said.
Israeli plans for war
The IDF will not be dragged into conflict with Hamas, but will initiate any conflict with the terrorist group, the officer said.
“We won’t follow in the enemy’s footsteps,” he added.
The IDF has therefore drawn up an extensive battle plan for its troops, including “details and defining characteristics” of the enemy battalions.
“We have a plan to overwhelm the military branch of Hamas. Every one of our battalions will fight on its way to a destination, will kill as many Hamas operatives as possible and will harm the organization’s infrastructure as much as possible,” he said.
“This plan rests on the defense of the area surrounding the Gaza Strip — under the authority of the Gaza Division — while moving the areas [where troops] gather away from the threat of mortars,” the officer said.
This is presumably a lesson learned from 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, in which some of the military casualties came from direct hits of mortar shells on IDF camps set up outside the border.
“We need to be surprising and forceful. Our air power will be more meaningful and effective. Not just casual firepower. The plan will allow us different options, from a deterring strike to a full occupation of the Strip,” the Southern Command officer said.
Don’t forget the Islamic State
Across Israel’s southwestern border, a small, but vicious ally of the Islamic State has been waging a bloody war with Egyptian forces since 2011.
While the fighting has overwhelmingly remained inside Sinai and against Egypt, the understanding within Israel is that the Jewish state is next.
“We have an interest in the Egyptian army defeating the Islamic State and not losing its control over the northern Sinai,” the officer said.
Some 1,000 IS fighters are currently in the peninsula, according to the officers, and they are outfitted with some advanced anti-aircraft weaponry and assistance from Hamas, the officer said.
“We have allowed [the Egyptians] most of their requests to temporarily bring their troops into the air and land of Sinai,” he said, referring to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which limits the number of soldiers that can enter the peninsula.
“However, the entrance of artillery into the area, we have refused,” he added.