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IDF officer: Hamas is looking for a ‘major success’ before the end of fighting

Military believes the terror group could attempt some kind of cross-border raid or fire a massive salvo toward Tel Aviv

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

Israeli residents and rescue teams are pictured outside a building hit by a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, in the southern city of Ashdod, on May 17, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
Israeli residents and rescue teams are pictured outside a building hit by a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, in the southern city of Ashdod, on May 17, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces believes that Hamas is “trying to have a major success,” such as a cross-border attack or other major assault, which it can hold up as a victory over Israel as the current round of fighting appears to be drawing to a close, a senior officer in the military’s Southern Command told reporters on Wednesday.

The senior officer said he believed the military’s intelligence capabilities would prevent the terror group from conducting a large invasion into Israel, but acknowledged that a smaller operation was possible.

“I don’t think Hamas can do a major surprise ground operation, but it could do a raid,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The officer said Hamas may try to conduct a large-scale barrage on the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, having refrained from firing rockets at the city in recent days.

According to IDF Military Intelligence, the terror group has at least enough long-range munitions to conduct several more barrages of dozens of rockets at Tel Aviv.

The officer’s warning came amid growing international pressure on Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire, following more than 10 days of fighting in which at least 227 Palestinians have been killed, dozens of them children, along with 12 Israelis, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl.

The IDF maintains that the majority of the Palestinians killed in the conflict were members of terror groups and says that it takes significant precautions to avoid civilian casualties when possible.

Asked if the IDF has been surprised by anything in how the terror groups used their rockets, the officer acknowledged that a massive barrage of nearly 150 rockets fired by Hamas at the southern city of Ashkelon early in the fighting did catch the military somewhat off-guard, as it did not anticipate an attack of this scale. In that attack, the Iron Dome missile defense system also experienced a minor malfunction, though this was later fixed. In that bombardment, two women were killed in Ashkelon and dozens more were injured.

A heavily damaged house from rocket fire in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on May 11, 2021 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The officer said the military was also surprised that terror groups in the Strip had not yet used a particularly deadly variety of rocket developed in Gaza, which is packed with hundreds of kilograms of explosives and has an extremely short range, making it incredibly difficult to intercept and enormously destructive if it lands.

One such rocket was used during a multi-day exchange between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in November 2019, causing a massive crater, but no injuries or damage.

On Wednesday, the military said it had destroyed one such rocket, bombing it from the air before it could be used.

The officer said he was not sure why the projectile had not yet been used, or why Hamas has used only a small number of explosive drones, all of which have been intercepted by the IDF as of Wednesday.

The Southern Command officer said that so far in the campaign, dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls, the IDF has succeeded in preventing Hamas’s attempts to conduct major assaults, except for preventing the launching of rockets and mortar shells, an area in which he acknowledged the military has struggled.

According to the official, Hamas has tried at least three times during the current round of fighting to send its commando soldiers into Israel from the Gaza Strip through tunnels that come up to, but do not cross, the border.

Israel has prevented all three of these infiltration attempts, twice bombing the tunnels while the Hamas operatives were inside near the Gazan city of Khan Younis and once attacking them before they entered the subterranean passage, the officer said

Illustrative: A Hamas tunnel from Gaza to Israel, 2014. (AP Photo/Jack Guez, Pool)

In such an attack, a small group of elite Hamas fighters would enter Israel from Gaza and either attack and kidnap soldiers on the border or, in a more serious case, assault an Israeli border town. Such a mission would almost surely be a suicide mission for the terrorists involved, but would serve as a public victory over the IDF.

Israel’s war with Hamas in 2014 was specifically aimed at preventing such cross-border attacks with tunnels from Gaza into Israeli territory. This past year, Israel completed construction of an underground barrier around Gaza that prevents terror groups from digging such cross-border tunnels.

Given the army’s efforts, in a prospective infiltration from Gaza into Israel, the senior officer said the military believed that the terrorist operatives would emerge from a tunnel just short of the border and would use a variety of diversions to give them enough time to enter Israeli territory through a gap in the security fence. This would likely include destroying surveillance cameras in the area, firing mortars all around the area to keep IDF troops from approaching and setting off smoke grenades to hide their locations.

The officer said the IDF knew that Hamas possessed the tunnels used in the three incursion attempts and considered destroying them, but decided instead to take a “calculated risk” and strike them once Hamas tried to use them. Several top Hamas operatives were killed in these strikes, he said.

Explosions light up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces carry out strikes on the Palestinian enclave, early on May 18, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

In addition, the officer said the military had also had relative success in thwarting the efforts of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to carry out anti-tank guided missile attacks, with the notable exception of the strike that killed IDF soldier Staff Sgt. Omer Tabib.

The senior officer said the military has so far destroyed at least 40 anti-tank guided missile teams, leaving both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad with less than two dozen ATGM launchers between them.

Some of the victims of the Gaza rocket fire: Top row (L) Omer Tabib (R) Ido Avigal; 2nd row (L) Leah Yom-Tov (R) Soumya Santosh; 3rd row (L) Nadeen Awwad (R) Khalil Awwad; 4th row (R) Nela Gurvitch (L) Ramat Gan after the rocket strike (Oren ZIV / AFP)

But despite these successes, the Israel Defense Forces throughout the current round of violence has struggled to prevent Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad from launching rockets and mortar shells, allowing the terror groups to fire thousands of projectiles at southern and central Israel, killing at least 12 people.

As of Wednesday evening, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have fired nearly 4,000 projectiles at Israel, roughly a quarter of them mortar shells at Israeli communities directly adjacent to the Gaza border and the rest rockets of varying ranges. In this round of fighting, PIJ has been primarily, but not exclusively responsible for mortar fire, while Hamas has mostly launched the rockets.

In recent days, however, the military believes that it has developed a number of new techniques and capabilities to more quickly find the launchpads used by terror groups, particularly those containing multiple launch rocket systems, allowing them to destroy at least some portion of them before they can be fired toward Israel.

“There are sometimes when you strike and then you see the ‘fireworks’ of other rockets in the chambers exploding,” the officer said.

The IDF has also improved its ability to find mortars, which can easily be buried and concealed, but still require a person on the ground to operate them.

On Wednesday morning, five terrorist operatives firing mortar shells into southern Israel were killed in IDF strikes, according to the officer.

Hamas operatives prepare to fire a mortar shell in a promotional video released by the terrorist group on May 19, 2021. (Screen capture)

The official said the military’s tactics included better deploying drones and ground troops to spot rocket and mortar launches and then strike the sources of the attacks.

“But rockets and mortar shells are still a very big challenge,” the officer said.

Over the years, terror groups in the Strip have learned to better hide their rockets and launchpads by burying them underground or within a heavily populated civilian area and firing them remotely.

Shortly after the official made his comment, terrorists in the Strip launched a major barrage of rocket and mortar fire at southern and central Israel, sending masses of Israelis rushing to bomb shelters.

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