IDF training to retake Gaza in possible future round with Hamas
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IDF training to retake Gaza in possible future round with Hamas

Eight months after conflict, Islamic group again digging terror tunnels, developing Iran-funded advanced missiles and drones

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Soldiers practice in an IDF drill in the Gaza border Division on March 22, 2015. The drill was meant to reenact scenarios following lessons learnt from last summer's Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: IDF spokesman)
Soldiers practice in an IDF drill in the Gaza border Division on March 22, 2015. The drill was meant to reenact scenarios following lessons learnt from last summer's Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: IDF spokesman)

Assessing that Hamas will continue to rule the Gaza Strip for the foreseeable future, the IDF is training for the possible reconquering of the entire coastal Palestinian territory in a future confrontation with the Islamic organization, the Times of Israel has learned.

Despite the harsh blow Hamas and Islamic Jihad sustained in Operation Protective Edge last July and August, Israel’s military command is convinced that another round of fighting between Israel and Gaza is only a matter of time.

The Israeli leadership sees no prospect of the Palestinian Authority gaining control of the Strip, as it continues to demand, and would prefer to face a weakened Hamas than the anarchy of unruly organizations, some of which harbor extremist Islamist ideologies.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad lost 1,000 combatants in the 50 days of fighting with Israel, including many low- and mid-ranking commanders. The remaining 1,100 Palestinian fatalities in the war are believed to be innocent civilians caught in the line of fire.

Palestinians carry the body of a Hamas militant killed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah, July 17, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians carry the body of a Hamas militant killed in an Israeli air strike in Rafah, July 17, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas had wanted to take Israel by surprise at the outset of last summer’s operation by planning to launch a massive terror attack on an Israeli community near the Kerem Shalom crossing through a tunnel dug beneath the border. The organization’s political leadership decided to postpone the attack, however, allowing Israel to strike first. That decision has bred a lasting crisis of faith between Hamas’s military wing — which pushed for decisive action — and the more cautious political branch.

Today, eight months after the ceasefire, Hamas has resumed tunnel digging in full force; employing over 1,000 diggers and working three shifts, six days a week

The rift between the two branches manifests itself in their preference of regional allies. While the military wing, headed by Muhammad Deif, opts for closer ties with Iran (which continues to fund it to the tune of millions of dollars in cash smuggled from Egypt), the political wing, led by Khaled Mashaal in Qatar, is vying for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Deif, who has survived numerous Israeli assassination attempts, continues to command Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades on both the strategic and tactical levels. Marwan Issa, a top commander of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is emerging as one of the most powerful men in Hamas’s leadership, serving as intermediary between the political and military branches.

Meanwhile, eight months after the ceasefire, Hamas has resumed tunnel digging in full force, employing over 1,000 diggers working in three shifts six days a week. The materials used for the tunnels include concrete bought on the black market, as well as wood and hard plastic.

Tunnel workers taking time off to pray on the Gaza side of Rafah (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Tunnel workers taking time off to pray on the Gaza side of Rafah (photo credit: Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

In addition, it is training elite marine and ground forces, known in Arabic as Nukhba, and developing new drones and long-range missiles funded by Tehran.

On the Egyptian front, Hamas is helping to train offensive forces in the Sinai Peninsula to carry out coordinated attacks against Israel. While supplying arms and medical assistance to Islamic State operatives in the Sinai, Hamas strictly adheres to the ceasefire with Israel in Gaza, preventing rocket launches with forces deployed along the border.

Quoting a senior Egyptian security source, Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported on Tuesday that Egypt has begun to take more robust measures to prevent the digging of new tunnels from Gaza into Sinai, pumping water underground using 50 machines to flood the tunnels and cause them to collapse. Egypt is also expanding the current no-go buffer zone along its 13-kilometer (8-mile) border with Gaza from one kilometer to five. Within months, Egypt plans to dig a water canal from the Mediterranean to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, hoping to eradicate underground tunnels once and for all.

Smoke rises after a house was blown up during a military operation by Egyptian security forces in the Egyptian city of Rafah near the border with southern Gaza Strip on November 20, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Smoke rises after a house was blown up during a military operation by Egyptian security forces in the Egyptian city of Rafah near the border with southern Gaza Strip on November 20, 2014 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

According to Ma’an, Israel has also allowed Egypt to introduce heavy artillery and F-16 fighter jets into Sinai in its war on local terror cells, for the first time since the signing of the Camp David Peace Accords in 1979.  

Israel understands that the key to lasting calm in Gaza lies with the combination of effective military deterrence and relative economic prosperity. With the Egyptian border closed indefinitely to Gaza, the impoverished, devastated Strip grows increasingly dependent on Israel for its sustenance.

The new Israeli government will soon be requested to allow in hundreds of day laborers from Gaza, for the first time in years, augmenting the recent license given for the export of agricultural produce.

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