In future Gaza war, Israel said aiming to weaken Hamas — but not topple it
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In future Gaza war, Israel said aiming to weaken Hamas — but not topple it

IDF completes four-day drill that is Gaza Division’s biggest since 2014 war; soldiers exercise response to attempted takeover of Ashkelon, evacuation of residents

An IDF soldier and a tank during a military drill near the Gaza Strip, late July 2019. (IDF)
An IDF soldier and a tank during a military drill near the Gaza Strip, late July 2019. (IDF)

The Israeli military’s plan for a potential future conflict in the Gaza Strip is to hit Palestinian terror group Hamas hard, but not to attempt to defeat it entirely, leaving it weakened but still capable of controlling the Strip, military officials told Hebrew-language media on Wednesday at the conclusion of a large-scale drill.

The exercise was the biggest in the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Division since Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war fought five years ago.

During the drill troops took to the streets of the city of Ashkelon in the middle of the night to simulate Gaza’s urban environment. Other scenarios included a possible terrorist attempt to take over Ashkelon and other locations via the sea; the evacuation of casualties in helicopters; evacuating residents from their homes; and taking over a neighborhood in the Strip.

The four-day drill tested a new doctrine pushed by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, who took office in January.

“A very comprehensive and serious process has been carried out here, and my impression is that the level of preparedness for a possible battle in the Gaza Strip is very, very high,” Kohavi said at the drill’s conclusion.

The plan is to diversify the military’s courses of actions in order to give the government more options and flexibility, and to limit the scope and duration of the fighting.

It takes into account two weapons that Hamas now has which it did not possess five years ago: drones which can gather intelligence and potentially carry explosives, and short-range mortars and rockets capable of carrying hundreds of kilograms of explosives each.

Another change was the introduction of a range of tools and technologies to counter Hamas network of defense tunnels inside the Strip, where Hamas fighters are believed to be planning to surprise troops in the event of a ground offensive.

The construction of a subterranean barrier against cross-border attack tunnels is being sped up, and is expected to be completed by May or June of 2020.

Another challenge is the presence near the border of Hamas’s “restraining forces,” who are armed but are not necessarily considered an enemy since they help prevent escalation in border protests. Soldiers have been urged to use their judgement and not shoot immediately — as in a recent case where the IDF issued a rare statement saying a Hamas member was shot by accident.

IDF soldiers during a military drill near the Gaza Strip, late July 2019. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Acts such as launching incendiary balloons, briefly breaching the border fence before returning to Gaza and violent border protests are all considered to be “grey terrorism” and the army is instructing its soldiers to adopt a restrained response, while doing everything to protect the Israeli side of the border.

Meanwhile, a senior commander told the 101.5 FM radio station Wednesday that there also exists a threat of Hamas anti-tank missiles being fired directly at high-rise buildings in the city of Sderot.

Lieutenant Colonel Gideon Elistem, deputy commander of the Gaza Division’s Southern Brigade, said the army knows how to deal with that threat, and has trained to evacuate residents from their homes in cooperation with local and regional councils. “There is a very clear and organized plan for how to protect the city of Sderot with ground forces,” he said.

IDF soldiers during a military drill near the Gaza Strip, late July 2019. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

The beginning of 2019 saw dramatic increase in the level of violence along the Gaza border, with near nightly riots and airborne arson attacks, but the violence has waned in recent weeks, due to a de facto ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

However, Wednesday saw the first fire in two weeks sparked in Israel by an incendiary balloon launched from Gaza.

The fire broke out near Kibbutz Alumim in the Sdot Negev region, burned down ten dunams (2.5 acres) of land and was extinguished, with an expert with the Israel Fire and Rescue Services determining that it was started by a balloon carrying a flaming device.

Last month, the Air Force held its first-ever exercise with new American F-35 stealth fighter jets, which simulated simultaneous fighting in the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon.

Also Wednesday, Channel 12 said military forces in northern Israel simulated a response to a takeover of northern towns by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group. The drill involved local security guards, who would serve as first responders in such a scenario, and special forces units that would be called in to beat back the Hezbollah fighters.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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