Change of Command Brings Focus to IDF’s Gaza Defense Plans
In the middle of Israel’s recent elections, a terrorist faction in the Gaza Strip fired a mid-range rocket at the southern city of Be’ersheba shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made a campaign stop there.
The rocket set off warning sirens in open areas near the city — as part of the IDF’s Home Front Command accurate area-based warning system, which is designed to sound alerts only in the area under direct threat, and reduce disruption to other areas. No damage or injuries were reported.
In response, the Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas rocket manufacturing site and military post in Gaza. “The Hamas terror organization is responsible for all events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it,” an IDF statement said, “and will bear the consequences of terror activity against Israeli civilians.”
Defense officials believe that the rocket was fired by Gaza’s second largest armed organization, the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The attack could have been an attempt to please its sponsors in the Islamic Republic and demonstrate its determination to remain a thorn in Israel’s side by terrorizing Israeli civilians with indiscriminate rocket fire.
Two days earlier, the IDF held a ceremony marking the arrival of a new Commanding Officer for its Southern Command, which is responsible for securing the Gazan border — and for drawing up the most updated war plans in the event that tensions escalate.
During that ceremony, IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Avivi Kochavi described how “the terrorist armies in Gaza” — a reference to the hybrid organizations in the Strip that incorporate features of terror organizations, organized militaries, and guerilla forces — launched a two-year campaign of violence in 2018 under the banner of the “Return Marches.” Yet this campaign failed to achieve its goals of violently pressing Israel into concessions to reach a long-term truce favorable to Hamas without sparking a war.
The campaign included attempts by suspects affiliated with Hamas and other terror organizations — who were interspersed among rioting crowds and armed with grenades, IEDs, and other weapons — to infiltrate the Gazan-Israel border and approach nearby Israeli communities.
A majority of the Palestinian casualties from IDF fire were affiliated with Hamas or other armed factions.
Around half of all fatalities belonged to or were affiliated with Hamas, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
Operatives also sent kites and helium balloons with incendiary and explosive material over the border, creating more than 2,000 fires and destroying thousands of acres of southern Israeli agricultural land and forests. The IDF equipped infantry soldiers with advanced gun sights, enabling them to shoot down the threats, and launched autonomous mini-drones to bring down hundreds of kites and balloons.
The return marches were adopted by Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who, after three past rounds of war with Israel, had reached the conclusion that, for now, further head-on armed clashes would be harmful to Hamas’ regime. He has since focused on demanding a long-term truce with Israel to build up Gaza’s economy and civilian infrastructure, taking the pressure off the Islamist regime.
Hamas’ military wing could very well use the time to build up its offensive rocket capabilities in Gaza, and plot its expansion into the West Bank through the scheduled Palestinian elections this spring. Hamas views those elections — if they indeed go ahead — as a unique opportunity to infiltrate Palestinian power institutions, and increase its presence in an area that has been ruled by its domestic rival, Fatah.
For years, Hamas has patiently built up its West Bank presence through a network of charitable organizations that provide financial assistance intermixed with religious messaging, education services, and Islamist indoctrination. This network produced a generation of dedicated activists that can be activated at any time. Sources within Fatah are uneasy about the prospects of the elections going ahead, due to their keen awareness of Hamas’ take-over intentions.
Adding to the unease is the historical memory of Hamas’ elections performance in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, when it won a large majority of seats, and Hamas attempted to become the dominant organization inside the Palestinian Authority. This effort culminated in the violent 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza, which saw Fatah members killed and ejected from the Strip.
The outgoing IDF Commanding Officer of Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, referred to the military’s fresh battle plans for Gaza, which have been formulated and drilled intensively in recent months.
“An army needs to be prepared and ready. A new, updated ‘Southern Spirit’ plan defines our response to the threats imposed by terrorist armies. It builds on our areas of strength — quality intelligence, accurate fire and sharp maneuverability; and most importantly, the correct balance between those areas,” Halevi said. “… We are very prepared; we’ve striven every day to be more prepared than the last.”
The battle plans presumably include the most up-to-date intelligence data on Hamas’ key targets, and well-rehearsed combat procedures to target them using the IDF’s precision strike weaponry from the air, land, and sea.
Halevi also referred to the many IDF strikes on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in recent years in response to attacks on Israel, with the air strikes after the election day rocket attack being the latest example. “In order to maintain our readiness as time progressed, we acted to improve [the way that we] prevent the other side from getting stronger,” he said.
The cumulative effect of air strikes on Hamas’ weapons production and storage facilities, embedded deeply in Gazan civilian areas, are greater than meets the eye, and Hamas’ force development program has sustained some setbacks, despite its progress. Still, Hamas is making significant progress in its weapons production program with Iranian assistance, according to a recent Haaretz report, which stated that Hamas has boosted its production capacity for rockets and drones, and conducts “very frequent test firings” of projectiles into the Mediterranean Sea. Hamas members have also been traveling to Iran for weapons development training, the report said.
At the same time, Israel has taken away one of Hamas’ flagship strategic programs, its cross-border assault tunnels, which Hamas had spent a large treasure and years to construct.
Meanwhile, inside Hamas, Sinwar appears to be paying a significant price for his failure to provide tangible achievements for Hamas and Gazans. Sinwar almost lost his position to a challenger from Hamas’ old guard, Nizar Awadallah, requiring four rounds of elections to defeat him.
According to Col. (ret.) David Hacham, who served as an Arab Affairs advisor to seven Israeli defense ministers, Sinwar’s critics have accused him of “failing to function properly and lacking tangible achievements. From their perspective, the latest election sounded a clear warning to Sinwar over issues such as the quality of life in Gaza, the failed attempt to pressure Israel with ‘return marches to break the siege,’ the failed tactic of incendiary balloons and kites, and rocket fire. None of these efforts have amounted to anything, and Sinwar had to abandon them over a year ago.”
Hacham also noted that “some internal critics of Sinwar suspect that he has grown too close to the Egyptian General Intelligence Service at the expense of ties with Iran, with which Sinwar’s rivals have closer ties.”
These criticisms could influence Sinwar’s future actions. Gaza remains an inherently unstable arena, ruled by a hardline Islamist regime that — despite tactical flexibility, and despite being currently deterred by Israel’s military power — remains strategically committed to the destruction of Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian-Islamic state.
No matter how farfetched this objective appears today, Hamas’ leadership takes the long view of history and believes that the tables can turn in the future. This is why they also work tirelessly to try to set up terror cells in the West Bank and send them on bombing and shooting attacks against Israelis — attempts that are almost always prevented by Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency.
The incoming Commanding Officer of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, addressed the challenges ahead. “I take command and take responsibility for the security of the southern part of the State of Israel. I am responsible for border protection, for winning the war, and for providing security and a sense of security to the citizens of Israel,” he said.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
A version of this article was originally commissioned by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.