It’s already clear by now – Hamas has changed its combat strategy. In recent weeks the organization diverted its main effort from “statistical” rocket terrorism, aimed at indiscriminately hurting Israeli civilians both physically and mentally, to what can be characterized as focused and complex “guerilla operations” mostly targeting IDF forces operating along the fence.
The organization’s strategic objectives have remained unchanged: First, to force Israel, through military and propaganda pressure, to lift the economic siege on the Strip. The siege threatens Hamas’ survivability in power. The second objective is to squeeze out of Jerusalem a lull in the fighting under terms that would enable Hamas to grow stronger militarily and politically and to prepare for a large-scale round of fighting in the future.
The reason for the change in combat strategy is the fact that the organization’s leadership recently reached the conclusion that the statistical terror directed at civilians – rockets, mortar shells, and machinegun fire – does not result in the required political and psychological “yield.” It even damages Hamas when it comes to international and Palestinian public opinion and grants Israel legitimacy to hit the group and its leaders, and even to embark on a large-scale operation in the Strip. Hamas wants to prevent this as well, and therefore the group decided to focus its efforts on “high quality” operations against the IDF.
Israeli sensitivity to abductionsThe greatest aspiration of group leaders, who prefer guerilla operations against the IDF, is the abduction of an Israeli soldier or soldiers. The Hizbullah experience and their own experience taught them that more abducted soldiers would not only significantly boost the organization’s bargaining power in the negotiations on securing the release of prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, but would also provide them with a powerful pressure lever.
Should Hamas possess several IDF captives, the Israeli government would carefully weigh an order to assassinate Hamas leaders in the Strip or instruct the IDF to embark on a large-scale operation – for fear of Hamas revenge. Even in cases where Hamas men are unable to abduct soldiers, but can cause many casualties among IDF troops, the group benefits.
We saw an example of this last week, when almost half of a Givati force was hurt in an ambush laid by Hamas men. Three soldiers were killed and four were wounded. The Israeli media rushed to slam the force’s conduct and did not fail to note Hamas’ ability to kill eight Israelis in the current year, as opposed to only three last year.
Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus who are carefully, if not passionately, following Israeli media reports apparently concluded, just like Hizbullah realized in the Second Lebanon War, that the Israeli public is sensitive to casualties among troops more than it is sensitive to moral and physical damage caused to civilians as a result of the Qassams and Grads in Sderot and Ashkelon. Such successful guerilla attack initiated by Hamas also grants it more points and broad support on the Palestinian street. Therefore, this is the channel where efforts should be directed at, both in order to negotiate a lull from a position of strength and to boost Hamas’ political power and prestige.
New Hamas capabilitiesIt is no wonder that the organization decided to quickly carry out another major assault, on several fronts, on Passover eve. The attack on Kerem Shalom, which was prepared well in advance, failed thanks to the alert declared by the Southern Command, and mostly thanks to the alertness and quick action of the deputy commander of the Desert Patrol Battalion, which mostly comprises Bedouin commanders and fighters.
However, the operation attested not only to the fact that Hamas is changing its strategy, but rather, showed that it is also able to execute it at a higher level of sophistication in terms of planning, execution ability, and coordination between various forces that it lacked in the past.
The training sessions in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria and the large quantities of explosives and missiles accumulated in the Strip ever since the fence was breached are leaving their mark. In the attack carried out before the seder, Hamas used about two tons of apparently industrial explosives. This means it has a few more tons in its warehouses. The fact that the attack was carried out only a few days after previous attacks in the fence area shows that Hamas prepared a series of such assaults, which will apparently be carried out within a short period of time.
A very senior IDF official estimated that Hamas does not fear a large-scale IDF operation at this time, because group leaders reached the conclusion that Israel would avoid a broad or painful operation in the Strip at this time in order not to undermine the Passover celebrations and later the State’s 60th independence day.
IDF improves its capabilitiesThe IDF is not standing still either and is utilizing new combat capabilities. In recent weeks we witnessed more accurate aerial assaults that were carried out within a very short time, targeting the backup troops of the Hamas cells that launched assaults on the fence. In addition, Hamas fighters who fled the scene of attack were hit from the air. This attests to new and better intelligence capabilities than what we saw in the past.
However, we should realize that these capabilities are insufficient, at least for now, in deterring fighters instilled with religious zealotry, who know in advance that their chances of returning alive from the operation are slim. In order to deter Hamas from implementing its new strategy and combat methods, a strategic balance of terror must be created vis-à-vis the organization.
The simplest way to create such balance of terror is to thwart the series of strategic attacks Hamas will be initiating in the near future, while causing a heavy casualty toll among the attackers. At the same time, the fuel supply and humanitarian aid directed into the Strip should be curbed to a minimum, until the attacks stop.
A senior military source noted with puzzlement the fact that Hamas is targeting the crossings, while Israel continues to supply all its needs through them. Political officials note that the supply continues because of international pressure on Israel and because of the orders of the High Court of Justice and the attorney general, yet the IDF finds it difficult to understand this logic.
“Hamas is an enemy that conducts itself like an enemy in war and controls the Strip both politically and military,” said a senior army official who could barely hide his frustration.
In any case, the IDF estimates that should Egypt fail to secure an agreement with Hamas soon on a lull in the fighting, there will apparently be no option but to upgrade the means and combat methods employed against the group. For example, an ongoing intensive series of assassinations targeting the organization’s political and military leadership in the Strip. If this doesn’t work either, the Israeli government will be forced to decide on a broad operation or series of operations in the Strip. The IDF certainly hopes that the failure of Hamas’ Passover eve offensive would put an end to this macabre spiral.