Two Years After Operation Protective Edge: Security along the Israeli-Gazan border

Issued on: 12/09/2016 Type: Article

Preparing for the next round of fighting against Israel. Terrorist operatives of the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, simulate dragging an IDF soldier from a post after it had been conquered (Filastin al-A'an, December 27, 2014).
Preparing for the next round of fighting against Israel. Terrorist operatives of the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, simulate dragging an IDF soldier from a post after it had been conquered (Filastin al-A'an, December 27, 2014).

Overview
1.   On August 26, 2014, after fifty days of intensive Israeli-Hamas fighting, a ceasefire was reached ending Operation Protective Edge. The operation severely damaged the military infrastructures of Hamas and the other Palestinian terrorist organizations, and strengthened Israel's deterrence. However, the last round of fighting did not decisively change the balance between Israel and the terrorist organizations. For two years there has been an unprecedented lull in the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and in terrorist attacks along the border. That has given Hamas time to prepare for the next round of fighting.


 

2.   During the two years since Operation Protective Edge 36 rocket hits were identified in Israeli territory. They fell in open areas or in proximity to Israeli communities in the western Negev. Most of them were short-range rockets. There were no Israeli casualties and no substantial damage was reported. An analysis of rocket fire during the past decade indicates that the past two years were the quietest(during the past ten years more than 10,000 rocket hits were identified in Israeli territory). However, the "rogue" terrorist organizations still sporadically fire rockets, disrupting the daily lives of the Israelis of the western Negev and providing a reminder of the terrorist threat from the Gaza Strip.

3.   The significant decline in rocket fire is a function of Hamas' policy of restraint, which it has imposed on the rogue terrorist organizations more stringently than in the aftermaths of previous IDF operations(imposed particularly on the Salafi jihadist organizations which periodically challenge Hamas). Hamas adopted the policy for a variety of strategic reasons, mainly Israel's increased post-Operation Protective Edge deterrent capabilities and Hamas' desire to gain time to rehabilitate its military capabilities without significant interference from Israel.

4.   Other reasons for its policy of restraint were Hamas' need, as a governmental authority, to rehabilitate the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip(although its top priority is its military infrastructure); the deterioration of relations with Egypt; the cooling off of relations with countries like Iran(a former strategic ally) and Saudi Arabia. There is also the necessity for a quiet period before the local elections in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip(where Hamas expects to make significant gains).

5.   Hamas and the other terrorist organizations exploit the relative calm for an intensive push to rehabilitate their military capabilities damaged in Operation Protective Edge. They invest their efforts in the following fields:

a.   Replenishing the stocks of weapons and ammunition lost in Operation Protective Edge: On the eve of Operation Protective Edge Hamas had about 11,000 rockets, most of them short-range and some long-range (up to 160 kilometers, or about 100 miles). After the operation about one third of the original quantities remained after almost 4,000 rockets had been fired into Israeli territory and others lost in Israeli attacks. Thus the top priority of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations is increasing their stocks of rockets and mortar shells, and improving their technical capabilities. Hamas is apparently putting its emphasis on the acquisition of short-range rockets, the result of both the lessons learned in Operation Protective Edge and the difficulties it experiences in smuggling standard long-range rockets into the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsula.

b.   Rebuilding an extensive tunnel system, especially tunnels entering Israeli territory. Israeli defense sources estimate that before Operation Protective Edge Hamas had approximately 32 attack tunnels, about a third of which crossed the border. Hamas regards their use in Operation Protective Edge as a strategic and plans to use them to challenge Israel in the next round of fighting. Thus Hamas is putting an emphasis on constructing more attack tunnels and on training its regular forces and elite units(especially its elite nukhba and naval commando units) to transfer the fighting into Israeli territory. The operatives who emerge in Israeli territory are expected to attack IDF posts and patrols, and infiltrate civilian communities near the Gaza Strip to carry out mass-casualty attacks and abduct Israelis for use as bargaining chips.

Left: Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades terrorist operatives killed when a tunnel collapsed in the southern Gaza Strip (Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades website, February 2, 2016). Right: A tunnel shaft inside Israeli territory, several dozen yards from the border security fence in the central Gaza Strip, exposed by the IDF in April 2016 (IDF spokesman, April 18, 2016).
Left: Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades terrorist operatives killed when a tunnel collapsed in the southern Gaza Strip (Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades website, February 2, 2016). Right: A tunnel shaft inside Israeli territory, several dozen yards from the border security fence in the central Gaza Strip, exposed by the IDF in April 2016 (IDF spokesman, April 18, 2016).

c.   Hamas' military buildup: Operation Protective Edge severely damaged the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations. Rehabilitating, strengthening and enlarging them require enlisting new operatives, rehabilitating the units that were decimated and establishing new ones. Hamas puts special emphasis on fostering its elite nukhba and naval commando units, whose operations in Operation Protective Edge Hamas considered successful. To restore its fighting forces to full operational capabilities Hamas (and the other terrorist organizations) conduct intensive training, especially in infiltrating Israel, attacking Israeli targets and abducting IDF soldiers. In addition to training its regular forces Hamas is making an effort to improve the military capabilities of its security forces, to train militias (a "popular army") and establish military frameworks for youths to train as auxiliary forces.

d.   Increasing Hamas' terrorist presence along the border with Israel: After Operation Protective Edge Hamas built a series of forward posts at a distance of a few hundred meters from the border security fence. Observation towers were also constructed and are manned by Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades operatives. In addition, a road was paved near the fence. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) also erected observation towers. The new line of posts improves Hamas' ability to enforce its policy of restraint on the rogue organizations. To that end a new military-security force was established called "the restraining force." The new posts also improve Hamas' ability to monitor the activities of IDF forces along the border, improve its routine security activity and its ability to initiate attacks against Israel from locations near the border.

e.   Creating new bypass channels to smuggle weapons, equipment and raw materials into the Gaza Strip: Hamas' traditional supply line of weapons and raw materials into the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsula was seriously disrupted by the obstacles put in place by Egypt to prevent smuggling (destroying tunnels, closing the Rafah crossing). Thus Hamas uses two main methods to bypass the restrictions placed on it: smuggling from Israel, by exploiting the import of civilian materials through the crossings; and employing the services of local fishermen who ply the sea between the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula. In ITIC assessment the weapons and materials entering the Gaza Strip via the two aforementioned bypass channels are fewer than those that entered previously through the tunnels.

6.    One conclusion drawn from an analysis of Hamas' military buildup is that the Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip and the IDF soldiers serving near the border security fence will be a main target for the terrorist organization attacks in the next round of fighting. The training Hamas and the other terrorist organizations give their operatives, especially the nukhba unit and the naval commandos, strongly emphasizes entering Israeli territory through tunnels and from the sea. Emphasis is put on abducting IDF soldiers (or their bodies) to use as bargaining chips for the release of Palestinian terrorist operatives imprisoned in Israel. They also train in firing artillery (especially mortar shells) at Israeli territory near the border. Their objective is to disrupt daily life in the Israeli population near the border and make it difficult for IDF forces to deploy and operate.


Naval commandos simulate entering Israel and taking control of an IDF post (YouTube, December 14, 2014).
Naval commandos simulate entering Israel and taking control of an IDF post (YouTube, December 14, 2014).

7.   The rehabilitation of military capabilities and the military buildup are still incomplete because Hamas and the other terrorist organizations have not yet reached the level of fighting fitness they had on the eve of Operation Protective Edge. That is because of a number of weaknesses that delay the process. A major weakness is the difficulty in smuggling standard weapons from the Sinai Peninsula, the result of preventive activities undertaken by the Egyptian security forces (especially preventing long-range rockets, standard explosives and advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles from reaching the Gaza Strip). The tunnel-building project, which is Hamas' top priority, is also facing difficulties for several reasons: Israel's counterterrorism activities, the lack of raw materials and Hamas' attempts to construct the tunnels as quickly as possible (which has caused a number of tunnels to collapse and kill the operatives digging them).

8.   It is Hamas' policy of restraint that has led it to invest in establishing terrorist networks in Judea and Samaria for attacks against Israel. The networks, which are handled from the Gaza Strip and by Hamas operatives abroad (especially in Turkey and Jordan), have been instructed to carry out showcase attacks in Judea, Samaria and Israel, side by side with the current wave of Palestinian popular terrorism (which broke out a year ago). To support the networks Hamas has made efforts to smuggle funds to its operatives in Judea and Samaria using various channels, including Jordan. The Israeli security forces and the Palestinian Authority (PA) security services have exposed most of Hamas' operational networks in Judea and Samaria and prevented them from turning popular terrorism (which is supported by the PA and Fatah) into organized military terrorism, which is far more deadly.

9.    So far, Hamas is still influenced the restraining factors that keep it careful in its dealings with Israel. However, that may change quickly in certain circumstances which may lead to an unplanned deterioration. For example, a showcase attack against Israel originating in Judea and Samaria is liable to result in Israeli responses that may influence the Gaza Strip (such as the abduction and murder of three Israeli youths in June 2014, that led to a chain of events resulting in Operation Protective Edge[1]); rocket fire from the Gaza Strip causing loss of Israeli life may cause a harsh IDF response that may be considered excessive by Hamas, causing it to respond with massive rocket fire into Israeli territory; an Israeli hit on Hamas "assets," such as the attack tunnels (Hamas' flagship project), may motivate Hamas to react, especially if it finds itself in a position of extreme weakness.


 

10.   During the two years since Operation Protective Edge collaboration has strengthened between the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades and the ISIS branch in the Sinai Peninsula (Sinai Province of the Islamic State): ISIS has smuggled weapons from Libya and Sudan to the Gaza Strip, while Hamas has helped Sinai Province manufacture weapons, hospitalized its wounded operatives in the Gaza Strip and provides communications and uniforms for Sinai Province operatives. On the other hand, Hamas security forces oppress ISIS-affiliated Salafi jihadist networks in the Gaza Strip that challenge its governance. The collaboration between Hamas and ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula increases the terrorist threat to Israel from the Egyptian border both routinely and whenever the security situation deteriorates.[2]

11.   This study consists of the Overview and two Appendices:

a.   Appendix 1: The security situation along the Israel-Gaza border in the two years since Operation Protective Edge

1)   Rocket fire originating in the Gaza Strip

2)   Incidents along the border: mortar shell fire, light arms fire, IEDs

3)   Palestinian riots and clashes with the IDF near the border security fence

4)   Attempts of Gazans to infiltrate into Israel

5)   Handling from the Gaza Strip of terrorist activity in Judea, Samaria and Israel

b.   Appendix 2: Rehabilitating the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist organizations

1)   Strategic priority given to rehabilitating military capabilities at the expense of civilian needs

2)   Replenishing the stocks of weapons and ammunition

3)   Reconstructing the tunnel system

4)   Strengthening the naval forces

5)   Intensive training conducted by Hamas, the various other terrorist organizations, and the security forces operating in the Gaza Strip

6)   Increased Hamas military presence along the border with Israel

7)   Smuggling weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip through the crossings with Israel and by sea

[1]On June 12, 2014 three Israeli youths from Gush Etzion were abducted and murdered by a Hamas terrorist squad from the Hebron region. The murder caused a series of events: the IDF conducted an intensive search for the boys and detained Hamas operatives in Judea and Samaria. In response rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was increased and an attempt was made to carry out a showcase attacks using a tunnel under the border in the Kerem Shalom region (southern Gaza Strip).
[2]For further information, see the March 20, 2016 bulleting " Hamas as a Supporter of Anti-Egyptian Terrorism: Hamas-Egyptian relations deteriorated following the Egyptian accusation of Hamas involvement in the 2015 assassination of the Egyptian attorney general," http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/article/20976. 

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