The first military exercise was held under the command of the joint operations room of all the terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip. Its objective was to send messages of unity and improved military capabilities

The names of the 12 Palestinian organizations participating in the exercise (Telegram channel of the joint operations room of the

The names of the 12 Palestinian organizations participating in the exercise (Telegram channel of the joint operations room of the "Palestinian resistance" factions, December 26, 2020).

Simulation of storming an IDF tank and abducting an Israeli soldier (joint operations room Telegram channel, December 29, 2020).

Simulation of storming an IDF tank and abducting an Israeli soldier (joint operations room Telegram channel, December 29, 2020).

Sign with a picture of Qassem Soleimani put up in Gaza City by the PIJ, the organization which relies most on Iranian aid (YouTube, January 1, 2021).

Sign with a picture of Qassem Soleimani put up in Gaza City by the PIJ, the organization which relies most on Iranian aid (YouTube, January 1, 2021).

Evacuating and extracting casualties in a simulation of an Israeli attack against targets in the Gaza Strip

Evacuating and extracting casualties in a simulation of an Israeli attack against targets in the Gaza Strip

Evacuating and extracting casualties in a simulation of an Israeli attack against targets in the Gaza Strip

Evacuating and extracting casualties in a simulation of an Israeli attack against targets in the Gaza Strip

Rocket launcher ready for firing.

Rocket launcher ready for firing.

Simulating an attack on an IDF tank and the abduction of an IDF soldier.

Simulating an attack on an IDF tank and the abduction of an IDF soldier.

Simulating an attack on an IDF tank and the abduction of an IDF soldier.

Simulating an attack on an IDF tank and the abduction of an IDF soldier.

Simulation of terrorist operatives storming an Israeli tank and abducting an IDF soldier.

Simulation of terrorist operatives storming an Israeli tank and abducting an IDF soldier.

Simulation of exiting an attack tunnel and attacking an Israeli target.

Simulation of exiting an attack tunnel and attacking an Israeli target.

Simulation of exiting an attack tunnel and attacking an Israeli target.

Simulation of exiting an attack tunnel and attacking an Israeli target.

The joint operations room at the beginning of the military exercise held on December 29, 2020 (Facebook page of al-Jazeera Palestine, December 30, 2020).

The joint operations room at the beginning of the military exercise held on December 29, 2020 (Facebook page of al-Jazeera Palestine, December 30, 2020).

The joint operations room at the beginning of the military exercise held on December 29, 2020 (Facebook page of al-Jazeera Palestine, December 30, 2020).

The joint operations room at the beginning of the military exercise held on December 29, 2020 (Facebook page of al-Jazeera Palestine, December 30, 2020).

Overview

On December 29, 2020, a joint military exercise, the first of its kind, was held to mark the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. The exercise was called “Strong Pillar” (a phrase taken from the Qur’an to send a message of unity). Twelve military wings of terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip participated in the exercise under the command of the joint operations room (which began operating in 2018 during the return marches). The exercise lasted for 12 hours and was executed throughout the Gaza Strip. It was designated by the terrorist organization as “defensive.”

  • The exercise simulated Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip carried out by the armored forces, special forces and naval forces. The organizations practiced military tactics in a variety of scenarios in response to the option of a future Israeli attacks in Gaza. They included fighting in urban areas, naval exercises (amphibious warfare, naval commando actions); evacuating headquarters and security facilities; extracting wounded operatives from areas attacked by Israel. They also practiced offensive activities, including firing rockets at Israel, attacking tanks, infiltrating into Israeli territory through tunnels and abducting IDF soldiers.
  • Beyond the military objectives, the joint exercise was meant to send messages to Israel, the residents of the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Arab-Muslim world. The core messages were unity and military preparedness, especially of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), for providing a response to any Israeli attack. In ITIC assessment, the organizations were particularly interested in strengthening the images of organizational unity and military might, especially now, while the Palestinians have to cope with the coronavirus in their own territories and with the normalization of relations between Israel and certain Arab states beyond their borders.
  • The joint exercise was held close to the first anniversary of the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. The PIJ, and to a lesser extent Hamas, exploited the opportunity to praise Iran and Qassem Soleimani personally and to thank them for the military support that gave the organizations in the Gaza Strip. That support, according to PIJ leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah, includes rockets with a range of more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) (that is, rockets that can attack to the north of Tel Aviv), Kornet anti-tank rockets and the knowhow allowing them to self-manufacture rockets (with warheads weighting 400 kilograms – 880 pounds – according to Ziyad al-Nakhalah).

However, in ITIC assessment, a discrepancy exists between the image of inter-organization unity and the real situation. Hamas seeks to enforce its authority on the other organizations, especially the PIJ, which is completely oriented towards Iran, and whose so-called “rogue” operatives have more than once attacked Israel in violation of Hamas policy. Hamas does not allow the smaller organizations, which include groups that have splintered off from Fatah, to flex their muscles, and Hamas regards the joint operations room as a way of imposing its authority on them. The message of unity sent by the exercise actually expresses Hamas’ expectation that all the other organizations will fall in line behind it and its strategy regarding Israel.

The Joint Military Exercise

The 12-hour joint exercise was defined as “defensive.” It simulated Israeli attacks on the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip, carried out by Israel’s armored, special and naval forces from the sea. The exercise’s objective was to improve the military capabilities of the organizations of the joint operations room, especially Hamas and the PIJ. In addition, there were offensive activities to support a scenario in which they could move the fighting into Israeli territory and force Israel to pay a high price.

  • During the exercise military wing operatives deployed throughout the Gaza Strip to simulate a response in expectation of an Israeli attack. Operatives of the security forces and police also deployed (website of the ministry of the interior in Gaza, December 28, 2020). The exercise also examined the degree of coordination between the organizations and government ministries, and how the public health system functioned to evacuate casualties (alresala.net, December 29, 2020).
  • Various military tactics were drilled:[1]
  • Evacuating headquarters and military facilities, and extracting the wounded under fire.
Evacuating police headquarters (Palinfo Twitter account, December 29, 2020).   Evacuating police headquarters (Palinfo Twitter account, December 29, 2020).
Evacuating police headquarters (Palinfo Twitter account, December 29, 2020).
  • Firing rockets: The exercise began with rockets fired towards the sea, and during it more batteries of rockets were fired, also towards the sea (al-Mayadeen TV, December 31, 2020).
Rockets fired towards the sea (Right: Twitter account of Muhammed Khaled, December 29, 2020. Left: Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 29, 2020).  Rockets fired towards the sea (Right: Twitter account of Muhammed Khaled, December 29, 2020. Left: Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 29, 2020).
Rockets fired towards the sea (Right: Twitter account of Muhammed Khaled, December 29, 2020. Left: Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 29, 2020).
Battery of rockets fired during the joint exercise.    Battery of rockets fired during the joint exercise.
Battery of rockets fired during the joint exercise.
  • Underwater and shore activities
Underwater activity of divers posing with an IED.  Underwater activity of divers posing with an IED.
Underwater activity of divers posing with an IED.
  • Attacking tanks and abducting IDF soldiers. The theme of abducting soldiers from tanks appeared in exercises held in previous years (See Appendix A)
Simulation of terrorist operatives storming an Israeli tank and abducting an IDF soldier.    Simulation of terrorist operatives storming an Israeli tank and abducting an IDF soldier.
Simulation of terrorist operatives storming an Israeli tank and abducting an IDF soldier.
  •  Infiltration into Israeli territory through tunnels, exiting the tunnels and attacking Israeli targets. The same theme was repeated in past exercises carried out by Hamas and its security forces (See below).
  • Use of UAVs, most probably for surveillance and monitoring.
The Battle for Hearts and Minds: The core messages of the joint exercise

Beyond the military dimension, the objective of the joint exercise was to send messages to various target audiences, including Israel, the residents of the Gaza Strip, the PA and the Arab-Muslim world. The messages focused on unity and the military preparedness of all the organizations in the Gaza Strip to respond to an Israeli attack, apparently of importance during the coronavirus crisis, when the Palestinians have to deal with an epidemic within their borders and normalization beyond. Hamas and the other organizations apparently feel the need to present messages of unity and military might to their target audiences.

  • The following are the core messages sent by the joint exercise to the target audiences:
  • The organizations have closed ranks and are capable of a coordinated military action against Israel: The joint exercise is called Strong Pillar, a religiously-charged phrase from the Qur’an. It sends a message of unity to the Gazans, all Palestinians and Muslims as if it were a command from the Qur’an. In addition, the date of the exercise was not chosen randomly, it fell on the 12th anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, called by Hamas the Battle of Furqan (“salvation” in Arabic). The name is also taken from the Qur’an, and refers to the legendary Battle of Badr, fought and won by Muhammad against infidels in 624 AD. The logo designed for Strong Pillar also sends a message of unity, with a roof supported by a central column and the words, “firm support.” It has the same similar triangular shape as the joint operations room logo.
The logo of the joint operations room of the Palestinian terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip (the joint operations room's Telegram channel, December 22, 2020).  The logo designed for the exercise (Telegram channel of the joint operations room of the Palestinian "resistance" factions, December 23, 2020).
Right: The logo designed for the exercise (Telegram channel of the joint operations room of the Palestinian “resistance” factions, December 23, 2020). Left: The logo of the joint operations room of the Palestinian terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip (the joint operations room’s Telegram channel, December 22, 2020).
  • Improving the organizations’ military capabilities to coordinate a response to an IDF attack and to move the fighting into Israeli territory. Palestinian spokesmen stressed the organizations’ capability to cooperate, sending a message of strength. Other spokesmen stressed the achievements made by the joint operations room since it began operations in 2018 during the return marches. One such achievement, according to the spokesmen, was to embarrass Israel because it now did not have a specific target to respond to.[2] They stressed that during the joint exercise the organizations would not reveal the “surprises” they had in store for Israel. Ziyad al-Nakhalah, PIJ leader, boasted of the advanced weapons Iran had supplied to the organizations (long-range rockets, Kornet anti-tank missiles). He also stressed the organization’s capabilities to manufacture weapons, including rockets with 400-kilo (880-pound) warheads (al-Mayadeen, December 31, 2020).
  • The Palestinians adhere to the strategy of “resistance” (i.e., terrorism) as the path to the “liberation of Palestine,” and they had no intention of going down the path of normalization, as did several Arab states. The Lebanese Hezbollah-affiliated daily newspaper al-Akhbar reported that the message had also been sent to Ramallah, after the PA had chosen to return to the bosom of Israel (al-Akhbar, Lebanon, December 30, 2020). Senior PIJ figure Muhammad al-Hindi strongly criticized the PA for abandoning the internal Palestinian reconciliation and instead choosing security coordination with Israel in return for money. The PA, he said, was walking off a cliff with its eyes shut. He said the objective of all the “resistance” organizations was to liberate “all Palestine” through “resistance, jihad and unity” (al-Aqsa TV, January 1, 2021). (Note: al-Hindi is at variance with conciliatory messages sent by Isma’il Haniyeh and other senior Hamas figures about the desire to promote reconciliation.)
Cartoon by Hamas-affiliated Alaa al-Laqta: the best option is the weapons of the armed struggle, not the peace process (Alaa' al-Laqta's Facebook page, December 29, 2020).
Cartoon by Hamas-affiliated Alaa al-Laqta: the best option is the weapons of the armed struggle, not the peace process (Alaa’ al-Laqta’s Facebook page, December 29, 2020).
  • Representing Iran, especially Qassem Soleimani, as almost single-handedly responsible for strengthening of the military might of the organizations in the Gaza Strip. The joint exercise began close to the date of the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandas, the deputy chairman of the Iraqi popular mobilization. Hamas and the PIJ praised Iran and Qassem Soleimani personally, although Hamas’ praise was less enthusiastic than that of the PIJ. Two speakers made prominent points:
  • On December 31, 2020, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, PIJ leader, interviewed by the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, said Soleimani and Iran had supported the “resistance” in the Gaza Strip with various types of weapons, among them long-range (100 kilometers – 60 miles) rockets and Kornet anti-tank missiles. To reach the Gaza Strip the weapons passed through Sudan, which had agreed with Soleimani to serve as a way-station for their passage (mentioned by al-Nakhalah to embarrass Sudan, which has normalized relations with Israel) (al-Mayadeen, December 31, 2020).
  • Usama Hamdan, responsible for Hamas’ external relations, praised Soleimani’s support for the “resistance.” He said Isma’il Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, called Soleimani the “Shaheed of Jerusalem.” He said Esmail Ghaani, the new commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, closely followed the events of the “resistance” in Palestine and was also committed to it (al-Mayadeen TV, January 1, 2021).
Media coverage
  • The organizers of the exercise made sure it would receive extensive media coverage in all types of media outlets. Even before the exercise began it had been hash-tagged on the social media. On December 22, 2020, the joint operations room initiated a Telegram channel dedicated to the exercise. On December 23, 2020, the joint operations room issued an announcement about the organizations’ intention to hold a joint military exercise, the first to increase cooperation between them (joint operations room Telegram channel, December 23, 2020). On December 24, 2020 the joint operations room issued a video stating the exercise would be held on December 29, 2020 (Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 24, 2020; Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades website, December 24, 2020).
  • Before the exercise began a well-attended press conference was held. A PIJ spokesman announced it would be defensive and would use live ammunition throughout the Gaza Strip, and simulate scenarios and the threats that could be expected from Israel (“the enemy”). He said its objective was to improve the operational capabilities of the “resistance” to fight under all circumstances (Jerusalem Brigades website, December 29, 2020). During the press conference rockets were fired towards the sea to signal the beginning of the exercise. Throughout the day and next day the joint operations room’s Telegram channel published a large number of pictures which carried its logo.
Press conference held before the military exercise began (Twitter account of journalist Hassan Aslih, December 29, 2020).
Press conference held before the military exercise began
(Twitter account of journalist Hassan Aslih, December 29, 2020).
Appendix A
The joint operations room and practicing scenarios of a confrontation with Israel

The idea to establish a joint operations room for the military wings of all the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip was first raised in 2006. It objective was to create a united command to conduct the fighting with Israel in a confrontation in the Gaza Strip. In July 2018, at the height of the return marches, arson terrorism and rounds of escalation with Israel, the joint operations room was officially established. Participants are representatives from 12 military wings of Palestinian terrorist organizations operating in the Gaza Strip, including those that splintered off from Fatah (See Appendix B). The joint exercise held on December 29, 2020, was the first one organized by the joint operations room with the participation of representatives from all the organizations.

  • In ITIC assessment, Hamas and the other organizations are aware that the joint exercise was not a manifestation of genuine coordination between the various organizations, which have conflicting interests and different political views. That was almost never publicly mentioned during the exercise, whose spokesmen stressed alleged inter-organizational unity. One exception was the Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese daily newspaper al-Akhbar, which published an article covering the joint exercise. According to the article, observers called it “the genuine beginning of the activities of the joint operations room,” that is, only a beginning. It “could, in the future, lay the foundations for greater military and security coordination and pave the way for developing the activities of the various organizations under a united command” (al-Akhbar, Lebanon, December 30, 2020).
Previous exercises held in the Gaza Strip
  • Strong Pillar was the first exercise in which all the military wings of the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip participated under the command of the joint operations room. However, its military tactics and scenarios were similar to those practiced in the past by the military wings of the individual organizations, especially the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military-terrorist wing, and by the security forces in the Gaza Strip under Hamas control. For example:
    • December 23, 2014: The national security forces held a military exercise simulating storming an IDF post. In the exercise, which was held in an Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades facility, operatives detonated IEDs near an “IDF post” and attacked it with live ammunition from light arms and mortars.[3]
    • September 6, 2015: A national security force unit in Rafah carried out an exercise using live ammunition, simulating a night attack on an IDF post and the abduction of a soldier. Na’im al-Ghoul, commander of the national security forces, the objective of the exercise was to raise the military, physical and mental capabilities of Palestinian soldiers (website of the ministry of the interior in Gaza, September 7, 2015).[4]
    • March 25-26, 2018: Hamas’ military wing held a broad-scale exercise called “an exercise of firm stance and challenge.” According to its organizers, 30,000 operatives from various units participated (naval, ground and air forces). Military wing operatives deployed throughout the Gaza Strip, parked armored vehicles simulating IDF tanks and practiced attacking them, fired rockets towards the sea and flew UAVs bearing the inscription Ababil. They also simulated abducting IDF soldiers, emerging from tunnel openings and preventing aerial landings (al-Quds, Ma’an, Safa, Dunia al-Watan, QudsN Facebook page, March 25, 2018).[5]
Leaving the arena with the "abducted soldiers" (Palinfo Twitter account, March 25, 2018).  Simulating the abduction of "IDF soldiers" from a tank.
Right: Simulating the abduction of “IDF soldiers” from a tank. Left: Leaving the arena with the “abducted soldiers” (Palinfo Twitter account, March 25, 2018).
Appendix B
  • The following are the 12 organizations that participated in the joint exercise in the Gaza Strip, as reported by the joint operations room (Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 26, 2020).
    • Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing)
    • Jerusalem Brigades (PIJ’s military wing)
    • al-Aqsa Brigades (Fatah splinter group)[6]
    • Ayman Jawda Squads (Fatah splinter group)
    • Abd al-Qader al-Husseini Brigades (Fatah splinter group)
    • al-‘Asifa army (Fatah splinter group)
    • National Resistance Brigades (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine military wing)
    • Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine military wing)
    • Salah al-Din Battalions (Popular Resistance Committees military wing)
    • al-Mujahedin Brigades (military wing of the Mujahedin Movement, which split from Fatah in 2006 and adopted the Salafist Islamic worldview; it has close relations with Hezbollah and Iran)
    • Jihad Jibril Brigades (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command military wing)
    • al-Nasser Brigades (military wing of the al-Ahrar Movement, established in the Gaza Strip in 2007 by Khaled Abu Hilal. He also split from Fatah and reached a détente with Hamas).
Notice issued before the joint exercise, with its logo and the names of the military wings of the organizations that would participate (Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 26, 2020).
Notice issued before the joint exercise, with its logo and the names of the military wings of the organizations that would participate (Telegram channel of the joint operations room, December 26, 2020).

[1] All pictures from the Telegram channel of the joint operations room Telegram channel, December 29, 2020, unless otherwise noted.
[2] The joint operations room frequently claimed responsibility for rocket fire into Israel without mentioning the name of the organization, especially in cases when Hamas and the PIJ did not want to claim responsibility. Israel, in most cases, responded by attacking Hamas military targets, since Israel regards Hamas as responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip.

[3] For further information, see the December 25, 2014 bulletin, "Hamas' Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades and National Security Forces Exercises Simulate Takeover of IDF Posts near Gaza Strip and Abduction of Soldiers."

[4] For further information, see the September 9, 2015 bulletin, "Two military exercises carried out by the national security forces under Hamas direction in the Gaza Strip simulated storming an IDF post and abducting soldiers. The two exercises indicate that the national security forces are military forces in every respect and not merely an internal security service."

[5] For further information, see the March 27, 2018 bulletin, "Hamas’s military wing conducted a large-scale military maneuver."

[6] According to the article in the Lebanese al-Akhbar, the participation of four Fatah wings was notable in the exercise. The article stated that Mahmoud Abbas, PA chairman, has not recognized them since 2007, when the PA decided to dismantle them. In any event, they operate in the Gaza Strip under Hamas aegis and in effect are forced to conduct themselves in accordance with Hamas policy.