Analysis

As Gaza Races Toward Collapse, Israel's Strategy Hampered by Division

Defense chiefs know if a war were to erupt in Gaza, the fighting would be bloodier and more lengthy than in the past

In this Wednesday, July 20, 2016 file photo, a Palestinian youth walks inside a tunnel used for military exercises during a weapon exhibition at a Hamas-run youth summer camp, in Gaza City.
In this Wednesday, July 20, 2016 file photo, a Palestinian youth walks inside a tunnel used for military exercises during a weapon exhibition at a Hamas-run youth summer camp, in Gaza City. Adel Hana/AP

It would be great were Israel to address all its problems with the efficacy, determination and generosity in the allocation of resources it devotes to some of its security threats. The tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel were neglected for years, and Hamas’ progress in its offensive plans caught Israel off guard in the summer of 2014. But for a few months now, since a technological solution to the threat was approved, the bulldozers have been operating at full speed along Israel’s border with the Strip. Elderly people in overcrowded hospitals or parents frustrated with the level of their children’s schools could only dream of such diligence.

A second visit to the border in three months shows that the construction of the anti-tunnel barrier, at an estimated cost of 3 billion shekels ($833 million), is on schedule. By November, around 1,000 people will be working on the 65-kilometer-long project. When it is completed — the target date is mid-2019 — the barrier should protect Israel adequately from both underground tunnels and aboveground breaches of the border. A concrete wall, fitted with sensors and extending dozens of meters below ground, is supposed to bisect old tunnels and block the construction of new ones. A high fence, bristling with alarms, cameras and remote firing systems, should make any infiltration very difficult.

So far Hamas has responded with demonstrative indifference to the construction activity. The work is clearly visible from Hamas positions on the Gazan side of the border, but leaders of the organization have refrained from publicly addressing the issue, much less issuing threats. They continue to deter “rogue” organizations — locally assembled groups, some of them inspired by the Islamic State group — from firing rockets into Israel. The calm is presumably part of Hamas strategy. The leadership in the Strip is trying to improve its relations with Egypt and is even willing to discuss devolving some authority to Mohammed Dahlan’s people at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, if it can loosen the noose around the territory. Top Hamas figures fear the complete loss of financial support from Qatar, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the Gaza Strip after the 2014 war with Israel. The crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and the pressure from other Sunni states on Doha, jeopardizes continued aid to Hamas from Qatar.

The restraint against Israel may be only temporary, however. Hamas built the offensive tunnels as its main strategic asset. They discomfited Israel more than the thousands of rockets fired from the Strip, most of which the Iron Dome system shot down. When the barrier becomes a concrete threat to its tunnels, Hamas may reconsider its moves. The army is prepared for the possibility that the work crews will be targeted by snipers or roadside bombs. It says it will not be deterred, adding that the project is vital and entirely within Israeli territory (and therefore legitimate in the eyes of the international community). Could this defensive barrier cause a war? The head of the Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, told correspondents on the Gaza border Wednesday that the wall will be completed, come what may.

At the height of the July-August heat, with the media occupied with endlessly chasing new developments in police investigations and the dear leader organizing a support rally for himself in Tel Aviv, reserve soldiers continued to report to the Tze’elim training base, in southern Israel. One battalion after another, one brigade after another, they trained for the possibility of warfare in the Gaza. Strip. By 9 A.M. it is already 30 degrees Celsius, close to the limit for training. In the summer, soldiers at Tze’elim train at night. In the day, they sleep in large, air-conditioned tents that were erected recently on the dunes.

The person responsible for preparing for a Gaza war is Brig. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur, an armored corps officer now wearing two hats: commander of Tze’elim and of a reserve division. In the summer of 2014 he commanded the 401st Armored Brigade, a conscript army tank brigade. We met then in the northern Gaza Strip, near Beit Hanun. Tzur and his troops were searching for and destroying Hamas tunnels dug in farmland in the area.

That summer, officers spoke about the improvement in the ground forces’ capabilities since the Second Lebanon War in 2006. As it turned out, it wasn’t enough. Under orders from Israel’s political leaders, the army operated within a narrow strip, close to the border fence. The demolition of tunnels was only partly successful, less than what the army told the public. After 51 days, the conflict ended with a gloomy sense of a stalemate. Israel caused immense damage in the Strip and suffered many casualties itself, but basically nothing changed. The only accomplishment the army could claim from Operation Protective Edge was the preservation of some degree of deterrence. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas is aware of the damage it would suffer, along with the entire Gaza Strip, in another round of fighting, resulting in its curbing of rocket fire into Israel. For now, that is enough.

Tzur is a measured man who expresses himself cautiously and without the macho mannerisms of many of his fellow commanders. The training of a paratroops brigade we observed briefly was geared entirely to combat in Gaza. Many of the dangers soldiers will face lurk underground: an entire network of shafts and tunnels that has been reconstructed on training bases since the 2014 war. Lessons learned by non-Israeli forces, from warfare in Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria, are also being applied. The major insight is the greater difficulty of fighting in densely populated urban areas.

The task force leading the paratroops training included Israeli-made Merkava III tanks as well as engineering units that specialize in dealing with tunnels. Unlike in Operation Protective Edge, they deal not only with border-crossing offensive tunnels but also with the underground defensive network that Hamas has built under urban areas of Gaza. Only a few units specialize in underground tunnels, but all soldiers must know about the dangers. It’s important they experience walking in tunnels, says Tzur. “You have to understand what it involves: a dark crowded space, difficulties in moving.”

All the means used for dealing with these tunnels, seen in these exercises, were absent on the eve of the last war. The commander of the Nahal Brigade at the time, Brig. Gen. Uri Gordin, is now a division commander whose soldiers trained at Tze’elim. Tzur and Gordin admit that as brigade commanders, they had a limited awareness of the tunnels. We knew they were there but we didn’t know how to deal with them adequately. We experimented as we progressed. Since we didn’t go far into urban areas we didn’t touch the defensive tunnels, they explained.

All training at Tze’elim now includes urban warfare, says Tzur. “No one trains just in open areas any more, not even tank units. Everyone wants to train in built-up areas.” Most army divisions trained for a Gaza scenario this year. “Since 2015 we are on a steady and well-planned training program; that makes it easier to prepare,” Tzur said. The demand for such training means additional facilities must be built. “A new one costs between 20 million and 30 million shekels. We have three but we want two more,” he added.

When Avigdor Lieberman became defense minister, over a year ago, he instructed the army to draw up more ambitious plans for fighting in the Gaza Strip. Before assuming the office, Lieberman often threatened Hamas leaders. These threats have dwindled but his intent is still there. In the event of another war, Lieberman will want to topple the Hamas government.

Tzur does not discuss the objectives of the next war. That’s not his job. If it comes, he hopes “they don’t leave us again only two and a half kilometers from the fence and we don’t stay in one place for two weeks, looking for a border-crossing tunnel. If we go in I believe it will be to the finish.” In that event, he admits, “we’ll have more casualties, definitely.”

Since summer began, there is some nervous tension in the air around Gaza, that Tzur attributes this to still-fresh memories of the last war. “People are still sensitive to that, especially during the summer. There is no sense of a war starting tomorrow and that’s not what we are transmitting to reserve soldiers. I believe that both sides don’t want war but it could always end up there. One side makes a mistake then the other side does and things can escalate very quickly.”

A greater threat to the uneasy stability than a possible Hamas response to the growing barrier on the border is the condition of civilian infrastructure in the Strip. In briefings for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past year, intelligence officials presented gloomy forecasts for the Strip by 2020. They included a total collapse of the sewage systems, great difficulties in providing potable water and only partial electricity supply, combined with great unemployment and poverty. Experts updated the assessments this summer. The 2020 scenario is here, they told the cabinet. The collapse of infrastructure is faster and more serious than estimated. This is the main issue guiding the new Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and could be the main determinant of whether he initiates another round of fighting with Israel.

Before Operation Protective Edge, and under less severe economic circumstances, Netanyahu’s government refrained from approving steps that would improve the situation in Gaza. Since then, the volume of goods crossing into Gaza at the Kerem Shalom crossing has increased fivefold, to as many as 1,000 trucks a day. But Israel hesitates to take further steps. Netanyahu and Lieberman are blocking transportation and intelligence affairs minister Yisrael Katz’s plan to build an artificial island off the Gaza coast, despite the army’s positive assessments of the project.

On this issue, as in operational plans in Gaza, there seems to be a clear gap between Lieberman and the country’s military commanders. The defense minister is constantly urging them to prepare for more decisive operations. It’s doubtful that he accepts the army’s assessment that in the event of a new conflict it will be able to hit the military wing of Hamas much harder while preserving its civilian government.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the National Security Council under Netanyahu, hinted at these disagreements in an op-ed he published in Yisrael Hayom in late July. He wrote that in the event of war, Israel should strive to leave Hamas weakened but still capable of governing. “Can Hamas be undermined to the point that its existence is threatened? I believe the answer is yes. To do so, Israel would need to seize large parts of the populated areas in Gaza; destroy miles and miles of terror tunnels; locate and eliminate Hamas commanders. ... The results of such an operation would be hard to swallow in Israel, and even more so overseas: The IDF would surely sustain multiple casualties; Gaza would pay a heavy price in terms of fatalities. ... Once the dust settles on such an operation, a familiar question would arise: Now what? Does the IDF leave Gaza to the hell of warring terrorist groups left unchecked by a strong ruler, or does it stay? ... the everyday dilemmas with respect to what should be done about Gaza are, for now at least, better than the alternative.”

Lieberman enjoyed a surprising honeymoon with army brass. Senior officers who were accustomed to working with Moshe Ya’alon feared incessant clashes with his successor, who did not hesitate to criticize the army when he was in the opposition. These worries were put to rest when it became clear that Lieberman gave army headquarters wide latitude and did not interfere in professional matters. The honeymoon may be ending, however, as seen in the disputes over Gaza and Elor Azaria’s request to Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to commute his sentence. Lieberman did not talk about the issue this week, but he previously signaled that he expected Eisenkot to consider Azaria’s distress.

Also in the background is growing political extremism. That could explain Lieberman’s attack this week on journalist Raviv Drucker, whom he called an obsessive vampire, a racist and a charlatan. The progress in the criminal investigations against Netanyahu have rattled the political establishment, and that could affect the way defense matters are decided. What is true for Lieberman may also be true for Netanyahu: so far he has taken a cautious, conservative approach to using military force.