Hamas Will Try to Draw Israel Into Full-out Gaza War, Israeli Intel Assessment Says

Intel report says Palestinian group may risk all-out confrontation to obtain international involvement in Gaza's humanitarian crisis

An Israeli tank across the Gaza Strip, February 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Hamas may initiate broad military action that could bring forth an all-out military confrontation with Israel in a bid to obtain international involvement on the humanitarian situation in Gaza, an Israeli intelligence report published Wednesday asserts.

Based on the annual assessment of the Israeli military intelligence's research division, the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, sworn in last month, has already prioritized preparations for a potential Gaza war. Kochavi has approved operational plans for combat and set up an administrative unit to handle the formation of a list of potential targets in the Strip. These plans are pending any decisions by Israel's political leadership.

Kochavi recently visited the Southern Command headquarters and met with top commanders in charge of operations in the area. He also ordered two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to be manned. By the end of the year, should Kochavi's orders be executed as planned, the Israeli army would have 10 Iron Dome batteries altogether, eight manned by regular soldiers and two by reserve forces.

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Intelligence officials had argued until recently that Hamas wanted to maintain tension along the Israel-Gaza border, but not escalate the situation. Brief clashes with Israeli forces in recent months usually ended with benefits for Palestinian civilians and transfers of aid money, with Israel thus assessing that the Sunni organization was willing to bear their costs.

But intelligence assessments changed, based on Hamas' dissatisfaction with the progress achieved in talks with mediators in Egypt. Israeli intelligence officials now believe the organization assumes that only an extreme move will lead to any actual change in Gaza.

According to Israeli assessments, Hamas would try to achieve heavy casualties by firing rockets at Israeli cities or guided missiles at military or civilian targets, or attacking through its cross-border tunnels. Hamas, intelligence assessments suggest, realizes perfectly well that Israel's reaction would be significantly harsher and is prepared to take that risk.

However, the recent assessments by the research division are not in keeping with the intelligence assessments of the IDF's Southern Command, whose officials said in recent days that Hamas still prefers the current relative quiet for the sake of humanitarian aid and financial projects for Gaza residents. When such disagreements arise between the Southern Command and military intelligence, the latter normally carries more weight, and therefore Kochavi seems to be moving ahead based on its assessments.

In his very first month on the job, Kochavi spelled out to the military top brass that he supports the continuation of the "battle between the wars," a policy launched by his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot as a rebuke to Iranian entrenchment efforts in Syria and Hezbollah's precision missiles.

The chief of staff began planning the IDF's next budget plan back when he was deputy chief of staff, ensuring that this policy carries more weight. The costs of this activity over time, including armament, intel and advanced technology, run high, and a significant part of the army's budget will be diverted to it. However, it would only come into force in 2020, and only if approved by the country's political leadership.

File photo: Palestinian Hamas militants take part in the funeral of their comrade Mahmoud Al-Nabaheen in the central Gaza Strip, January 23, 2019.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

2019 is also the last year of a five-year long-term plan agreed to between former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. Kochavi is carrying on with the plan's implementation, aside from minor changes in priorities dictated by operational constraints, such as Israel's recent operation against Hezbollah's cross-border tunnels on the Lebanese front.

The IDF's next long-term budget plan will also be largely affected by a project to establish a military intranet, connecting all military systems to one network through which the combat forces, intel and others can easily communicate.

Hamas readies for Israeli entry into Gaza

Despite pressure at home and economic difficulties, Hamas has been preparing for war with Israel since Operation Protective Edge ended in 2014, mainly by beefing up its subterranean abilities with a vast network of tunnels beneath Gaza, to contend with a possible Israeli entry into its territory.

Within Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement exerts influence over Hamas and over the Strip as a whole. It has about 8,000 trained militants who are relatively well armed. It is in a better economic condition than Hamas, and its sole purpose is to oppose Israel, unlike Hamas, which governs Gaza and is responsibility for its residents' quality of life.

Israeli intelligence is also not ruling out the possibility that the any deterioration of the situation in Gaza will ignite the West Bank, which is under the governance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli defense establishment, with an eye to predicting any challenges that Israeli forces may face, assesses that the relative quiet in the West Bank is maintained mainly due to Israel's military and intelligence activities carried out by the army, police and Shin Bet.

The day after Abbas

Security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continues and Palestinian security forces, mainly Tanzim, remain loyal to Abbas. But the Israeli intelligence has identified some elements that are looking to destabilize the West Bank. As the 83-year-old Abbas' rule nears its end, Israeli defense experts see a possible escalation more likely.

Israeli security officials assess that Abbas is already working to secure his regime posthumously, in a bid to ensure the PA remains in control of the West Bank. He has forsaken responsibility for Gaza and makes any collaboration with Hamas difficult, blocking money and aid transfers.

File photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the Palestinian Peace and Freedom Forum in Ramallah, February 6, 2019.
Abbas Momani/AFP

Abbas hopes to twist Hamas' arm to allow the PA to regain control over Gaza, Israeli officials claim, who suspect Abbas assesses a round of fighting between Israel and Hamas that would weaken the latter politically, militarily and economically would ease the PA's return to the Strip.

Abbas has yet to move on from the assassination attempt of former Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in a Gaza visit in March, which Ramallah blames on Hamas. That Gaza organization, for its part, took the accusations as attempts by Abbas to humiliate it, and decided to take a path as independent from the PA as possible, taking matters to international mediators such as the United Nations and Qatar instead.

But Hamas is making major efforts to boost its strength in the West Bank. It is establishing and financing more and more units, with the aim of carrying out more attacks, like recent fatal ones in the West Bank outpost of Givat Assaf or by the Efrat settlement in December, so that Palestinian West Bank residents feel committed to its cause and to undermine the Abbas government.