Israeli Army Strikes Targets in Heart of Gaza, but Avoids Killing Civilians to Prevent All-out War

Senior Israel Air Force officer says city center attacks are 'completely different' to anything in the past, but stresses care is taken not to harm Gazans ■ Israeli army fears funerals in Gaza's streets would enflame the West Bank

A ball of fire above the building housing the Hamas-run television station al-Aqsa TV in Gaza City during an Israeli air strike.
Bashar TALEB / AFP

As the hostilities on the Gaza border continued into Tuesday, the Israeli army shifted its choice of targets but eschewed changing its rules of engagement since 2014's Operation Protective Edge, avoiding the threshold that would throw it into an all-out war in the Strip and the West Bank.

In accordance, it has maintained this line in its consultative role to the country's political leadership, stressing that a wide-ranging military campaign in Gaza would be imprudent.

However, Monday's incident - in which an anti-tank missile was fired from Gaza across the border at a bus near Kibbutz Kfar Aza, followed by a broad Hamas offensive against Israel involving the firing of rockets and mortar shells – led both the army and the government to understand a substantial response was necessary.

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Contrary to the recent bouts of fighting, the army has decided to start with significant Hamas targets in city centers – high-rise buildings of operational import, which were rarely targeted in the past - rather than go for military targets in outlying areas of the Strip.

Thus, the airstrikes Monday overnight were "completely different from anything we've known in the past," said a senior Air Force officer on Tuesday.

According to the officer, such targets were only struck twice during the entire campaign of Operation Protective Edge. "Just tonight, we've hit four [of these] targets," he said.

"We've learned how to attack these targets at the heart of residential neighborhoods and obliterate them without killing anyone in the strike. We uphold our values, we're not fighting against civilians," said the officer, adding they were acting to "exact a price from the other side."

Despite the calls of critics to claim fatalities in Gaza as an act of deterrence, the Israeli army is not changing its policy and avoids causing deaths. The army's point of departure remains that efforts must be directed at damaging Hamas' infrastructure, assets and financial situation.

The Israeli army believes such actions would be felt much more strongly than dozens of funerals every afternoon on the streets of Gaza, which could prompt the West Bank to identify with Gaza, leading to an additional theater of operations which defense officials wish to avoid.

Since Protective Edge, the Israeli army has maintained a bank of targets to be subject to attack in the event of a war. In recent months, it delivered major blows to bases, weapons production plants, infrastructure and other targets in which Hamas invested all of its funds since the last bout in 2014.

The decision to hit those targets took advantage of brief bouts of tensions to weaken Hamas in advance of the day when the Israeli army is required to act.

The economic and internal situation that Hamas is facing will make it very difficult for the Islamist organization to recover these assets for itself in the near term.

Bolstering the border

The Israeli army has begun reinforcing its units near the Gaza Strip,  bringing in forces from the compulsory service, along with a very small number of reservists, mostly in aerial defense, Home Front Command and specialized professionals.

The reinforcements at this stage are not designed in preparation for a ground offensive, but rather to protect the line of civilian communities and the prepare for the possibility that Hamas would try to carry out a terrorist attack from a tunnel before the Israeli barrier is completed along the length of the border.